Museum's fashion dolls reflect lives of rich Victorian ladies


December 01, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

While Barbie has been painted by Andy Warhol, featured in films and exhibited in art museums, her ancestor -- the 19th century French fashion doll -- has done her one better. She has turned a corridor of the venerable Philadelphia Museum of Art into a mini-fashion wing through January 26.

"Perfect Little Ladies: the Art of Dress in the 1870s," a stunning exhibition starring three fashion dolls and their extravagant trousseaus, will delight the curious of all ages and make doll collectors swoon.

The three bisque-head dolls: Miss Fanchon, Miss G. Townsend and Miss French Mary, were discovered in costume storage by Kristina Haugland shortly after she went to work at the museum as assistant curator of textiles and costume two years ago. They were in their trunks with their outfits and paraphernalia. They had never been displayed since coming to the museum in 1922, 1960 and 1976.

Though it is hard to believe rich little girls actually played with them, Ms. Haugland insists that little girls were introduced to the art of dress, under supervision, by these 2-foot-high lady dolls, and thereby made aware of their expected roles as wives and mothers.

The dolls' clothes were made of expensive materials copying designs by Worth and other well-known Parisian couturiers of the Gilded Age. The printed cotton wrappers and white muslin morning dresses, fine white cotton night sack, nightgown and night cap are displayed on stands and mannequins. Miss Townsend wears a polonais walking suit of dark blue wool. She has a choice of a somber black silk mourning dress or a fancy dinner dress of tan-and-rose-striped silk. A ball gown of yellow satin and black fits over a cream- colored muslin dress. Some gowns have fitted bodices and bustles and others have full skirts. One bright blue and white princess-line dress, of silk and wool, buttoned down the front, has a sweeping train.

Some gowns are accompanied by hats or bonnets. There is a selection of shoes and stockings, basque bows, paisley shawls, purses, gloves, muffs, parasols, fans, a perfume bottle, lorgnettes, chatelaine, opera glasses, combs and brushes. There are several tiny watches, and jewelry of all kinds -- a tiny bug pin, a bowknot, a string of pearls, coral bracelets, turquoise earrings with a brooch to match and a "diamond" tiara.

A trousseau of underclothes gives an accurate view in miniature of a woman's unseen underpinnings. The fancy knit stockings with blue garters, the muslin chemise, the scarlet-trimmed boned cotton corset, the horsehair bustle, hoop skirt, trained petticoat and open-crotch drawers are all set out for inspection. According to Ms. Haugland, who teaches a course on underwear, the knee-length chemise went on first, then the drawers. The chemise was gathered up and pulled through the opening in the back of the drawers and tucked under the bustle to give more hips. Then the corset was laced and on went the hoop skirt and petticoats, sometimes as many as three.

Of all the rarities on view, the pair of dress shields made of cotton-covered cardboard are the most miraculous survivors. According to Richard Wright, the well-known peripatetic doll dealer from Birchrunville, Pa., the shields are worth more than the roller skates, or the traveling letter box with stationery, pen and ink pot, or the inlaid glove box with several pair of kid gloves, or the tickets to the magic lantern show, or Miss Fanchon's calling cards, or the sewing box with thimble, scissors and etui, or even the very rare net snood. "If those shields came up at an auction, who knows what they would bring. I have never seen another pair," said Mr. Wright.

Accessories cost far more than the doll, then and now. A bisque-head doll might have cost $10 in the 1870s but the wardrobe could come to $300 to $400, depending on how extensive it was. Today fashion dolls like the three on display would sell for from $5,000 to $10,000. Dresses, like the green satin two-piece trimmed in fur worn by Miss Fanchon, are worth $2,000, according to Mr. Wright. One pair of pink leather high buttoned shoes sold for $1,800 at Richard Withington's doll auction in Hillsboro, N.H.,in September.

Fashion dolls were also sold in departments stores; the doll industry was already big business in 1869 when Godey's Ladies' Book proclaimed, "A little girl without a doll is nearly as unhappy and quite as impossible as a wife without children."

Fashion dolls, lady dolls or Parisiennes, as they were variously called, were made by a number of manufacturers. The three on view at the Art Museum were all made by the firm of Bru in Paris, preeminent in the field of doll making during the height of the boom period, 1867 to 1885.

The bride doll in her silk wedding dress with wax and paper orange blossoms, pearl earrings and necklace, handkerchief and kid boots, epitomizes the Victorian girl's goal of having a husband. Her fashionable wedding dress is probably the least valuable of all the clothes on display because many dolls had one, and many were saved.

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