The headline read, "Wear the Yellow Pages Out for $1." The ad copy carried out the tease: What's black and yellow and read all over? The Yellow Pages Dress! It's wacky, wild, wonderful. A flashy paper put-on that's just plain fun to wear. We'll send your Yellow Pages Dress to you just about long enough to cover your knees—then with a pair of scissors you can cut it to any length you like.
Customers cut out the coupon, filled in their address and
then mailed it with their dollar (postage included) to a P.O. box in Asheville,
Two days after the ad ran, Mars Hosiery of Asheville
received about 5,000 envelopes.
"The next day, we received 25,000," says Bob
Bayer, co-owner of the company with his wife Audrey ("Audie").
"The next day, 50,000. We were overwhelmed with [just] two
They hired a local firm—Daniel's Graphics—to provide
With the sudden, overwhelming demand for paper dresses came
sudden, unexpected fame. The Bayers appeared on the TV shows "To Tell the
Truth" and "What's My Line?" and saw their company and products
featured on "CBS Evening News," on the front page of the Wall Street Journal
and in many other publications, including the London Times, The New York Times,
Business Week and Forbes.
They were also amazed at a spread that Vogue magazine
created featuring their products.
"They started out with a full-page photo showing a
model wearing one of our paper jumpsuits," says Audie.
"When you opened it up, there were three or four pages
about the company and the dresses." Bob adds, "For Audie, who was a
liberal arts major, to get this level of recognition as a designer was
The national profile for the Asheville-produced paper
dresses also involved New York-based retailer Abraham & Strauss Department
Stores, precursor to today's Macy's. A & S created a separate department in
all their stores called Waste Basket Boutique for the dresses and related
Bob witnessed the declining profit margin in the hosiery
business and turned his attention to disposable goods. He first focused on
making disposable undershorts for army soldiers to wear in Vietnam.
"We made a lot of samples and sent them into the field,
but the material was not as sophisticated as it is now,", Bob says.
"It caused a lot of chafing and would also cause little pieces of paper to
fall down a guy's legs. Our real goal was to get into the medical market, but
we knew the only way we'd get in would be to create a buzz through fashion. We
started experimenting with paper dresses."
A brief foray into the market by national paper company
Scott (see sidebar) provided Mars with its opening.
"We jumped right in," says Audie. "We were
ready. The Scott thing was the impetus for us to carry on. We were at the right
place at the right time and young enough to take a chance."
Audie had studied English at Cornell, but with the company's
new direction, she stretched her creative , skills by designing the dresses—everything
from choosing the paper prints to deciding on style and size along with the
"There was a wallpaper printing company in Appleton,
Wisconsin, and they sent us books of their discontinued designs," says
Audie. "I had so much fun going through the pages and choosing prints to
make A-shape dresses. Many were pop and mod; some were pretty wild."
Once the designs were selected, they were printed on their
material and then shipped to Asheville for production. Hundreds of employees
worked to cut and assemble the dresses.
The dresses were packaged in plastic bags with a front
cardboard insert decorated with their logo: a paper doll dress cutout with the
words "Waste Basket Boutique" running across it. Above the dress was
a circle cutout, where the doll's head would be, to display the dress print.
Beneath the dress read, "Mars of Asheville" above a row of daisies.
Under the flowers, read, "The Pioneer in Disposable Fashion." The
other side identified the style of garment along with the size guide: Teeny
(4-6), Tiny (8-10), Bigger (12-14) and Biggest (16-18). It also provided
instructions—press with cool iron, shorten with scissors; fire and water
resistant—along with a "Do Not Wash" warning.
