Fashion Dolls: Pandoras to Barbies

The doll is frequently discussed within the context of childhood. Rarely do we regard the doll as anything outside of this realm. As an owner of many dolls myself, reference to the doll often leads to the reminiscence of my younger self playing with many of these toys, such as the Baby Born, who allowed me to pretend that I was a doting mother during the 1990’s.

I would later collect fashionable Barbies and Bratz dolls, with all of their clothes and accessories to meticulously dress, undress, and redress their plastic bodies. I styled them, created personalities for them; the Barbies and Bratz I played with could be anyone; I imagined them as actresses, artists, babysitters, cheerleaders and socialites.

I would finally act as the chief interior designer to my beautifully handmade bespoke dolls house, created in the style of a late Victorian home (fully furnished, and electrically lit). I would spend hours flicking through specialist magazines dedicated to dolls house furniture and furnishings, envisioning the miniature interiors I would create for my doll family. A possession passed down to my younger sister, it is a toy that I have kept and cherished.

dolls house

W.146-1921. Miss Miles’ dolls house. c1890. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Dolls are often critiqued rather than celebrated within academic fields such as material culture, gender studies, and anthropology and sociology. Most dolls which are studied, with acceptance of some Action Men, are mostly female, leading many to question whether the Barbie is an unrealistic and therefore unhealthy representation of the female body. Historically, the Barbie has promoted a specific body culture, excluding those who do not fit Barbie’s race, age, gender, and body shape. There has been increased anxiety surrounding the exposure of children to the clothing, shoes and accessories dolls such as Barbie are dressed in – are they sexually inappropriate? Furthermore, for many feminist researchers, dolls replicating the image of new-born babies, are again treated with caution, as many argue that they are guilty of enforcing stereotypical gender roles through the act of play.

doll barbie

B.73:1 to 10-2010. Barbie. c1961. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

But has anyone ever considered the impact of the doll within the field of fashion history? Not many historians have, however this is something that Juliette Peers within her seminal text, The Fashion Doll: From Bebe Jumeau to Barbie has attempted to correct. Her insightful and informative text, has achieved a great deal in establishing that dolls, and fashion dolls in particular, played a pivotal role in disseminating the latest court and haute couture fashions from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not only do fashion dolls circulate widely during the 18th and 19th centuries, but they additionally reappear twice after the end of World War Two. They notably play a significant role in the Théâtre de la Mode, a travelling tour which aimed to promote French haute couture throughout a time of rationing and austerity between 1945-6. After this period, the dolls were used again in 1949. This time, the dolls were sent back to America on the ‘Gratitude Train,’ gifts sent from France to America to thank the country for its help during and after the French Occupation.

18th Century Dolls

The Pandora, as they were often called, were fashion dolls created during the seventeenth century to disseminate fashion across Western countries until their decline from around 1790 onwards.[1] Demonstrating a high level of bespoke skill and craftsmanship, they emulated the latest fashion trends, using the most expensive and desirable materials available.

Above Images: T.90 to V-1980. Fashion doll with accessories (pandora). c1755-60. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Pandora was a successful method by which trends in colour, fabric and adornment could be communicated to clients and wealthy individuals who often frequented court and required a varied wardrobe to accommodate for their lifestyle. Pandoras allowed individuals to feel fabric, and observe the detail in which dressmakers and seamstresses created their garments, indicating their expertise. They are examples of material culture that not only inform the modern-day interpreter of historical fashions, but they additionally offered prospective customers (and now twenty-first century researchers!) the opportunity to learn about the latest fashions and textiles without sacrificing sensory experiences such as touch.

doll boston museum

43.1772a-b. Fashion doll gown created in a robe robe à la française style. Boston Art Museum. c1750-1790.

Because the fashion doll was considered to be so lucrative during the seventeenth century, they were given exclusive permission to cross borders unchallenged during times of war between Britain and France. The trade of these dolls was well organised, and was respected as both a ‘social trend and creative genre’ not just between the two countries, but stretching across Europe.[1] According to Peers, the fashion doll during the eighteenth century was prototypically breath-taking in its replicated detail, giving instructive advice on how to wear the latest fichus, cuffs and chokers.[2]

