If there’s one thing that the simple shift dress lends itself to perfectly it is as a canvas on which to display bold two-dimensional artworks. In particular, Op Art and Pop Art. The bold block colours and geometric lines of both of these art movements are perfectly suited to the flat surface of the shift dress. Whether applied as a print, appliquéd or assembled in panels the sheer absence of multiple seams and darts in the simple shift design can render a static image into a bold, mobilised statement.
The earliest pairing of 1960s Pop Art and fashion, came from the art world and not from the fashion industry in the form of Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” dress of 1964 (sold at auction in 2007 for $264,000 USD). Though Warhol’s dress was ostensibly an art piece and not a retail fashion garment, it referenced both fashion and graphic design so explicitly that it made apparent how well the simplicity of form of both suited one another.
Andy Warhol Brillo Box Dress 1964. Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).
However, before Pop Art was launched in earnest within the fashion industry around 1966 it was the separate movement Op Art which would dominate the 1960s fashion world first.
British artist Bridget Riley, whose series of monochrome paintings with an emphasis on optical effects, invigorated the Op Art movement around 1964 (though Riley had been producing Op Art as early as 1960). The movement culminated in an exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965 called “The Responsive Eye”. The popularity of the exhibition, and particularly Riley’s exhibits, fuelled a trend in monochrome fashion which resonated across the globe. Op Art is primarily two-dimensional mostly black and white patterns which optically distort and give the illusion of movement. When these seemingly fluid patterns are applied to stretch fabrics the resulting illusion of movement is two-fold. However, Op Art fashion clothing was at its effective best when replicated large-scale on sturdy fabrics such as cotton and PVC (possibly because of the similarity in surface appearance to the flat, painted canvas). Op Art style graphics were used on dresses, skirts, swim suits, hats, rain macintoshes and even footwear and utilised by both couturiers and mainstream fashion houses alike. The trend for Op Art waned towards the latter half of 1966 when mod fashions dissipated and psychedelia was on the rise but Pop Art would act as a suitable replacement for those still preferring their attire to exude an element of playfulness and humour.
Bridget Riley’s seminal work “Movement in Squares’” (1961)
(L) Op Art fashion and Mini car, UK, c.1965 (R) Op Art stretch swimwear ca.1966.
As it had done with Op Art, the fashion industry was quick in embracing both the imagery and spirit of Pop Art, capitalising on its implied comparison to fast-paced consumerism. However, this time around the burgeoning youth fashion market in which bold design and bright colours were celebrated would be the primary target market since it was the largest demographic in fashion purchasing in the mid-1960s. Hence, Pop Art images were often applied to the simple shift dress to appeal to teenagers and young women. But unlike Op Art, which was used on a variety of materials, Pop Art designs were frequently applied to paper dresses in keeping with the idea of disposability and consumerism advocated by Pop Art.
The screen printed paper fashion dress was initially conceived in 1966 as a clever advertising gimmick by Scott Paper Company (the famous toilet tissue manufacturer) to promote a new range of colourful bathroom paper. Scott offered a disposal fashion dress for just $1.00 and twenty five cents postage. Customers could choose from two initial designs – the current yet declining Op Art trend or a distinctly cartoonish paisley design (whimsical enough so as not be associated with the unsavoury youths of the hippie movement).
Advertisement for Scott Paper Company paper dresses, ca. 1966.
Warhol would again have his worked featured as a dress when in the same year Campbell’s Soup Company took advantage of both the paper dress craze and Warhol’s seminal “Campbell’s Soup Cans” series. ‘“The Souper Dress”, as it was named and marketed, was a disposable paper shift dress which could be purchased for $1.00 plus two of their soup can labels. It was “The Souper Dress” which was the instigator of the plethora of Pop Art paper dress which followed over the next two years. Manufacturers and designers would employ distinctly Pop Art-type imagery, particularly relating to popular culture and product advertisement, in order to appeal to the young set and its penchant for cheap and quick fashion.
Warhol-inspired “Souper Dress”, Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. Image source http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/79778
Aside for the Warhol-inspired ‘Souper Dress’ which can fetch sums of up to $5,000 (USD) in auction, some of the most collectible examples of paper dresses are those designed by American graphic artist, Harry Gordon. In 1967 Gordon designed the Bob Dylan poster dress, the first of a series of poster dresses he was to design. Then in 1968 Gordon followed up the Dylan poster dress with a series of five poster dresses, sold as a set for $2.98 produced by Poster Dresses Ltd., London. The designs were named ‘Mystic Eye’, ‘Giant Rocket’, ‘Rose’, ‘Pussy Cat’ and ‘Hand’ (featuring Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Uptown N.Y.” place over an image of a rather dubious hand gesture). Nowadays these dresses can fetch considerable sums at auction, often attracting prices over the one thousand US dollar mark and much higher.
Harry Gordon poster dresses (L) Bob Dylan (R) outer packaging for a Poster Dress set.
After the Harry Gordon poster dress it seemed as if every large corporation and politician in America produced a paper dress in an attempt to either tap into or exploit the youth market. But like any trend which saturates the market and exceeds its natural lifespan the Pop Art paper dress quickly became passé and swiftly disappeared by the end of 1968. However, Pop Art was to continue as a theme in fashion from 1969 and into the early 1970s, in no small part due to British designer and entrepreneur Tommy Roberts whose London shop Mr Freedom (inspired by William Klein’s satirical film of 1969 “Mister Freedom”) was an homage to American popular culture, Pop Art and comic strip imagery. Pop Art, like all trends, waxes and wanes in fashion and more recently has been a theme for many contemporary fashion designers including Gianni Versace, Betsey Johnson, Moschino, Lisa Perry and Prada. But it is not necessarily the rendering of pop images which is pertinent as a fashion statement, rather it’s the artful referencing of recognisable visual icons of popular culture which for many people offers reassuringly familiar cloak in which to swaddle themselves.
(L) Hollywood Stars paper dress, Warhol-style silkscreens of Hollywood actors’ faces; actors’ names and movie titles listed around hem of dress (centre) Robert Kennedy campaign paper dress, and (R) “LET’S GO” paper dress by Lincoln Mercury (FORD MOTORS). © USA, 1969. ATOPOS Collection, Athens.
(L) Mr. Freedom applique by Muriel Carter and Pam Keats from drawings by Mike Rogers. Photos: Peter Knapp. May 1970. Nova magazine. (R) Model Twiggy wears Mr. Freedom satin appliqué Mickey Mouse jersey top c.1970.
Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art prints (L) Moschino, 1991, and (R) Lisa Perry, 2011.