Armpit Pads, Petticoats, and Porcelain: How Stylish Dolls Taught Girls to Be Victorian Women

In Depth

Before Barbie, who could become anything from a dedicated nurse to a Malibu socialite with the change of an outfit and a thousand accessories, there were the elegant and fragile “fashion dolls” bestowed upon wealthy little girls in the 1860s and 1870s.

Frequently made of bisque ceramic and leather, with fancy names like Miss Fanchon and Miss G Townsend, these dolls could be dressed in a wide variety of intricately sewn garments which mirrored adult fashions of the time. And almost anything you could buy a stylish adult woman, you could buy your fashion doll: a real fur stole, roller skates, dainty little pearl earrings, a Bible.

But the dolls actually served a greater purpose than just being pretty playthings for girls in the mid to late-Victorian period. “Girls would learn to take care of the dolls, they would sew for them, and do all the things for them that would be their role in the future,” said Kristina Haugland, the Le Vine Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles and Supervising Curator for the Study Room, who has curated the exhibit “Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which closes in March. Last week I met Haugland at the museum to walk me through her excellent exhibition, which features a few of these dolls and their expansive wardrobes, and listened as she explained the history behind them.

Dolls at the time were considered extremely important for fostering a girl’s education, and playing with baby dolls was almost like prep for the eventual children these girls would almost always grow up to have. But fashion dolls were different in that they were designed as posh grown women whose purpose for young girls functioned not unlike etiquette books at the time—teaching women to embody all aspects of the ideal Victorian woman. “The dolls were really functioning as a way for them to learn what’s appropriate for different occasions,” Haugland said. “They have clothes for walking, for housework, for fancy things, and they taught you how to accessorize. And because they have all the other accoutrements, like letter-writing kits or sewing kits, [girls] can really see the different things an ideal woman is supposed to have.”

And my god, did these dolls have a lot of accessories.

Walking through the exhibition, the amount of detail that went into their wardrobes is staggering. There was an entire industry, largely located in Paris, that produced doll outfits, and was reflected for example in the character of doll dressmaker Jenny Wren in Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend. Haugland says that prices for the dolls varied depending on how many outfits each one had, but seeing as how these dolls were intended to teach girls the proper way to dress and present themselves, you have to imagine there was pressure to have a large wardrobe for them as well. As someone raised on plastic, I was skeptical of the fact that little girls would play with such delicate dolls, but learning the correct way to handle nice things was also part of the doll’s teaching ability. Which is to say, kids were not dragging Miss Fanchon around by her legs outside of the house.

There was no compromising when it came to these wardrobes. Chemises, hoop skirts, open drawers, petticoats, corsets, and every little piece of clothing you’d need to wear as a refined woman at the time was miniaturized for these dolls. There is even a pair of “dress shields”—little cloth inserts women would stick in their armpits to keep sweat from coming through your clothes. On display for the dolls are house dresses (“it was said the most fatal error a woman can make is to appear sloven amongst her family, because she’ll lose the respect of her husband,” Haughlin explained), evening gowns, and one doll, Miss French Mary, came with a wedding gown complete with a tiny wedding ring. Because of course if you were a woman who didn’t get married, you were considered a failure.

“Girls were trained to want the expectation that they would become a wife and a mother,” Haugland said. “After the Civil War, there were far more women than there were men, so there was a lot of talk of the time about competition because there weren’t enough men to go around. One of the reasons fashion becomes so extravagant was these women were kind of trained to show off and catch a good husband.”

I was haunted in particular by one outfit on display, which was a shiny black mourning dress. Because it was up to women to uphold the respectability of their household, men at the time might just wear an armband if a family member died, but a widow was expected to wear all black for a year or so. Then, Haugland said, she’d go into a “second mourning” for several more months where she could wear shinier fabrics, and finally a lighter mourning period where she could add white, lavender, or grey. You have to wonder, what were the circumstances in which a girl’s doll would own funeral attire? Did the doll possess one in her wardrobe because of a death in the girl’s family and mourning extended to the toy, or was it that fashion dolls were expected to have a wide-ranging wardrobe and this was just a part of it?

But while fashion at the time was becoming so much more extravagant and involved, Haugland explained, there was also public outcry at the fact that perhaps women were becoming too decorative. “One of the critiques is that women would then get married and they would be useless as wives and mothers because they wouldn’t know how to run the house,” Haugland said. “There are a number of authorities saying that you should do more than just be this decorative object.”

And so that role is also reflected in the dolls, who in addition to having dozens of outfits could also come with chatelains, wire hangers (a relatively new invention at the time), toothbrushes, sewing supplies, opera glasses, sheet music and more, all of which stress how sophisticated these little dolls are supposed to be. And eventually, as women became more active in social life in the 1860s, and took part in activities like roller-skating or traveling more, the dolls reflected those changes as well.

But even if they began to reflect the changing roles of women in society, fashion dolls like Miss Fanchon or Miss G. Townsend and all the antiquated feminine ideals they represented began to go out of style, Haugland said; “It was always an unrealistic idea, that women were angels and were so distinct from men.” One of the dolls in the exhibition was owned by a woman who eventually became a doctor in the 1890s, which stresses that even though the visions of womanhood projected by these dolls were so limiting, it didn’t always limit the visions of the girls who played with them.

It’s tempting to look at the fashion dolls on exhibit here, their tiny bodies confined by corsets and hoop skirts, and think that imbuing toys with such oppressive, sexist ideas is unique to this era. But looking at the dolls, I am reminded again at how politicized toys still are. American Girl Dolls, with their intense customization and a wide collection of accessories, are a $100 and up status symbol not unlike Miss French Mary. Girls’ dolls are still called out for being too thin, too sexy, or too white, and parents are still hung up on dated ideas of what boys and girls toys are. Dolls are the source of controversy because they are didactic—they represent society’s basest conceptions of what womanhood should be. And looking at the Victorian fashion dolls on display here, the ideals they broadcast haven’t changed much.

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