The Design Observer Group


Posted 08.12.09


Alexandra Lange

Fashion Plates


Do little girls still play with paper dolls? The only two I know have never really liked dolls, inclining more to animals, minerals and science, so I can’t go by them. I have seen the dreadful Polly Pockets, which seems like one modern-day equivalent, with little garish snap-on outfits, including mini-skirts the size of my thumnail. And I know there are lots of websites, for children and adults, where you can click and drag and color new outfits. But those seem to lead straight down the hell-highway to makeover shows.

Neither of those play experiences really compares to the awkward pleasures of paper dolls. I had an extensive collection, from the Norwegian folk costumes pictured above, to Kate Greenaway lovelies in big flowered hats, to slinky Dover film stars of the 1930s. Some were awfully hard to cut out, especially with safety scissors, and I often snipped off a tab by mistake. There was also the matter of the hats, which frequently required a curvy cut in the middle of the paper. I sometimes had to ask my mother to make those cuts with her X-acto knife.

With paper dolls, I could also add my own ideas. I had jars with hundreds of colored pencils, as well as a big flat metal box with 101 Pentel markers, and while I often drew ladies in outlandish outfits (paniers and petticoats often featured) and all their color and stylistic variations on pads, I also added to each paper doll’s wardrobe, as well as drawing up my own dolls. Each doll got her own homemade envelope as well, carefully labeled with her name and any identifying details, like what made-up country she was the ruler of.

The commercial dolls were a gateway to further creative pursuits, and cutting out the clothes brought me in close to the different ways in which the dolls were drawn, as well as the complicated and outdated garments. As previously noted, I am a Project Runway partisan, and I suspect my fashion education may have started with my paper dolls. It certainly didn’t come from the streets of Cambridge, MA or Durham, NC (both flowered-skirt central), and I never subscribed to Vogue until I was in my 20s, and then with some trepidation. Fashion for little girls is an endless parade of color and creativity, fabric and layering, and paper dolls, despite their obvious restrictions (flimsiness, two dimensionality) let me and my friends make my room into a runway, no models required.