“Fashion doll” must be considered a very loose term. Sometimes it is used to indicate decorative figures usually produced as a series. Many times they are attired in historical dress. Additionally, notable people dress these dolls for charitable purposes. But there are other candidates for the term as well.
Historically the primary role of a doll has been as a companion and teaching tool for the young. Doll-like figures have additionally played roles in religious, artistic, and fashion-related endeavors. Neither methods nor materials of construction, nor supporting devices, are indicators of possible primary intention. Except for the earliest examples, dolls and figures addressing the subject of fashion range in height from under an inch to, in rare exceptions, nearly three feet.
What in the early twenty-first century might be recognized as a true “fashion doll” were those figures that were sent around to the wealthy and stylish individuals and centers of Europe and, later, American colonies. According to Max von Boehm, the first recorded wardrobed fashion doll—she was life size—went from the French to English court in 1396. By the seventeenth century, when these French figures were known as “Pandora,” the dressing of the head and hair was as important as the garment. And by the eighteenth century the British were not only receiving but also sending their own versions of these figures, which seem from the records to have continued the tradition of being life, or near-life, size. The size perhaps explains why attempts to relate surviving play-dolls from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to fashion dolls has been unsuccessful.
With the introduction of printed images of fashion, the need for the expensive creation and transport of a fashionably dressed three-dimensional figure diminished. Picking up on speed with which printed fashion illustrations could be distributed, French publishers began issuing both boxed sets and serialized accessorized paper dolls. For nearly a generation, circa 1825-1850, this type of doll was an important purveyor of fashion information.
While commercially assembled play-dolls continued to be dressed in current styles, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that French doll distributors took a renewed interest in offering a variety of outfits and accessories based on the latest modes. Known to doll collectors as French Fashion dolls, these dolls—whatever their body material and articulation—feature a nipped-in waist that makes the dolls suitable for dressing in the waves of latest fashions for toddlers, children, men, and women between about 1850 and 1900. Produced in a defined section of Paris, most of the apparel for these dolls is so finely constructed that they are truly fashions in miniature, even down to the stamped waistband and hat labels found in Maison Huret apparel.
It was these play dolls that inspired the Tina Cassini, a doll whose wardrobe was the creation of the American designer Oleg Cassini, and her contemporary, Barbie, the iconic fashion doll of the twentieth century. Not only has Barbie been dressed by a studio of personal designers, including Bob Mackie, but other internationally recognized fashion designers from time to time outfitted her and her family for purposes of charity, publicity, and pure promotion. Indeed, since about 1890 French and other fashion designers have dressed dolls in their creations for purposes of international exhibitions and fund-raising. Jeanne Lanvin, in the 1910s, dressed dolls with porcelain heads made by Sévres, while Margaine-Lacroix dressed those with heads designed by Albert Marque. In the 1930s a consortium of French fashion houses dressed France and Marianne in up-to-the-minute detail for the British princesses.
On a parallel track beginning in France in the early 1890s was the fashionable dressing of dolls and specifically designed figures solely for the purpose of display and not play. Usually these display figures in series were, in the traditional French manner, attached to a base. The series frequently illustrated the history of fashion especially as drawn from lifetime or imagined portraits of notables, usually women. The trend was begun by Mme Piogey in 1892 with a thousand years of French fashion shown on sixteen dolls, the 1893 Columbian Exhibition display of twenty-five French queens, and the sixteen dolls exhibited by Mme Charles Cousson, whose creations in the early 2000s can be found at Paris’s Musée des Arts Decoratif. Respected museums on both sides of the Atlantic would add such figures to their collection, with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, under the museum’s textile curator, Frances Morris, accessioning the now deaccessioned representations of seven centuries of feminine fashion. As part of the 1949 French Gratitude Train, forty-nine mannequin dolls attired to represent two centuries of French fashion were created, to complement Theatre de la Mode figures by members of the Syndicat de la Couture de Paris. These figures are currently found in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In the United States, the tradition of dressing figures in historical fashion has been carried on by a number of artists/designers, including Jacques and France Rommel and John Burbridge.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, the wax-headed figures in contemporary dress of Mmes Lafitte and Désirat were featured in international press. At this time other concerns lured or interpreted the creations of contemporary French designers, such as Jacques Doucet and Paul Poiret. In the early twenty-first century the best-recognized effort to document a moment of fashion is found at Maryhill, a school in Oregon. There reside the figures for the Theatre de la Mode created by members of the French haute couture and related trades— Dessès, Molyneux, Grès, Patou, Fath, Balenciaga, Dior, etc. Assembled just after World War II, these figures represent an attempt to remind the world of the artistic uniqueness of all the components of French fashion.
During the American Civil War, as raffle items at Sanitary Fairs, a variety of dolls were dressed and outfitted with complex and elaborate wardrobes. Many of these were called Flora McFlimsey, after the subject of a period poem who was convinced she had nothing to wear, thus leading her to undertake frantic shopping trips to Paris. In the early 2000s, such charitable work continued as fashion designers were asked to dress dolls in signature outfits; sometimes they chose the doll, sometimes the doll was chosen for them—which returns this article to the original dilemma of what exactly constitutes a “fashion doll.” Now add to the mix fashion dolls designed specifically for a new category: collectors. Current collectors’ fashion dolls include most prominently those of Mel Odom, Gene; and Robert Tonner, Tyler Wentworth. These dolls, and their attendant “family” members have been created specifically as models for high-fashion garments: Gene, the World War II and postwar model and Tyler Wentworth, the contemporary spirit.
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