History of Fashion Dolls

The article came from my notes for a talk, they are not properly sited so that if you want to use the information below for a paper, I suggest that you go back to my sources listed below. The majority of the information came from Antonia Fraser book all of the books below have photos and drawings that add greatly to subject.

THE HISTORY OF the Fashion dolls was at first closely bound up with that of France. It confirms the natural pre-eminence of Paris in the world of fashion to find an English Queen sending over for the latest French styles as early as the fourteenth century, presumably unsatisfied by the products of her native country. For the Fashion doll was the earliest method of illustrating for foreigners the current mode in full and copyable detail-a role later filled by the prettily designed fashion plate, and still later by the glossy fashion magazine. The Fashion doll makes its first appearance long before such mechanical means of reproduction as the woodcut and the copperplate. The immense detail of its attire was the most convenient form of conveying correctly the latest vagaries of dress, word-of-mouth being notoriously unreliable and vague.
What were the early Fashion dolls like? There are a number of literary references to provide us with clues. In 1396 there is a record of Robert de Varennes, the Court tailor of Charles VI, receiving 450 francs for a doll's wardrobe which he had executed, to be sent by Queen Isabeau of Bavaria to the Queen of England. As this was a considerable sum for those days, it is to be assumed that the dolls were life-size dummies, made to the measurements of the English Queen. Again in 1496 we find Queen Anne of Brittany, ordering a large doll to be dressed for the Spanish Queen Isabella the Catholic, who was famous for the attention which she lavished on her dress. So high were her standards considered to be, in fact, that the doll was dressed twice over, in an effort to satisfy her.
When Henry IV of France was about to marry Marie de Medici as his second wife, he sent her several model dolls 'as samples of our fashions', presumably to impress her with the desirability of life at the French court. From all this we can conclude that early Fashion dolls were on a larger scale and more richly dressed than the ordinary play-dolls of the same period.
It became the fashion for ladies to own a pair of dolls, one dressed en grand toilette, and the other en de'shabille. These were known as the Grande Pandore and the Petite Pandore respectively, and they were the subjects of every extravagant whim of stylish dressing: hats, dresses, shoes, elaborate hairstyles and a great deal of miniature beads and jewelry.
What began as an aristocractic whim developed into an important part of the high fashion trade of the seventeenth century. These Pandoras were sent out by French fashion houses to England, Germany, Spain and Italy, sometimes to exhibit the details of their dress, and sometimes for the details of their coiffure alone-as in a doll which Madame de Sevigne sent to her daughter, or the thirty coiffured dolls which were exhibited at the annual show of Saint-Ovide in 1763.
The importance of the Parisian fashion doll to Venice is illustrated by the fact that at the Sensa, the fourteen-day fair in the Piazza San Marco, a doll was annually exhibited clad in the latest fashion from France, and for the next twelve months this was sedulously copied by local dressmakers as the current style, until the next little ambassadress arrived to supersede it.
The great age of the Fashion doll, however, was the eighteenth century, when European travel became freer, and numerous small continental courts sprang up and flourished, with consequent demands upon the wardrobes of their great ladies.
Nevertheless it was always with England that the main French fashion trade was exchanged even during war of the Spanish Succession, when the hostilities between the two countries might have been expected to hinder such frivolous interchanges. The Abbe Prevost, writing in 1704 at the height of the war, observed: 'By an act of gallantry which is worthy of being noted in the chronicles of history for the benefit of the ladies, the ministers of both courts granted a special pass to the mannequin , that pass was always respected, and during the times of greatest enmity experienced on both sides the mannequin was the one object which remained unmolested'. And in 1712, when an embittered peace was still two years away, an announcement appeared in the English papers to the effect that 'last Saturday the French doll for the year 1712 arrived at my house in King Street, Covent Garden'.
