If there’s one thing that the simple shift dress lends itself to perfectly it is as a canvas on which to display bold two-dimensional artworks. In particular, Op Art and Pop Art. The bold block colours and geometric lines of both of these art movements are perfectly suited to the flat surface of the shift dress. Whether applied as a print, appliquéd or assembled in panels the sheer absence of multiple seams and darts in the simple shift design can render a static image into a bold, mobilised statement.


Ever since pop art emerged in the fifties, it has been going hand in hand with the fashion industry. Rebelling against elitist values and self-reflexive expressionist movement, pop art embraced mundane living experiences, introducing aspects of mass culture and bringing art closer to the new generation of Americans who were starting to experience all benefits of the consumer paradise in the welfare state of post-war America. Pop art employed familiar mass culture imagery from advertisements to other banal objects, wrapping it into sensational and bold color combinations. Richard Hamilton, one of the pop art pioneers used to describe pop art as “popular, transient, expandable, low cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business”. All these qualities pop art shared with consumerist culture and fashion industry as one of its main features. It wasn’t long before pop art and fashion merged. Pop artist introduced a bright palette of colors and print definition form, which were used as the inspiration by many designers at that time and onwards.

Andy Warhol and the Paper Dress Craze

Andy Warhol is probably the first major pop art icon to become the influential figure in the fashion world. He started his career as a fashion illustrator, working for the magazines like Glamour, Mademoiselle, and even Vogue. He was also one of the first artists to turn his art into fashion items. Just like pop art was turning towards mass culture in the fifties and sixties, high fashion as the thing of elites was challenged once the fashion industry with mass produced items entered the scene. In the sixties, Warhol started to print his art designs on the paper dresses which were at the time becoming a novelty. These garments captured the very essence of the consumerist lifestyle as they tackled the idea of disposability of consumer goods. Probably the most recognizable paper dress from the sixties was Souper Dress, the one featuring Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans print. Although they were exclusive at the time they appeared Campbell’s shortly developed a whole line of these products making Souper Dressesavailable to anyone for a couple of dollars. During the sixties pop art-inspired paper dresses became the mainstream garment kicking off a craze in the fashion world and even now when they have completely disappeared from the market they continue to inspire contemporary fashion designers.

The commercial partnership between art and fashion design is nothing new to us, as every single year we see art-inspired collections on the catwalks worldwide. However, because of its nature rooted in celebration of consumerist goods, vibrant and catchy patterns and the ability to speak the universal language, free of fine art elitism, pop art was destined to become the most referred art movement in the fashion industry. This marriage between pop art and fashion industry started to develop in the sixties not to be disturbed ever since. Once again, the social context of the decade decided the future of this particular connection. During the war and the time of austerity, clothes were more practical and unified in their design. Post-war prosperity changed that and new fashion items became more diverse. At the same time, pop art was gaining popularity among the mainstream audiences and designers saw this new movement as a potential source of inspiration. Furthermore, during the sixties fashion designers and artists were moving in the same circles influencing each other’s work and being part of the same, shared culture. For example, Yves Saint Laurent was among the first designers to turn a work of art into a dress design and to fully explore pop art in his collections. Not by chance, Andy Warhol also portrayed him in one of his four-panel silkscreens.

Andy Warhol Brillo Box Dress 1964

The earliest pairing of 1960s Pop Art and fashion, came from the art world and not from the fashion industry in the form of Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” dress of 1964 ). Though Warhol’s dress was ostensibly an art piece and not a retail fashion garment, it referenced both fashion and graphic design so explicitly that it made apparent how well the simplicity of form of both suited one another.

Harry Gordon poster dresses (L) Bob Dylan (R) outer packaging for a Poster Dress set

After the Harry Gordon poster dress it seemed as if every large corporation and politician in America produced a paper dress in an attempt to either tap into or exploit the youth market. But like any trend which saturates the market and exceeds its natural lifespan the Pop Art paper dress quickly became passé and swiftly disappeared by the end of 1968. However, Pop Art was to continue as a theme in fashion from 1969 and into the early 1970s, in no small part due to British designer and entrepreneur Tommy Roberts whose London shop Mr Freedom (inspired by William Klein’s satirical film of 1969 “Mister Freedom”) was an homage to American popular culture, Pop Art and comic strip imagery. Pop Art, like all trends, waxes and wanes in fashion and more recently has been a theme for many contemporary fashion designers including Gianni Versace, Betsey Johnson, Moschino, Lisa Perry and Prada. But it is not necessarily the rendering of pop images which is pertinent as a fashion statement, rather it’s the artful referencing of recognisable visual icons of popular culture which for many people offers reassuringly familiar cloak in which to swaddle themselves.

