1960s paper dresses were made in Asheville by Mars Manufacturing Co.

“I tried one and wore it for three days, cleaned the house, mopped, waxed the floors, washed five girls’ heads, bathed the dogs and did everything else that goes into a house with five bedrooms, two bathrooms, ten people and two dogs needed and it was still in one piece,” wrote a young California mother of eight to Asheville’s Mars Manufacturing Company, complementing her new disposable product — the paper dress.

“When we’re done painting I’ll get another one and save myself from ruining a cotton housedress,” the woman continued. “Also for canning season I plan on having three or four as I always ruin a few dresses with stains of something.”

Originally conceived in 1966 as a marketing gimmick by the Scott Paper Company to sell more disposable paper products, the paper dress quickly became a fad. Women could purchase a “Paper Caper” branded paper dress by clipping a coupon from an ad in Seventeen magazine and mailing it, along with two receipts and $1.25, to the Scott Paper Company offices in Philadelphia. (By contrast, a Sears cotton dress cost between $5 and $10 back then.)

The sleeveless, A-line dresses sold much better than Scott Paper expected. By the end of 1966, the company had received almost 500,000 orders for the two patterns it offered – a red paisley print and a black-and-white op art design.

Many Americans in the mid-1960s envisioned a future defined by automation and convenience. Disposable clothing would therefore be a first step towards relieving the everyday burden of women by offering chic, inexpensive clothes in an increasing variety of patterns and designs that never have to (and could not) be washed. .

Mars Manufacturing's paper dresses were not washable.

Made from three layers of “crunch, waffle-like” paper reinforced with rayon – a new fabric called “Duraweave”, the paper dress has also been treated to be fireproof, although the company warned: “It’s flame retardant, but washing, Dry cleaning or soaking renders the dress dangerously flammable when dry.”

They could easily be changed. Want a shorter hem? Just use scissors. Tear a hole in the fabric? Secure it with some clear tape. Despite the notion that the dress should only be worn once and thrown away, an early 1966 article boasted that the dresses were useful long after the first wear. “A girl might wear a caper to her next patio party, then to a few trips to the beach, and then get to work with her scissors! She can break it down into a tunic, then a shell, and then unusual placemats.”

It wasn’t long before other companies were benefiting from Scott Paper’s marketing campaign – and one of the most successful was based in Asheville.

Mars Manufacturing Co., based on Johnston Boulevard in West Asheville, had developed its own line of paper dresses the year before, although it hadn’t sold many. But with the success of Scott Paper, demand for the dresses skyrocketed, and in mid-1966 Mars launched the Waste Basket Boutique.

Mars Manufacturing

Asheville resident Bob Bayer, the son-in-law of the Mars founders, began working at the company in 1960, several years before paper dresses became popular. Bayer, a mechanical engineer in his 20s, helped Mars – in collaboration with the Kimberly Clark Corporation and JP Stevens – develop a prototype for disposable paper underwear for the military. Unfortunately, the paper prototype didn’t stand up to the constant walking required by the troops deployed in Vietnam and began to crumble, leaving a literal paper trail.

So Bayer and another Mars executive, Ron Bard, switched to developing paper-based fashion. The Mars paper stock used was known as Kaycel, consisting of 93% cellulose and 7% nylon.

Unable to afford to hire a fashion designer, Bayer brought in his wife Audie Bayer to put the line together. “I took a picture of a dress, cut out a piece of wrapping paper and stuck it on. And I would say to Bob, ‘There. Do it,” Audie said in a 2007 interview. “It was the perfect time,” she continued. “They didn’t have a professional who knew what they were doing. Bob didn’t know enough to argue with me.”

Bob and Audie Bayer owned Mars Manufacturing Co. of Asheville, a paper clothing maker, in the mid-1960s.

Audie’s design sensibility propelled the brand to become the leading paper clothing manufacturer in the United States. During peak demand, Mars shipped more than 80,000 paper garments for the Waste Basket Boutique each week, including floor-length dresses, jumpsuits, coats, leotards, ponchos and even men’s swim trunks. It processed not only individual orders, but also bulk orders from department stores such as Macy’s, Sears, Lord & Taylor and JC Penney.

More than a utilitarian item of clothing, paper dresses became popular at parties. In December 1966, The Charlotte News reported on “a posh paper ball in Hartford, Connecticut, where all the female guests wore paper. Some prom dresses were from Mars, others were thousand-dollar creations by famous couturiers.”

Mars also marketed a paint-it-yourself dress that came with a set of watercolor paints for $6. According to The Charlotte News, “Hostesses send the dress and watercolors to the guests with the invitations. Each hostess decorates her dress, and prizes go to the most imaginative.” The article continued, “A hostess in Asheville asked each wife to wear one of the plain white dresses, and the husbands drew patterns on it.”

An advertisement for paper dresses in the Santa Maria Times, March 25, 1966.

During this boom, Mars Manufacturing foresaw “a day (not far off) when most of us will be wearing single-use clothing, at least some of the time. It can be packed in tear-off rolls like paper bags.”

But by 1969 the market had changed. As the environmental movement gained momentum, the popularity of disposable quick fashion declined and hundreds of thousands of paper dresses made their way from the closet to the bin to the landfill with no new orders being placed.

Mars Manufacturing cut its losses and shifted production to disposable workwear and scrubs. Bob Bayer recalled in 2007, “That paper dress thing helped us get into these other areas. At some point it had to end.”

Anne Chesky-Smith

Anne Chesky Smith is executive director of the Western North Carolina Historical Association in Asheville.

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