19th Century Dolls 

If the dolls of the 17th and 18th century excelled in exquisite attention to detail, the 19th century fashion doll would follow in its footsteps by promoting French haute couture. Specialist workshops and ateliers paralleled couture houses by creating dolls who would model luxurious couture styles. Although by the 1900’s, the popularity of the fashion doll waned, it nevertheless maintained a period of success from 1860-1880.[3]

doll 1825

T.138-1929. Fashion doll. c1825-30. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Similarly, the fashion doll and her coinciding wardrobe of the 19th century was marketed to those who could afford haute couture; the upper-classes of society. She exhibited everything extravagant about high fashion, glorifying all that could be brought for her.[4] However, Peers also suggests that the fashion doll appeared to a more rebellious consumer, a young woman who rejected or refused the idea of stereotypical womanhood. As Peers concludes, the fashion doll represented ‘uncertainties about movements and advances in female fashion,’ perhaps because haute couture and its rooted tradition, was endlessly changing in order to adapt to the lifestyles and attitudes of a new type of woman emerging throughout the progression of the 19th century.[5]

doll 1860

79.1336. French fashion doll. c1860-1915. Gaultier and Gesland. Museum of Play, New York.

doll paper 1932

T.361:3-1998. Paper dolls. c1932. Anne Sanders Wilson. Watercolour painted on card. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

20th Century Dolls

Our final study of the fashion doll ends with its appearance during the 1940’s – once in 1945-6 and later in 1949. Throughout WW2, haute couture – and thus France’s national identity – was always at threat. Head of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Lucien Lelong, battled to keep couture within Paris despite the efforts of the Nazi’s to relocate it to either Austria or Berlin. Once Lelong secured Paris as the home of haute couture, and the Occupation had finally ended, Parisian couturiers turned their attention back to creating and marketing post-war haute couture to the world. After such a long time without consistent communication, how could the struggling couturiers promote their designs to the international stage with such strict fabric enforced on them? How would couture, with its luxurious reputation, be created without the quality textiles it was renowned for?

doll paris theatre

Above Images: Théâtre de la Mode installation. Maryhill Museum of Art. [n.d].

The idea then, rather to create full-scale couture designs, was to produce fashion which could be modelled by fashion dolls or as they were called ‘petite-mains,’ which could be transported easily around the world to countries such as America. Around forty couturiers created garments from materials found within their own ateliers – attempting to be as resourceful as possible. Even the mannequins themselves, were created from salvaged wired metal. Artists such as Jean Cocteau, were approached to produce the set designs used as a backdrop for the display of the mannequins, and the Théâtre de la Mode was born.[6]

Not only was the tour a display of skill, it was a demonstration of French patriotism and resistance. The haute couturiers were determined to show the world that haute couture had not diminished into the background, particularly when both British and American designers during this time were becoming increasingly popular. It raised money for survivors of the war, but additionally reinforced French culture and revived the economy of the fashion industry.

Although the fashion dolls were left in America once the tour had finished during 1946, The Metropolitan Museum of Art states that the idea of the fashion doll was again used for the so-called ‘Gratitude Train.’ The concept, was as followed:

‘in 1947, in response to the suffering of post-World War II France, an American grassroots campaign organized a large-scale relief package. The following year France, moved by this generosity, organized a gift in kind. As the aide was sent to France housed in boxcars and dubbed the “American Friendship Train” the French created the “Gratitude” or “Merci Train”, a set of 49 boxcars filled with gifts of thanks.’[7]

doll schiaparelli

2009.300.1445a–d. 1906 Doll. c1949. Elsa Schiaparelli. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The contents of the boxcars varied, however the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture de Parisienne decided to send fashion dolls which did not model the latest trends, but instead a different costume from each period of French fashion history from 1715 to 1906. Again, the very best designers were consulted, including Schiaparelli, Doucet, Patou, Paquin and Molyneux.

doll balenciaga

2009.300.716a, b. 1870 Doll. c1949. Balenciaga.

doll molyneux

2009.300.703a–c. 1762 doll. c1949. Edward Molyneux. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

What About Now? 

Although fashion dolls are rarely used today, there are some who continue to make bespoke dolls according to their clients specifications. Doll creator Rafinha Silva continues this tradition by creating his own dolls which you can view on his Instagram page – We Love the Royal Dolls. He produces dolls which have custom-created skin tones, hair, nail colour, make-up and body shapes.


[1] Juliette Peers, The Fashion Doll: From Bébé Jumeau to Barbie (Oxford: Berg, 2004) 16.

[2] Peers, The Fashion Doll, 18.

[3] Peers, The Fashion Doll, 19.

[4] Peers, The Fashion Doll, 67.

[5] Peers, The Fashion Doll, 67.

[6] Peers, The Fashion Doll, 113.

[67 The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

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