There are frequent instances of Anglo-French co-operation in fashion throughout the eighteenth century. During the Regency, Dubois, the French Ambassador to London, later Cardinal Dubois, wrote to a Parisian dressmaker named Mademoiselle Filon, commissioning a large mannequin to show the ladies of London how the ladies of Paris were dressed, even down to the details of their underclothing. The answer was that a mannequin of this type would cost at least 300 francs, and Mademoiselle Filon would not risk the expense unless she was sure of being reimbursed. One imagines that the future Cardinal, rather than disappoint the ladies of the country to which he was then accredited, proceeded then to forward the money.
As their importance grew, the Pandoras came to be known as poupees de la Rue de Saint-Honore', or even les grands courriers de la mode, under which title they were invoiced as having arrived at Dover in 1764. The usefulness of making the Pandoras life-size became apparent, for it was possible for customers not only to copy the clothes, but also to fit the actual dolls' clothes onto themselves, in rather the same way as model dresses today can be sometimes bought directly from French couturiers without fittings, after having been displayed for a season in the dress show.
In 1788 a Parisian milliner, Madame Eloffe, supplied one of her customers with a life-size doll in Court Dress. Rose Bertin, milliner and modiste to the Queen Marie Antoinette, was commissioned to supply a doll for New Year's Day for Madame Dillon's little daughter, of which she has left us a full description in her account books: 'It was a big doll with springs, a well made foot and a very good wig, a fine linen chemise; silk stockings and a long well boned corset'. She also gave a list of the doll's ball dresses, her gowns of gauze and brocade, muslin and lace, and her caps and plumed hats.
Marie Antoinette herself used Rose Bertin to dress up dolls in the latest fashion for her sisters and her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Nor did the French Revolution put an end to the fortunes of this illustrious modiste: she set up in business in London for a while, in order to serve her old clients among the emigres, and her fashion dolls continued to circulate to the other European capitals, as far away even as St Petersburg.
The French Revolution had an indirect effect on the dressing of fashion dolls - for by driving a number of aristocratic ladies to London as penniless emigrees, it inadvertently threw a labour force of skilled embroideresses upon the market. These ladies now supported themselves desperately with a craft which had once been used merely to while away an idle hour: and the result was a quantity of exquisitely hand-embroidered garments for the Fashion dolls of the time.
French Fashion dolls were not the only ones to adventure across water: throughout the eighteenth century, native English Fashion dolls also crossed the Atlantic to popularize English fashions in America, as we know from advertisements in the New York and Boston papers of the time. An advertisement in the New England Weekly Journal of July 12, 1733, reads: 'At Mrs Hannah Teats, dressmaker at the top of Summer Street, Boston, is to be seen a mannequin in the latest fashion, with articles of dress, night-dresses and everything pertaining to woman's attire. It has been brought from London by Captain White. Ladies who choose to see it may come or send for it. It is always ready to serve you. If you come, it will cost you two shillings, but if you send for it, seven shillings'. In 1796 Sally McKean wrote to her friend Dolly Madison: 'Yesterday I went to see a mannequin which has just come from England to give us an idea of the latest fashions'.
" Four Hundred Years of Fashion" ed. Natalie Rothstein (1992) pub V&A Publications London ISBN: 1851771166
" Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd" by Janet Arnold.
" Hand Colored Fashion Plates 1770 to 1899" by Vyvyan Holland (1955) pub.Boston Book and Art Shop
" Dolls Pleasures and Treasures" by Antonia Fraser (1963) pub. Putnam's Sons ISBN
" Paris Collection: French Doll Fashions & Accessories" by Sulvia MacNeil (1991) Hobby House Pr; ISBN: 0875883729
" Theatre De LA Mode" ed. Edmonde Charles-Roux (1991) Pub. Rizzoli ISBN: 0847813401
" Identifying Dolls" by Lydia Dorbyshire (1996) Chartwell Books Inc.; ISBN: 0785803726

Last Revision: 28 June 1998

Copyright Lynn McMasters, © 2007
Individuals have my permission to print single copies of the pictures or texts on this site for non-commercial uses, for any other use please contact me.