Fashion dolls are dolls primarily designed to be dressed to reflect fashion trends. They are manufactured both as toys for children to play with and as collectibles for adult collectors. The term fashion doll has been used to describe at least four different types of dolls.
First, there are the pre-nineteenth-century dolls used to distribute information about Parisian fashion design. Adult female dolls with porcelain heads made in Paris from the 1850s to the 1890s have also been called ‘fashion dolls’ by collectors, as the North American plastic dolls, in adult female form, of the 1950s, who reflected aspects of French Haute Couture. Mattel’s Barbie doll can be linked to this latter phenomenon as she was developed through the late-1950s and was launched in 1959. Since the 1990s the term ‘fashion doll’ has described an adult female-styled doll, usually intended for adult collectors.
The term ‘fashion doll’ is used generally to distinguish the field of collecting Barbie dolls – and other dolls with strong reference to fashion and culture from the late-1950s to the present day – from more securely established collecting genres such as antique dolls, vintage dolls from the 1920s to 1950s, limited edition ‘artist’ or hand-crafted unique dolls or even the postwar favorite of tourist souvenir dolls.
The dressing on eighteenth-century dolls is extremely varied. Whilst some are dressed in motley, patched remnants of expensive silks, others are breathtakingly detailed in their replication of the fashion of the day. Complete eighteenth-century dolls are particularly instructive on essential habits of fashionable accessorizing. To their dresses are added lace fichus and cuffs, velvet chokers, matched bracelets, decorative fancy aprons, mittens, fabric flowers, and decorative choux. Headwear, from straw hats to indoor caps and lace tippets, is replicated with equal precision and variety.
Not only France circulated fashion dolls. Tsarina Elizabeth ordered dolls in 1751 from London to obtain up-to-date fashion information. Catherine the Great sent dolls from Saint Petersburg to Stockholm to show King Gustav III the original and novel items she herself had designed for her grandchildren. Von Boehn tracked a colonial trade in which dolls were sent from England to America throughout the eighteenth century. English dolls were still providing guidance to American women in 1796, twenty years after the Declaration of Independence, the new engravings and fashion magazines in Europe not with Consuming Dolls/Consuming Fashion standing.
If prior to 1790 dressed dolls from Paris were the most important source of fashion information in an international marketplace, in the mid-nineteenth century dolls were direct products of specialist workshops and small enterprises dealing in fine finishings, dress constructions and accessories. These small and exclusive studios in Paris were closely akin to Haute Couture ateliers and their supporting networks of specialist services and handworkers.
In the 1950s the North American vinyl and hard plastic fashion doll was a distant, unauthorized response to the allure of Paris fashion. By the 1990s the fashion doll was both a successful cross-marketing strategy between fashion houses, international and North American, and toy companies like Mattel. Dolls are counted among the profusion of ubiquitous licensed products of present-day couture houses. The doll is also a point of access for fashionistas of low income to the allure of Haute Couture. Through dolls such as Gene, Madra, Kitty Collier, Cissy, Coco, Coceaux, Brenda Starr, and the Barbie Fashion Models – all of which have been presented to collectors in the later-1990s – the fashion doll allows many collectors to engage with the ‘golden age’ of twentieth-century French couture when authenticated models by Vionnet and Fortuny fetch sums at auction comparable to public gallery quality artworks.