Motherwell, Modernism, & the Paper Dress


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Photo Credit: Katie Sprague

Wake Forest’s Hanes Gallery will host Robert Motherwell: Product. Placement, until March 29th as of now. The collection includes collages and collage-prints by Robert Motherwell which utilizes product packaging materials and visual elements along with printed text fragments in the composition. Through Wake alum, Claire Altizer, and The Dedalus Foundation set up by Motherwell to take care of his works, Hanes Gallery Director Paul Bright has put together an amazing exhibit. He even sat down with me to go into more detail.

LR: “How does Motherwell’s artistic vision fit in with Hanes Gallery and Wake Forest?”

PB: “Hanes Gallery has the ability to show a wide variety of exhibits and is a reasonable size for a medium-sized gallery. Motherwell was a high modernist coming out of the abstract expressionist tradition. It might not be a perfect time for male abstract artists, however I thought it would be interesting to look at lesser known aspects of his work. He has relations with pop and other art movements.”

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Photo Credit: Katie Sprague

LR: “What influences did Motherwell’s art have on style and culture?”

PB: “He is a Europhile and tended to look at France for a lot of materials he includes in his collages such as the artist paper and cigarette packaging that appeared in many of his works. Motherwell had an intellectual, psychological and even emotional connection with the rising modernism in Europe and, among the abstract expressionists, he was the intellectual guy. He was very educated on philosophy and history. He had a strong connection with Europe but modernized it.”

LR: “One of Motherwell’s pieces titled “Untitled (Pastel Striped Cloth)-” circa 1967 stands out because of its reflection on a previous fashion fad. Can you tell me about this piece?”

PB: “Motherwell’s wife at the time- artist Helen Frankenthaler- bought a paper dress, never wore it, and left it to collect dust in her closet. Motherwell scavenged it and it showed up in four of his collages from the late 1960’s. This piece revealed that his collages had a very domestic twist within them.” 

As seen below, “Untitled (Pastel Striped Cloth)-” reflects a time in history when fashion trends began to modernize and we see Motherwell’s work parallel this shift. 


Photo Credit: Katie Sprague


Photo Credit: Katie Sprague

The idea of the paper dress started with Scott Paper Company. They were promoting their paper napkins and toilet paper made with new dura-weave material, 93% paper napkin stock and 7% rayon scrim, by introducing two styles of shift dresses made entirely of this paper combo. For $1.25 women could get a shift dress in red bandana or black and white pop art prints. Little did they know that this paper fashion fad would blossom overnight. 

However, these trendy dresses were not the most practical. They did not look or feel luxurious. The materials resembled what hospital gowns are made of. The fabric had to be coated with flame retardant solutions for safety. However, this trend was not about practicality; it represented the embrace of temporality. One of the marketing slogans for the dresses read, “Won’t last forever… who cares? Wear it for kicks – then give it the air.”  These paper clothes became a catalyst for today’s fast-fashion industry- where people have the ability to buy a ‘cheap’ outfit from a company, like Forever 21, wear it once, and throw it away. But the repercussions of these fashion habits are still not acknowledged by most consumers. Americans discard over 14 million tons of clothing every year. Even donating clothes to non-profits barely makes a dent, since only 20 percent are considered passable quality. Yet fast-fashion retailers keep growing. 


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This mid 60’s fad appealed to women of wealth, including Jacqueline Kennedy, and toward the latter stages of the trend, hotel chains even stocked paper resort clothes to encourage travelers from lugging around excessive baggage.

1970s environmentalists helped put a stop to paper fashion, as just two years after the first paper dresses became popular, a sustainability movement began and eventually rendered disposable fashion obsolete. The next trend was keeping the earth habitable. With the first earth day held in 1970, earthy tones, natural fibers, and ethical choices became the new norm. Overall the paper clothing fashion fad is one that had an impact on the culture, and the Motherwell collection offers us a glimpse at this important era in style history.


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