Written by Claire Lanier
In 1966 Scott Paper Company – of toilet paper manufacturing fame – needed a new marketing campaign and landed on a new form of fashion: the paper dress. For $1, women could receive a paper dress in the mail, along with coupons for paper towels, toilet paper, and other Scott products. The response was overwhelming, with orders exceeding half a million. Though Scott halted production, wary of becoming a paper dress manufacturer, other companies eagerly stepped in to capitalize on the trend, and the paper dress craze of the ‘60s and ‘70s was born.
The benefits of the paper dress are simple – it’s cheap to produce and to purchase, it’s light and fits many body types, and it requires no maintenance – after a few wears, you simply throw it away. So it’s no surprise that politicians jumped in on the gimmick, too, as a quick and affordable campaign strategy. In our new exhibition, Campaigning for the Presidency, 1960-1972: Selections from the Museum of Democracy, you can see several paper dresses used in campaigns through the 1960s and 1970s covered in colorful pop-art imagery supporting Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, and Nelson Rockefeller, respectively.
The paper dress, though, was highly flammable and very uncomfortable, so by the early 1970s, the fad had waned. But the notion of dress-as-campaign-swag hasn’t died.
In 2004, Kelly Jacobs, an energetic beekeeper and social activist in Mississippi, volunteered to campaign for John Kerry in the presidential election. As a passionate Democrat living in primarily Republican territory, Jacobs knew she was in for a fight and wanted to stand out in a new way. A quick glance at the campaign signs in her front yard sparked an idea: she would wear her support.
“It was when they started having plastic bag signs that you would pull over a wire brace, so I just slipped off the top … I taped three signs together and sure enough, I could fit inside it,” says Jacobs, who was excited by the practicality it allowed her while campaigning. “It really helped me campaigning on a street corner. Everyone could see who I was supporting so then I had my hands free for holding ‘Vote Early’ signs and to wave at people. So that was the start of my political dresses.”
While bold and effective, the Kerry sign dress was hot and uncomfortable, so she searched for a new method. In 2014 she was able to find a website that would print photos on fabric, but only in small quantities, so she made a small scarf featuring Hillary Clinton, which cost $110. (Jacobs was hopeful Hillary would run again, and of course, she did.) She made four more dresses over the next two years using flags, the silkscreen method, and even a few more campaign signs. By 2016, many websites had popped up offering a variety of customizable fabrics. Jacobs has since designed ten dresses supporting President Obama and eight supporting Hillary Clinton.
Inspired by shows like Project Runway, Jacobs orders the printed fabric then sews it to make the dress shape and adds embellishments, like rope piping, or makes them reversible. She’s deliberate when creating her dresses, stating openly that the dress is never about the perfect fit or design but about showing boldly who she supports in a way that grabs attention (“especially when I wear my big green hat!” she laughs.) She’s careful not to distort the images once they’re printed on the fabric, though she does sometimes enhance the colors to make the images more vivid.
The vivacious Jacobs has been wearing her dresses to political events for years, including the Democratic National Conventions in Denver, Boston, and Philadelphia. But she doesn’t see them as special-event-only garb: “I like to wear them grocery shopping, and out and about.” Jacobs receives a wide range of responses from liberals and conservatives alike when she wears them, but she welcomes the conversations, whether supportive or contentious, always seeking political discourse in her community and around the country.
In July, curators at the New-York Historical Society contacted Jacobs after seeing her on the front page of the New York Times wearing one of her most recent creations, a dress featuring President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, at the Democratic National Convention. To our honor and delight, Kelly Jacobs donated the dress to our collection, and it’s now on display in the Museum. Stop by to check out this special piece of campaign memorabilia!
Kelly Jacobs’ Obama dress, as well as our exhibition Campaigning for the Presidency, 1960-1972: Selections from the Museum of Democracy, are on display through November 27.
Jacobs protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, usually wearing her peace flag dress, and is passionate about supporting mental health care for veterans. Both of the flag dresses pictured here are reversible with different messages on each side