Do It Yourself Costumes Made with Dennison Tissue Paper

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:

  1. Opportunity for many to take part.
  2. No long speeches.
  3. No special talent required to fill the part, such as dramatic power, a powerful voice, etc.
  4. 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.

How successful was this venture?  Until someone makes it their business to find out, we have to assume it never generated the revenue as the market for Halloween, which Dennison masterfully saturated.

Cotsen Research Reports: Stitching a Soviet Monkey from the Pattern in Igroushki samodelki (1930)


Shimpanze i martychka: igroushki samodelki [Chimpanzee and marmoset: Toys to make yourself]. Leningrad: GIZ, 1930. (Cotsen in-process 7208283).

The project of Frances Saddington, a doctoral candidate in the University of East Anglia’s School of History,  was funded this year by Cotsen through the Friends of the Princeton University Research Grants program.   In August, Frances pored over dozens of pamphlets in Cotsen’s collection of Soviet children’s books.   One new acquisition caught her eye: an illustrated pamphlet with directions for making a toy chimpanzee and marmoset.  Being an artist and a scholar, Frances was the perfect person to test just how doable these projects really were.   Her delightful report follows.

During the 1920s and early 1930s in the Soviet Union, a great number of children’s picture books were printed. A distinct genre within this picture book world was the art and craft book. Both educational and enjoyable, these books provided imaginative and resourceful ways for children to create various objects. There were masks to cut out, colouring in books and instructions for how to print your own stencilled posters. ‘Self-made toys’ also featured prominently and these included stand-up paper figures, shadow puppet shows and potato men assembled from root vegetables and discarded household objects.

The self-made toy book held its worth in more ways than one. Any Soviet pedagogue would have been satisfied by the way it encouraged children to develop their construction skills, with practical abilities being a key attribute of the future Soviet worker. For children and families, self-made toys might have helped fill a childhood void in a country beset by material shortage, where consumer goods such as toys were hard to come by.

Bringing these long-lost ideas to life offers an irresistible challenge for the twenty-first century art and craft enthusiast. Soviet art and craft books are well represented in the Cotsen Collection and one of the most ambitious is Shimpanze i martyshka (Chimpanzee and Marmoset), published in 1930 by the Soviet state publishing house. It is a small book at only twelve pages long and just larger than a postcard. Inside it contains pattern pieces, instructions and diagrams for how to stitch the two cheerful creatures. I decided to make a marmoset and followed the instructions step-by step, which gave me some insight into the skills expected of Soviet youngsters and how feasible such a project really was.

At first glance the directions seemed quite straightforward but rather brief. They assumed some knowledge of sewing technique and a fairly high level of manual dexterity, so the first conclusion I drew was that this book was not intended for very small children. The monkey was to be made by building a wire skeleton, wrapping it in strips of newspaper and then enclosing the whole thing in fabric shapes before adding the features. The little monkeys jumping round the instruction pages were very endearing but they did not compensate for the fact that some of the required materials were missing from the list given at the beginning. I had to go off in search of glass beads, pieces of leather and something that would serve as red silk thread.


The list of all you need (minus a few things) on page 2.

In slight defiance of the order of events given in the instructions, I decided to cut the pattern pieces for the monkey’s body before creating the skeleton. The instructions suggested that if I were to make the whole figure twice the size of the given templates, then it would be more comfortable to work with. I decided that this would be a good idea, as the pieces were very small. No instructions were given for enlarging the shapes and as I wanted to be authentic and not use a modern photocopier, I enlarged the pieces using a hand drawn grid. This took an hour and a half.


The pattern pieces on page 8 on the left and Frances’s hand-drawn enlargements on the right.

Next I cut out the pieces. The instructions specified rags of brown flannel. These are not as easy to find now as in 1930, so I chose felt instead. After this I needed to make the skeleton and wrap it in strips of newspaper, tied down with thread. Working with the newspaper proved to be very time consuming, required a lot of patience and left me with very black hands. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any tiny monkeys like the ones shown in the illustration to help me. The trickiest part of this stage was figuring out how much newspaper to apply to the frame. Luckily, as I had cheated and already cut out the fabric body pieces, I was able to keep trying these against the figure to see if it was fat enough.


Page 4 shows how to make the wire “skeleton” on the left. The cut-out pieces ready for stitching together on the right.


The drawings on page 6 make the process of wrapping the wire with newspaper and thread look so beautifully tidy…

Finally, I added the features and after about five and half hours of work, the marmoset was finished. He looked almost exactly like the one in the illustration, turned out to be fully poseable without falling apart and was much more attractive than I had anticipated. He did however smell quite strongly of newspaper and I had doubts as to how long he would survive if handled excessively by a small child.


The original illustration on page 9 and Frances’s finished creation.

Learn more about activity books at our virtual exhibition about Pere Castor