The young lady wearing the stunning paper headdress above might be surprised to learn that elaborate costumes made out of tissue or crepe paper are not a new phenomenon. The dress to the right, from the collection of the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, is a relic from the 1930s, when the trend was well established. In fact its popularity increased during the Depression when people had less disposable income.
Around 1892, Dennison Manufacturing, a Massachusetts firm specializing in paper products, began importing crepe tissue paper in a delicious array of colors from England. By 1914 Dennison had established an art department to exploit the products’ uses, launching a stream of well-illustrated ten cent pamphlets full of detailed instructions for making artificial flowers, home décor like lamp shades, holiday decorations, and fancy costumes for various occasions. The machine-crinkled paper was surprisingly strong, easy to work with, and much more affordable than woven fabrics, making it possible to create a rather showy ensemble for pennies. References to tissue paper party dresses begin cropping up in fiction as early as 1900, one example appearing in The Little Colonel’s House Party by the once popular author Annie Fellows Johnson.
In Dennison’s first pamphlet, Tissue Paper Entertainments, which introduced novelty crepe tissue paper to the American public in 1892, the manufacturer claimed that it was a godsend to any organization trying to mount children’s programs with very limited resources. Dennison did more than serve as the source of raw materials, it acted more like an impresario, dramaturg, and a coach. The preface assured adults that they could succeed in producing pageants if they kept the following tips in mind at all times:
- Opportunity for many to take part.
- No long speeches.
- No special talent required to fill the part, such as dramatic power, a powerful voice, etc.
- Such alternation of recitation and singing as may secure a pleasing variety.
The buyer could be confident that the product had tested: the pupils of a poor Mission Sunday School had been invited to make the costumes especially designed for the scripts contained in Dennison’s Tissue Paper Entertainments: two for girls, two for boys. The author(s) were not credited anywhere in the publication. Dennison thoughtfully estimated the size of the cast, recommended the best colors for performance in natural and artificial light, and total cost of the paper. The locations of Dennison’s metropolitan retail outlets below, for convenience in ordering. A section on gestures and a blocking for the concert recitation was offered to bolster the confidence of inexperienced directors…War and Peace (no connection to Tolstoy’s novel) for 48 boys divided into 8 groups of 6 was surprisingly easy to costume. The short boys were to be cast as the minor nations in the group comprised of France, Austria, Germany, Italy, England, Russia, and the United States. “Some attention should be paid to complexion,” instructions ran, “the swarthiest for Italy, the fairest for Russia.” Different options were given for making the military uniforms. A scarf of cut paper could be draped over the shoulder, paper basted onto a garment, or a uniform entirely of paper lined with cheesecloth. Stripes down the side of the trousers, epaulets, chevrons, and stripes on the sleeves could all be made with bright yellow paper. Appropriate flags could be made of tissue paper copying the designs in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. The production ended with the entire cast singing for the advent of world peace.
Dennison outdid itself with three-act The Story of Joseph. All ten brothers of Joseph had lines to learn, but Reuben, Jacob, Judah and Joseph were given multiple speeches. Joseph brought down the curtain with a solo. His coat of many colors could easily be fashioned from 6 different colors, so he would stand out from his older brothers in drab, dark robes. Joseph was also the only character with a costume change–purple for his royal robes and a suitable headdress modeled on something in an illustrated Bible. Scenery was required for acts 2 and 3: an “oriental” tent and a state apartment, both of which could be furnished with crinkled paper hangings and coverings for the throne.