Hollywood Stars paper dress, Warhol-style silkscreens of Hollywood actors’ faces; actors’ names and movie titles listed around hem of dress (centre) Robert Kennedy campaign paper dress, and (R) “LET’S GO” paper dress by Lincoln Mercury
(L) Mr. Freedom applique by Muriel Carter and Pam Keats from drawings by Mike Rogers. Photos: Peter Knapp. May 1970. Nova magazine. (R) Model Twiggy wears Mr. Freedom satin appliqué Mickey Mouse jersey top c.1970.


Op Art was a term coined in 1964. Optically distorted geometric patterns in black and white produced a whole range of movements on a surface. When applied to fabric it created a new bold look in fashion and accessories. Op Arts primary goal was to fool the eye. Bridget Riley’s dazzling black-and-white paintings triggered an ‘op art’ fashion craze in the 1960’s. Victor Vasarely was also an influence. Op’s greatest moment was the “The Responsive Eye” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965.

British artist Bridget Riley, whose series of monochrome paintings with an emphasis on optical effects, invigorated the Op Art movement around 1964 (though Riley had been producing Op Art as early as 1960). The movement culminated in an exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965 called “The Responsive Eye”. The popularity of the exhibition, and particularly Riley’s exhibits, fuelled a trend in monochrome fashion which resonated across the globe. Op Art is primarily two-dimensional mostly black and white patterns which optically distort and give the illusion of movement. When these seemingly fluid patterns are applied to stretch fabrics the resulting illusion of movement is two-fold. However, Op Art fashion clothing was at its effective best when replicated large-scale on sturdy fabrics such as cotton and PVC (possibly because of the similarity in surface appearance to the flat, painted canvas). Op Art style graphics were used on dresses, skirts, swim suits, hats, rain macintoshes and even footwear and utilised by both couturiers and mainstream fashion houses alike. The trend for Op Art waned towards the latter half of 1966 when mod fashions dissipated and psychedelia was on the rise but Pop Art would act as a suitable replacement for those still preferring their attire to exude an element of playfulness and humour.

As it had done with Op Art, the fashion industry was quick in embracing both the imagery and spirit of Pop Art, capitalising on its implied comparison to fast-paced consumerism. However, this time around the burgeoning youth fashion market in which bold design and bright colours were celebrated would be the primary target market since it was the largest demographic in fashion purchasing in the mid-1960s. Hence, Pop Art images were often applied to the simple shift dress to appeal to teenagers and young women. But unlike Op Art, which was used on a variety of materials, Pop Art designs were frequently applied to paper dresses in keeping with the idea of disposability and consumerism advocated by Pop Art.

The Op art movement was driven by artists who were interested in investigating various perceptual effects. Some did so out of sheer enthusiasm for research and experiment, some with the distant hope that the effects they mastered might find a wide public and hence integrate modern art into society in new ways. Rather like the geometric art from which it had sprung, Op art seemed to supply a style that was highly appropriate to modern society.

Although Op can be seen as the successor to geometric abstraction, its stress on illusion and perception suggests that it might also have older ancestors. It may descend from effects that were once popular with Old Masters, such as trompe l’oeil (French: “deceive the eye”). Or indeed from anamorphosis, the effect by which images are contorted so that objects are only fully recognizable when viewed from an oblique angle. Or, equally, Op may simply be a child of modern decoration.

The screen printed paper fashion dress was initially conceived in 1966 as a clever advertising gimmick by Scott Paper Company (the famous toilet tissue manufacturer) to promote a new range of colourful bathroom paper. Scott offered a disposal fashion dress for just $1.00 and twenty five cents postage. Customers could choose from two initial designs — the current yet declining Op Art trend or a distinctly cartoonish paisley design (whimsical enough so as not be associated with the unsavoury youths of the hippie movement).

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