On a paper moon

We’ve been getting ready for one of our big History Festival events, Dressing Up, a pop up display of costume and related activities. As part of the fun we decided we needed a photo booth or backdrop for people to capture and share their own experience of the event and create their own memories. The paper moon was born.

As the Dressing Up event is all about the history of costume we wanted to include a fun place where people could literally dress up, in period costume, fancy dress or just something that took their fancy. A pop-up museum as part of the three day event brings together costume and related objects from twelve community museums alongside History SA’s three museums, the Migration Museum, National Motor Museum and South Australian Maritime Museum. A series of talks and workshops over this weekend will examine different aspects of costume history, including how underwear and changing fashions have shaped ‘ideal’ body shape over time, different traditions of cultural costumes, best practice and advice in caring for textiles, swimwear history and more.

The paper moon is intended as a way for people to have a bit of fun and get hands on with the theme of dressing up. Judging by the response from guests and staff at our preview evening it’s a popular feature.

The initial inspiration for the paper moon came from an image in the Migration Museum collection of Gladys Sym Choon and her mother sitting on a moon in a photo booth or studio, possibly at the St. Kilda funfair in Melbourne, c. 1920-1939. Paper moons were a feature of travelling fairs, as a photo booth where people would go to have their picture taken by a professional photographer, at a time when photography was not as accessible to everyday people.

Image: black and white photo of two women on paper moon

A little bit of research turned up many more examples. Paper moons were particularly popular from the 1900s through to the 1930s, and especially in the United States, though examples exist from other countries, including Australia.

The song It’s only a paper moon was published in 1933 and the movie Paper Moon was released in the 1970s, by which time the paper moon photo booths were no longer as common themselves. Developments in photography through the early twentieth century meant more and more people had access to equipment. The popular box brownie camera sold in large numbers in the 1950s and ’60s, and amateur photography  was common by the 1970s. These trends saw the staged backdrop and booth superseded by personal photography.

Nowadays with technological advances, the proliferation of smart phones, and the social web the ‘vintage’ photo booth is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, albeit with a modern twist. New props, hashtags and instant social sharing means it has never been a better time to bring back the paper moon.

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