This is part 1 in a blog series exploring our wardrobe and our lifestyle: who makes our clothes, where our clothes come from, and why a struggle for quality over convenience might just change our outlook on life and the world around us.
Disposable op art dress, left. Disposable beach cover-up, right. Both pictured in Life Magazine, November 25, 1966. Photo and fact source: HLATC Exhibit.
Ironically, the disposable era started out as a quest for durability.
The result of decades of experimentation and research to create new and more innovative materials came to a head in 1942, when American Cyanamid Co. developed a paper for the military with “wet-strength.” The four-ply outcome was reinforced with plastic and nylon thread, and Kimberly-Clark’s later version, known as Kaycel, became the most widely used paper for protective gear and disposable clothing.
With the post WWII consumer culture at hand, the birth of the “Paper Caper” minidress in 1966 spawned a plethora of wearable disposables for “modern living.” Originally produced by Scott Paper Co., the dresses took off over night, and other manufacturers sprinted for the bandwagon with additional options including suites and swimwear. But just because the garments weren’t designed to last, didn’t mean they weren’t significant for the time. “It’s right for our age,” pronounced designer Jacques Tomlin in 1966. “After all, who’ll do laundry in outer space?”
Photo: New York Times Archive.
Though only a short-lived craze, the disposable dresses of the 1960s were a fun and innovative exploration of new materials and a new way of life marked by freedom and personal expression. Environmental awareness began to boil at the end of the decade, bearing with it oil spills and chemical fires, a reality that outweighed novelty in the minds of many Americans. By the early 1970s, the “wear today, wastebasket tomorrow” philosophy was largely extinct.
Model Shari Mapes, left, wearing a pink nonwoven jumpsuit for Kimberly-Clark’s Kleenex Paper Doll promotion, 1967. Minidress, right: synthetic nonwoven bonded to metal foil, 1968. Photos: HLATC Exhibit.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. We now have a global marketplace that is swollen with inexpensive, low-quality fashion apparel that’s produced almost as rapidly as the speed of light. Consumer demand has been hard at work driving culture in new directions and vice versa. And just as the epoch that was the late 1960s will attest, no matter the decade, opportunities exist to amend our norms and ideals. It is up to us to determine what values we choose to drive us into our future.
While wearing paper towels coated in tinfoil may be a thing of the past (fingers crossed), could it be true that a disposable mentality still pervades our purchases?
Stay tuned for part 2.