All Dolled Up – Wearable Art And Paper Apparel

All Dolled Up – Wearable Art And Paper Apparel

Have you thought about paper as a textile? It can be flexible, it can be printed, and it doesn’t need to be ironed or washed. You can make any number of outfits from it and it won’t cost you very much.  And it’s inspired many innovative designers.

Clothes made out of paper have been with us a long time, though perhaps on a smaller scale than you might imagine – in the form of paper dolls and their dresses.

London toy firm S&J Fuller produced a series of children’s storybooks in the 1800s that came with hand-coloured paper dolls.  Each book told a different tale and, in the case of one featuring a doll named Little Fanny, the doll’s clothes reflected the character’s progress through the story – from a spoiled child who runs away from her mother, to becoming a beggar on the streets, and finally back into the arms of her family.

What’s interesting about S&J Fuller’s books is that, perhaps because of manufacturing costs, the focus is on the dress and not the doll; Fanny was just a disembodied head that slotted into whatever outfit suited her station.

Luckily for fashion, though perhaps not for comfort, paper dresses eventually made it out of the toybox and onto the catwalk.

In the 1960s, American graphic designer Harry Gordon created a collection of poster dresses.  These simple smock-like paper dresses were brought to life with startling black and white images: of roses, eyes and even cats.  Each dress sold for about $3.  That’s about $20.50 / £13 in today’s money.

Gordon’s creative use of paper might have been inspired by the Scott Paper Company.  In the 1890s Scott’s was the first company to sell toilet paper on a roll, and by the time the Sixties rolled around (sorry) it had invented a paper dress to use in a marketing promotion. Women could buy the garment for $1 and get coupons for Scott products.  More than half a million dresses were ordered in less than a year.

This kickstarted innovation in fashionable paper clothes.  Companies experimented with different types of paper and styles and some even produced paper slippers, suits and bikinis.  (Presumably this last piece of swimwear wasn’t meant to be worn too close to the sea.)

Why didn’t the paper fashion trend continue?  Possibly because people realised that, while cheap and disposable, the outfits were also a little uncomfortable. And flammable.

Fast forward 40 and years and fly back across the pond to 2001. This was the year that the already fashion-forward designer Hussein Chalayan created his Airmail dress.

Made out of Tyvek, the same sort of paper that envelopes are made from, Chalayan’s dress had red and blue detailing on the side and could even be folded up into its own airmail envelope – just follow the fold-marks drawn on the dress itself.

He would go on to make some astounding garments using other materials, including some that unfurled themselves like flowers seeking the sun.

I wonder if his folded Tyvek dress inspired Paperlux, a Hamburg design studio.  In 2014 it released a ‘petit fou’ clutch bag, made with paper that’s been treated so that it’s less likely to rip.  The clutches are almost like the skeletons of origami animals; tessellated pieces of material that have been folded and unfolded and reshaped into practical objects.

Some other paper couture comes from Freya Von Bulow who makes wedding dresses and ballgowns out of tissue paper.  Describing herself as a ‘sculpture artist’, her creations are stunning, designs that have floated out of fairytales.


While these stories can make modern paper fashion and craftsmanship seem unbearably complex, we found a delightful story about a four-year old and her mother that make paper dresses together. When I was told about this I imagined a Blue Peter style confection made of loo roll tubes and kitchen foil.

But take a look at their portfolio and you will see haute couture in paper: delicate rainbow creations, 1920s style outfits and even nods to fashion shows and awards ceremonies.

Pleasingly, this takes us back to paper dolls, because as children we live in the world of the imagination, where anything is possible. Chalayan’s mum, for example, was a jeweller and used to drag him round craft fairs. ‘Your bedroom becomes a kind of workshop,’ he said.

Even if you’re a grown-up child (an adult) you can still indulge in your creative instincts.  What better material is there than paper to start your experiments? Just sit down and start playing.

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Previously on The Euroffice Blog…





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