Local News

January 5, 2014

Wearing the headlines

The unique history of the newspaper dress

On March 7, 1929, the society editor of The Dalton Citizen, Martha Lin Manly, took a piece of plain sateen to the newspaper’s printing press.

This modern young woman had the day’s news printed on the fabric, which she then fashioned into a stylish shift to wear to an upcoming masquerade ball hosted by the Dalton Junior Chamber of Commerce at the Hotel Dalton. The flapper-style dress features headlines reading “Former Daltonian and Husband Die from Poison,” “County Sells Old Whitfield Jail for One Hundred Dollars,” and “Mrs. Warren Sims Hostess to Bridge Club Thursday,” while advertisements promote hats, bread, insurance, and piano lessons — a typical day’s content.

Men’s costumes at the ball included a circus ring-master, bell hops, a devil, Uncle Sam and a colonial maiden, while women’s costumes ranged from a Gay Nineties gown to an aviatrix outfit to a representation of bubbles. Manly’s attractive and timely costume stood out, though, and earned her first prize and the presentation of “a beautiful rhinestone bracelet.”

Manly was the youngest child of Frank Manly, founder of Manly Jail Works, and graduated from Agnes Scott College. She worked as the society editor for The Dalton Citizen from 1927 until she married Dr. Thomas E. Hogshead in 1939. According to her niece, Gertrude “Tut” McFarland, Manly may have worn her dress again to a newspaper press association meeting, where she advocated equal pay for women, but it quickly was relegated to the back of the closet.

After she died, her son, Frank Hogshead, found the petite dress and stored it for about 20 years before donating it to The Daily Citizen, which placed it in the Historic Clothing and Textile Collection in the College of Family & Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia. Ornament Magazine, an international magazine covering jewelry and costume, is featuring this remarkable dress in an upcoming article on the history of newspaper fashion.

Manly’s dress is part of a long tradition of using newspapers, both actual newspapers and fabric printed with news pages, as fashion. Though few of these ephemeral creations survive, the ones that do and the ones that are documented in vintage photographs attest to the novelty and graphic power of the combination of newspapers and clothing. That Manly chose to make her costume of fabric rather than paper reflects a practical choice, as the fabric was more durable, and demonstrates her privileged access to the newspaper printing facilities.

Newspaper costumes have been worn by women, men and children for nearly 200 years. Daily newspapers developed in the 18th century and became increasingly common during the 19th century. The growing prevalence of printed news generated public familiarity with the format and provided ample raw material for newspaper costumes. Such outfits are documented as part of French music hall revues as early as the 1830s and became staple costumes for such venues by the end of the nineteenth century.

The novelty of the material particularly appealed to Victorians who cut and folded newspaper into elaborate ruffles and fringes, often with accessories such as hats and fans. Newspaper costumes appeared regularly at fancy dress and masquerade balls. For example, Matilda Butters, wife of a prominent politician and businessman in Melbourne, Australia, wore an elaborate gown made of silk panels printed with the front pages of several local newspapers and trimmed in gold braid to a ball in 1866. She also wore a headdress proclaiming “Liberty of the press,” and carried a staff topped with a miniature functioning printing press. Less extravagant, though no less intriguing, is the dress with a matching bonnet made of layers of vertical panels with Texas’s Port Arthur Herald’s masthead worn by a young woman named Ruby Dee Austin in a photograph from 1897.

The newspaper costume phenomenon became popular enough to be codified as its own party theme by the 1910s. Mrs. Herbert B. Linscott in The Social Hour (1917) suggests how hostesses could throw newspaper parties by decorating their tables with miniature telegraph poles, offering menus listing food by its advertising slogans, and organizing games in which couples could be paired through custom “want ads” or attendees could edit their own paper. She suggests guests attend such parties wearing “a newspaper dunce cap and long flowing cape; a complete robe fashioned of newspapers, belted in at the waist; a large brimmed hat of several thicknesses of newspapers; long flowing skirts, plaited ones, sailor collars, and puffed sleeves, all of newspaper.”

Often newspaper costumes served as promotional tools, including a dress, circa 1893, in the collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, made of cotton with newspaper advertisements glued on and oversized text on patches appliquéd along the hem reading “SUBSCRIBE FOR THE ECHO,” a newspaper from Sugar Grove, Penn. In 1910 a young woman at a benefit fair at the Richmond County fair grounds in Dongan Hills on Staten Island dressed “in a frock made from ‘the family newspaper of Staten Island’” and walked around asking attendees to buy one. According to the New York Sun, “a man who spied his picture on the newspaper dress approached her and gently poking the half tone cut that covered a section of her side exclaimed, ‘Why, that’s me!’”

The small text on newspaper costumes invites close observation. The inclination to read the printed text might inadvertently (or otherwise) lead the viewer’s eye to an intimate examination of parts of the wearer’s body not acceptable to ogle in other circumstances. The slightly risqué nature of newspaper costumes was commemorated in a popular limerick: “There once was a girl from St. Paul/Who wore a newspaper dress to a ball,/But the dress caught on fire/And burned her entire/Front page, sporting section, and all.”

The popularity of newspaper dresses spiked in the late 1960s with the introduction of the paper dress craze. One popular paper dress, in the typical short, A-line style, was printed with collaged newspaper clippings. Mary Good, writing for the Chicago Daily Herald, reviewed a paper mini dress with a newspaper design in 1967, explaining that at first she was excited to be able to quip that she was “all wrapped up in newspaper work” if anyone asked her what she was doing (no one did) then dismayed when she realized that the print was rubbing off and she had a newsprint tattoo on her arm. Her main concern, though, was that the news was “stale.”

Newspapers as attire garnered extensive media attention with a couture fashion collection by designer John Galliano for Christian Dior in 2000. His controversial creations, in a style termed “hobo chic” and inspired by homeless Parisians, featured surprising elements including tin cups, frayed tulle and tattered newspapers. Galliano revisited the newspaper theme in Dior’s fall 2000 ready-to-wear collection, composing a custom newspaper, The Christian Dior Daily, and printing it on a variety of materials for clothing.

One of the dresses, of printed silk with an asymmetrical hemline, rocketed to fame when Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, wore it in season three of “Sex and the City” (2000, and in the second Sex and the City film, 2010). Bradshaw, like Martha Lin Manly, worked for a newspaper, and the dress reflects both her profession and, with the words “Christian Dior Daily” across her waist, her status as a fashionista.

Former Dalton resident Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Ga., with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. The newspaper dress from Dalton, which inspired her to investigate the topic of newspaper fashion, came to her attention as part of her research for a book she is writing on the history of chenille fashion for the University of Georgia Press.

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