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Pile of Paper

This show has some interesting work, but needs serious editing.

Paper is fragile and disposable. It is the stuff of napkins, news­papers, grocery sacks, magazines and paper­backs. Making clothes out of it is the definition of counterintuitive, but paper clothes were big for a brief period of the mid-1960s. Considered avant-garde and futuristically practical, paper wear was the subject of a 1967 Look magazine spread titled "Paper: Posh, Disposable Elegance." A 1966 Life magazine article called it "the answer to laundry in outer space" — where, of course, we would all be living very soon.

"The Paper Runway" at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft features an abundance of paper fashion by contemporary creators, as well as a few of those period pieces. Organized by the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the juried exhibition is in dire need of editing. I walked into this jam-packed show and almost walked immediately out. There's enough crappy, hokey work here to fill a recycling Dumpster, and it overwhelms the truly interesting pieces. That said, the show is worth seeing. But you've got to really dig to get to the good stuff.

One of the standouts is a great mid-'60s A-line paper dress, produced by the Mars Manufacturing company of Asheville, North Carolina, the self-proclaimed "Pioneer in Disposable Fashion" and "Waste Basket Boutique." (The wall label identifies the dress as 1950s, but the company didn't produce dresses until 1966.) Mars Manufacturing started making the dresses when it got wind of Scott paper products' promotional paper dress designs. The company beat Scott to market, and at one point in the late 1960s was selling 80,000 paper dresses a week. The specimen on view might once have been white, but now has the hue of old news­papers. It has a keyhole neck with black string tie and a black-and-gray pattern of bold baroque swirls and florals. The manufacturer ingeniously had the "fabric" printed with patterns by a gift wrap manufacturer.

The piece has a wonderful label that instructs you not to wash it or dry-clean it. No doubt that would take out the dress, but the warning states that it will ruin the "flame retardant" properties. (This was back when everybody smoked, and the things were soaked with more chemicals than a shipping container of 1970s toddler pajamas.)

There's another great 1960s dress by Hallmark with a cheery pink-and-green floral print and the de rigueur A-line style. The company presented its dresses as an inexpensive way to keep up with the latest fashion, and also made paper cups, plates and napkins to match them, for the hostess equivalent of a gesamtkunstwerk. Do not wear in hurricane season.

Unfortunately, this show is as badly hung as it is overcrowded, and right smack in the middle of these two period dresses is a contemporary contribution that seems like it's supposed to be wearable as well. A long, boxy shift that would look like hell on and would doubtless rip when you walked, it's made out of "marbleized" coffee filters applied like fish scales. Placed between the two crisp A-lines, the dress looks like an ugly stepsister.

Also in the wearable category is the traditional Shifu paper clothing, made with a technique started in 16th-century Japan as a means for peasants to clothe themselves. It's created by Deepak Shrestha from Tibet, where a similar technique was practiced. The artist rendered long fibers from the Daphne plant to create paper sheets that are then cut into thin strips and rubbed against rocks to form strings that can be woven into cloth. It's an interesting process, and the clothes are inoffensive — loose and linen-­looking. The styles are similar to ready-to-wear clothing found at retailers who specialize in unstructured clothing in natural fibers.

There are some other nice things. Rebecca Siemering's suit made out of cut-up scratch-off lottery tickets is colorfully amusing. Robert Ryan's Tyvek and paper dress with overlapping black and white cut-out silhouettes is decent enough to send him on to the next round in a Project Runway challenge. Jill Powers offers a pair of pumps in a gauzy-looking Cinderella shape, molded from Kozo fibers and waxed linen.

But the show's absolute standout is Nancy VanDevender's Ruffled Tattoo Jacket, a long, sweeping, belted wrap coat of what looks to be vinyl-coated paper. It's digitally printed with a funky pattern of drawn and photographed ruffles. The sleeves and edges are cut to follow the ruffles' outlines. It's hip, witty, modern, well designed and dramatic. You can't say that about much else in the show.

There is also a lot of mediocre stuff. Erica Spitzer Rasmussen's jacket made out of hair and teabags is weird, but not weird enough to be really interesting. Betsy Dollar's trio of black paper dresses would be inoffensive if their maker hadn't seen fit to attach big tags labeling them things like "The Sprite" and "The Matriarch," complete with motivational statements printed on the breasts of the dresses themselves. The "Matriarch" coat dress bears the inscriptions "I feel radiant," "I am strong" and "I am in control," while the "Sprite" baby doll dress proclaims "I feel pretty," " I look amazing" and "I am unstoppable." Somebody has read way too many self-empowerment books. And speaking of way too many, the show has an epidemic of molded bodices and bustiers that could pass for scoliosis braces.

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