The Fashion Doll

5:35 PM

Today's topic is the fashion doll, and it's place in three moments in time.

The 18th Century

Back in the days before mass media, the latest trends needed to be disseminated to the general public. There were fashion plates, which illustrated the latest styles. But as we all know, seeing a dress in a magazine and seeing it in the store are two very different things. Furthermore, clothing was extremely extremely expensive. If the rich and fabulous were going to be spending that much money on something, they had better know exactly what they were getting. Enter the fashion doll, aka Pandoras, aka poupées de mode aka Queen Anne Dolls (called so because Queen Anne (1665-1714) was a huge fan of the dolls). Scholars differ on the origin of the fashion doll. Some trace it to seventeenth century France, others trace it to Renaissance Italy.

A fashion doll was made of either wood or plaster, and had a painted on face (some even had glass eyes) and a fashionable hairstyle made from flax or wool. They showcased the latest fashions coming from Paris, which was already the fashion capital of the world, and were shipped all over the world. Their importance was so great that they even received diplomatic immunity. In 1712, for example, when France and England were at war with each other again, fashion dolls were exempt from the embargo on enemy imports, given an "inviolable passport", and even a cavalry escort. These dolls showcased the couture of the day, the highest and newest of styles, and women clamored for them. After all, fashion takes precedence over everything. Even religion, as one satirist noted.

When Marie Antoinette was picking out her wedding trousseau for her marriage to Louis XVI, Hofburg was filled to the brim with fashion dolls bearing the latest Parisian styles. Carrolly Erickson describes the array as wearing "ball gowns, afternoon dresses, robes and petticoats in a score of delicate shades, the silks embroidered with floral designs or silk ribbon applique, the borders trimmed with serpentine garlands of silver and gold lace,... already over-decorated fabrics [trimmed] with fields of artificial flowers, feathers, tassels and silk ribbon bows, rosettes and ruffles, passementerie and beading and costly metallic fringe". Yeah, you know you're jealous. After Marie Antoinette's ascension to the French throne, her favorite designer Rose Bertin created a life size fashion doll in the likeness of the queen on which to display her latest creations. This had been done before, with Louis XV's mistress Madame Pompadour, which not only featured a fashionable wardrobe but also a book of directions on how you too can dress this fabulously.

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The 20th Century

Fashion dolls emerged out of the need to get information from one place to the other. With the technical innovations of the 20th century, the fashion doll seems to be an obsolete article of the past. However, the fashion dolls made their triumphant return in 1945.

In 1944, France was liberated from German occupation, but their economy was in ruins and many people were without food or homes. Raoul Dautry, the head of L'Entraide Francaise, the organization responsible for providing war relief, decided to ask the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne (the organization which is basically the head of the haute couture world) if the couturiers would get together and organize something to show off French couture to a world which had been isolated from it, and at the same time raise money for L'Entraide Francaise.

What was decided on was the use of dolls, 27 inches tall, dressed in exact replicas of the couture collections. Everything from hats to shoes to furs to accessories were replicated in exact and miniature detail. To avoid the connotations of dolls as toys, and to create something new, it was decided that the dolls should not be solid. Artist Eliane Bonabel designed basic wire structures to exhibit the outfits, and Catalan sculptor Rebull created heads so that the dolls could have fashionable hairstyles. Robert Ricci, Dautry's friend at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne, came up with the idea to display the dolls in little sets designed by the couturiers, all housed in a little theater. The project then took on the name Théâtre de la Mode.

On March 27, 1945, the exhibition opened to the public at the Pavillion Marsan. It was a smash hit, people from the war torn country being desperate for glamor, beauty, and a bit of normalcy in their lives. Besides the hauntingly lit dolls in their sets, there was also a display about the couture industry and historic fashion drawings. The exhibition brought in a million francs for the relief effort, and brought couture back to the forefront of the social consciousness. After the war ended in 1945, Dautry decided to take the exhibition on tour, saying "France has little, alas, to export, but she has her appreciation of beautiful things and the skill of her couture houses..." The tour made it all the way to America, where the dolls were seen, stored away, and largely forgotten. In 1952, they were moved from their makeshift storage to the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington, where they were once again forgotten. Then, in 1983, they were found by historian Stanley Garfinkel, and in 1990 the restored dolls were put on display once again. David Seidner took new photographs of the dolls, which were recently put on exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York City, along with one of the original dolls. I was lucky enough to get to see these photographs, as well as the doll, which was simply stunning. The sheer talent that went into making the little blue polka dot dress blew me away. If you would like to know more about the Théâtre de la Mode, as well as see beautiful pictures of the dolls in their recreated settings and Seidner's photographs, I highly recommend getting the book Théâtre de la Mode- Fashion Dolls: The Survival of Haute Couture.

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One of David Seidner's photographs.



The 21st Century

I was very interested to recently discover that the fashion doll has made a reappearance, this time as art. Artist and former Dennis Basso employee Andrew Yang has begun making "supermodel rag dolls", which sell for $600 (hearkening back to the days centuries ago when only the rich and fabulous could afford to buy a doll of their very own) and feature perfect miniature replicas of the clothes and hairstyles featured on the Spring 2010 runway. Unlike the incarnations before them, these dolls are not used to share fashion ideas with the world. Instead, they are art, an expensive decoration for the fashionable mind to display in their home. Thus the purpose of the fashion doll has transformed from practical to artistic, reinforcing the notion that clothes are not just something you put on your body, but can be an artistic expression of ideas and individuality.

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From left to right: Katie Eary, Gareth Pugh, Rick Owens; Lanvin.

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From left to right: Comme Des Garçons; Marc Jacobs.


Note the hairstyles of a few of these dolls. The updo is reminiscent of the tall hairstyles worn by fashionable ladies in the late 18th century, a trend popularized by Marie Antoinette. I just thought the parallel was interesting.

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