Northern Threads: Early Republic era Fashion dolls

Introductory text by Libby Bischof, Executive Director, Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, and Professor of History, University of Southern Maine.

While we often think of dolls as children’s playthings or the domain of the collector, these dolls, dating from circa 1787-1820, were neither. Rather, these jauntily clad figures were designed to display the latest fashion trends in three dimensional form. Long before women pored over fashion magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book (1830–1878), or put together paper dolls, merchants used small, lifelike fashion dolls with painted plaster or wooden faces, as a way for wealthy consumers to see and sample contemporary styles before committing to the expense of having a dress or a suit custom made.

For more than four centuries, royal courts in Europe prized such dolls, sometimes called pandoras or fashion babies, as commodities. Wealthy people of various nations exchanged them to promote and display high fashion, as well as traditional local costumes. French fashion houses showed off the latest trends in dresses and coiffure by sending out dolls and exhibiting them in local shows. In addition to featuring popular hairstyles, fabrics, and designs, many of the dolls also came with accessories like the parasol, jewelry, millinery, and footwear on view here.

By the 19th century, tailor and dress shops frequently displayed dolls in windows—especially the young man in the velvet top hat—as advertisements for the ready-made clothing that became common during the Industrial Revolution. Like the full-sized clothing on display throughout the gallery, these small fashion dolls help us to understand changing styles over time, as well as the ways people communicated information about transatlantic trends prior to the introduction of fashion magazines.

Return to Part I

Return to Part I

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

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