Ersatz – German Paper Fashions from the Great War

The Great War caused great shortages of wool, leather, and linen – materials required for making uniforms and airplane wings. These materials were in especially short supply in Germany and Austria where paper was developed as a substitute textile for making civilian clothing.  

Before the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, American publications ran articles about Germany’s inventiveness in developing ersatz materials. In January 1917, the New York Sun reported that the Germans had developed paper-based threads for making “…girdles, doilies, aprons, working garments… the inventors have discovered a way to give the ‘paper cloth’ great resistance to dampness…” Paper cloth, woven from tightly twisted paper threads, resembled a coarse linen or hemp burlap that had been originally developed for making sacks.

German corset made of paper cloth, c. 1917 – 1920

Shortages did not end with the war in Germany and Austria, where paper clothing continued to be made. In 1920, the U.S. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce imported a selection of Austrian paper clothing items to display on a tour around the country. When the Washington exhibit opened in September 1920, the Associated Press reported that “one suit is quoted at fifteen cents, and is washable…” The Washington, D.C., Evening Star reported, German-made suits were selling in London for the equivalent of 46 cents to $1.95, and that a man could buy a new suit each week of the year for less than the cost of a wool suit.

The U.S. trade publication Textile Worldnoted “It seems quite evident now that the German and Austrian manufacturers intend to cover the markets of the world with their paper substitutes for real clothing… Officials in Washington do not believe that this competition will ever be felt in the United States. The material used in the German product is too coarse and crude to meet with favor here to any extent unless many refinements are adopted.” 

close up of paper fabric

Although paper clothing piqued curiosity, the public remained unconvinced and consumers preferred to wear cloth made of traditional fibres. Ironically, rayon, which was made from chemically processed wood pulp (the same raw material as paper), became the best selling new fibre of the 1920s.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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