"The packaging was pretty corny, but it was not a
sophisticated time," says Audie, "Today, you look at it and think 'oh
my gosh,' but it's what sold. We did the packaging locally at Daniel's
Graphics." The dresses caught the eye of editors at Woman's Wear Daily,
which featured a picture of Mars Manufacturing disposable dresses on the front
page along with an article. Sales exploded,
"We went to the National Notions Show in New York City
about a month after the Woman's Wear Daily article came out," explains
Bob, "The buyers went wild, They needed something to pep up that
department. That's where we got our first orders-from department stores all
over the country,"
They were also in the premium promotion field, creating
paper dresses for companies like Hallmark. Four times a year, Hallmark changed
its design of a combo featuring a paper dress for a hostess to wear along with
all the matching paper goods: cups, napkins and plates to be used at a party. They
produced dresses and other items for presidential campaigns and corporations
like Master Charge,
"We were at a restaurant in Asheville when I first
heard about this new concept of a charge card," says Bob,
"[MasterCard] was called Master Charge at that time, and we made a Master
Charge dress as a promotion to kick off their new card."
"We had been experimenting with a company coating paper
with metallic," she says. "I made a long silver evening gown. Grove
Park Inn used to close in the winter, but they would have a big fancy ball
dance on New Year's Eve and fire up the big fireplaces. I took one of our long
silver foil dresses and bought some silver drapery trim and sewed it around the
neck. That was fun."
In some real high-society benefits for museums in New York
City, the invitation would be a paper dress. It was sent out as an invitation
to benefactors, and they were told to decorate the dress in any way they
wanted. Some took them to famous designers, who added features and plumes and
beading. Women were trying to outdo each other. “That really cracked us up that
they were putting all that money into a $1.99 dress,” says Audie. “Pretty
Audie also enjoyed the "paint your own" dresses
they produced — plain white dresses with paint to make your own design. These
were popular for little girls at birthday parties, but Audie remembers a party
where the adults enjoyed their own brand of creativity.
"Every woman there put on a white paper dress, and
their husbands decorated the dress while it was on her," she says.
"Everyone had a few drinks, and it really got graphic."
Famed pop artist Andy Warhol decorated a paint-your-own
paper dress with the word “Fragile" displayed on it. That dress is among
holdings at the Brooklyn Museum. At the time, Warhol didn't have any name
"So many people were saying, 'It's phenomenal, but it's
going to end,"' says Audie. "I give Bob credit for quietly planning
what would happen next."
He refocused attention on industrial and medical
disposables, but it wasn't a quick, easy sell to doctors, who were fixed in
their belief that cotton was better.
"The operating nurses were the ones who were our
champions," says Bob. "They wanted the product. They went back to
their chiefs of staff and helped push it. They were our salespeople."
The Bayers sold Mars Manufacturing in 1970 to Work Wear
Corporation. After that, they founded American Threshold Industries, and
focused on producing disposable hospital and laboratory products. They retired
when they sold this company in the late 1990s. They donated their collection of
paper dresses and other paper garments to the Asheville Art Museum. They also
donated much of the ephemera—advertising, newspaper articles and other printed
information—to the Special Collections at D.H. Hiden Ramsey Library.
The dresses came in four sizes and two designs: a
black-and-white Op art print and a bright orangered paisley pattern. The
purchase included a bonus envelope of coupons for Scott paper products. The
inner label warned, "Paper Caper by Scott. Important: Your Paper Caper is
fire resistant, but washing, dry cleaning or soaking will make the fabric
dangerously flammable when dry." Advertising focused on the carefree
nature of a disposable item, noting, "Won't last forever ... who cares?
Wear it for kicks—then give it the air."
What happened next would make any ad executive green with
envy: Women across the country just had to have a paper dress. Within six
months, the company sold 500,000 paper dresses. Overwhelmed, Scott officials
abruptly pulled the plug on the promotion, saying they did not want to turn the
company into a dress manufacturer. This retreat paved the way for other
companies to fill the demand for the paper dress frenzy. One of the major
players was Mars Manufacturing of Asheville, North Carolina. At the peak of the
fad, Mars Manufacturing churned out 100,000 dresses per week; most retailed
between $1.99 and $3.99.
Note: This archival article is presented exactly as it was at the time of the issue in which it appeared. As such, all quotes, as well as references to temporal facts, artifacts and other items are contemporaneous to the date of original publication.