When Paper Clothing Was the Perfect Fit

A war-weary world needed a new wardrobe, and this cheap, washable attire seemed to rise to the occasion

Photo Illustration by Smithsonian.com; Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress

For cost-conscious clothing shoppers in 1920, it must have seemed like a miracle: men’s suits in a choice of 50 different styles for a mere 60 cents each (about $7.66 today). What’s more, when a suit got dirty, you could easily clean it—with an eraser.

Paper clothing had arrived, largely imported from Germany and Austria, where World War I shortages of wool and other materials had spurred its development. It had already caught on in Italy and Turkey as well as England, which was still recovering from the effects of the war. As the Washington, D.C., Evening Star reported, German-made suits were selling in London for the equivalent of 46 cents to $1.95, and at the current exchange rate, a man could buy a new suit each week of the year for less than a single British-made wool suit would cost him.

Before the U.S. entered the war against Germany in April 1917, American newspapers and magazines ran admiring articles about the country’s inventiveness in developing substitutes for all kinds of raw materials. The German word ersatz, for “substitute” or “replacement,” was introduced to the everyday American vocabulary.

In January 1917, the New York Sun noted that the Germans had devised paper-based threads for making “sacks and bags, girdles, doilies, aprons, working garments,” as well as dresses and other clothing. “The inventors have discovered a way to give the ‘paper cloth’ great resistance to dampness,” the reported added, answering one obvious question on readers’ minds. Other articles noted that the Germans made parts of military uniforms out of paper, including those worn by their pilots and submarine crews.

Despite what skeptical readers may have assumed, the clothing wasn’t made by simply gluing sheets of paper together. As the trade publication Paper explained, the most common method was to “cut the paper into narrow strips and twist these strips on spindles” for weaving yarn. The yarn could then be woven into cloth on a loom, much like traditional fibers.

After the war’s end in November 1918, paper was heralded as an all-purpose super material perfect for the rebuilding of battle-ravaged France and Belgium. That included waterproof housing made of pasteboard and other paper products. “Such dwellings have oiled paper in place of glass windows. They will be put together with screws made of wood pulp,” the New York Sun reported in February 1919. “Tables, chairs and other bits of furniture now are being made of paper. Even kitchen utensils are so constructed.”

The advantage of paper-based products wasn’t just that they could be produced inexpensively; they were also lighter to ship. What’s more, although countries like Germany and Austria were able to import wool again after the war, there wasn’t enough of it to go around. Even the United States, a wool exporter, faced a shortage, in part because so much of the material had been diverted to make uniforms, blankets, and munitions during the war. Trees, however, remained relatively plentiful, and the Germans had discovered that in a pinch it was possible to make cloth from reeds and other plants.

But it was the possibilities of paper clothing that captured attention in the U.S., especially after the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce imported a batch of Austrian paper suits, displayed them at its offices in Washington, D.C., and then sent them on tour to cities around the country. When the Washington exhibit opened in September 1920, the Associated Press noted that “one suit is quoted at fifteen cents, and is washable.” The exhibit also featured paper table covers, laundry bags, wall decorations and twine, among other items.

The A.P. reported that the suits were “described as warm, comfortable and durable, considering the fabric of which they are made, and not liable to tear or go to pieces when wet.” But a widely published news photo taken around the same time seemed to belie that image. A family of three—“mama, papa, and sonny”—posed for the camera wearing paper suits from Austria and looking about as comfortable as if they’d been dressed in grocery sacks.

Paper Dress, Campbell's Soup Company
Paper Dress, Campbell's Soup Company National Museum of American History

It might have seemed like a magnanimous gesture on the government’s part to promote products from nations the U.S. had recently fought on the battlefields of Europe. But there were more practical motives at work. The U.S. was still a major exporter of inexpensive clothing at that point, and American manufacturers would now have to compete against the far-cheaper paper products in foreign markets, where consumers often had little disposable income. The Commerce Department’s traveling exhibit could give clothing makers across the country a chance to examine their competition first-hand. What’s more, if paper clothing were to catch on, American paper mills and manufacturers might want in on the action too.

“It seems quite evident now that the German and Austrian manufacturers intend to cover the markets of the world with their paper substitutes for real clothing,” the American trade publication Textile World observed. On a more hopeful note, it added that, “Officials in Washington do not believe that this competition will ever be felt in the United States. The material used in the German product is too coarse and crude to meet with favor here to any extent unless many refinements are adopted.”

Still, the American public was intrigued, and some adventurous souls decided to try paper clothing on for size.

One reporter found a Philadelphia businessman strolling the boardwalk of Atlantic City in a “natty” suit of lightweight brown paper. Not only was his suit made of paper, he told his interviewer, but his shirt collar and necktie were as well. The suit had cost him 75 cents, the collar and tie 7 cents each, for a grand total of 89 cents. At the time, a wool suit alone would have cost him $30 or more.

While menswear seemed to get most of the attention, paper clothing for women and children was hitting the racks of many retailers, as well. A 1920 news photo showed three women happily modeling paper suits said to cost from 25 to 50 cents. And, the caption added, “they are washable.” In fact, some paper clothing could be washed, though only by hand, and it couldn’t be rung out afterwards but had to be hung up to dry.

The following summer, a news photographer snapped a female beachgoer in Chicago, modeling a $1.50 bathing costume created by a local paper manufacturer. The suit “has withstood surprisingly well all tests for rough treatment and water wear,” the caption reported. In the fall came reports of a Chicago manufacturer whose fancy $2 women’s hats offered an “imitation of straw and cloth [that] defies detection,” complete, in some cases, with paper feathers.

Also that fall, a paper suit created by a Wisconsin manufacturer drew crowds at a New York City trade show. The New-York Tribune reported that the suit was “extremely light in weight, a dark blue in color and to appearance very durable. At a short distance one easily mistakes it for a suit of tweed.”

Not everyone was convinced. A representative of the National Clothing Manufacturers’ Association scoffed that paper clothing “would not be practicable in America. We are too accustomed to pushing out our elbows or to stepping lively to exist long in a paper suit.”

The magazine Scientific American said that while the German imports “come pretty close to our American ideas of cheap but wearable clothes” they were “too heavy for comfort.”

Even the paper industry was unenthused. “No one,” a Yale professor of forest products wrote, “wants to wear paper clothing if he can get anything better.”

Indeed, by the mid-1920s, the novelty had worn off, due not only to paper’s limitations but to America’s roaring prosperity. It was a rare man who wanted to be seen about town in a 60-cent suit.

The arrival of the Great Depression in 1929 did little to revive interest in paper clothing, no matter how cheap. Consumers preferred to wear wool and cotton until it was threadbare rather than put on paper. Perhaps they thought they were suffering enough already.

Decades later, in the 1960s, paper dresses would make a brief comeback, with bold colors, pop-art patterns, and psychedelic designs. Groovy as the fad might have seemed at the time, it proved even shorter-lived than its 1920s forerunner.

While the ’60s dresses didn’t revolutionize the clothing business, they turned out to be a surprisingly good investment for anyone with the foresight to save one. An Andy Warhol-inspired paper dress featuring Campbell’s soup cans (which the soup company offered for $1 in 1968) sold for $1,600 at an auction this past May. Similar dresses are already in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.

From that perspective, at least, paper clothing might not have been such a bad idea, after all.

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