Today when we think of a fashion doll, there's only one name that comes to mind – Barbie! – and while we do love Barbie (oh the tiny shoes!!), when we're in our full-blown Nerdy-Girl-dom, "fashion doll" has quite a different meaning.
Long before personal shoppers, ladies relied on their dressmakers (or mantua-makers, the term in use from the late 17th c. to mid-19th c.) to keep them in fashion. Styles changed rapidly with every season, and even ladies far from London and Paris were eager to know which beribboned cuff was being worn by which duchess, and what kind of lace cap was now utterly hopeless in Bath.
While ladies' magazines were just becoming popular (as Loretta's beautiful excerpts from La Belle Assemblee attest), many stylish customers relied on fashion dolls or babies. These dolls were exquisitely dressed in miniature versions of the newest fashions, from tiny wigs and hats to aprons, petticoats, and fans. Sent dressed from London or Paris, the dolls' arrivals would be much anticipated, and their clothes would swiftly be copied and adapted for the mantua-maker's customers.
In a time when the most costly part of a new gown was the fabric, not the labor, and nearly all gowns are bespoke and made to order, it was also much more cost-effective to demonstrate a new fashion in miniature scale. A doll could be inexpensively dressed from remnants, rather than the eighteen yards of fabric or so that would be required for a full-size sample.
The fashion-babies shown here (with Janea Whitacre, Mantua-maker and Mistress of the Trade) are replicas from the mantua-maker's shop in Colonial Williamsburg, and are used to show visitors the "new" styles much as their predecessors would have 250 years ago. However, during the Christmas season, the dolls also get to run the shop – or at least run a doll-sized version of it. This perfectly scaled version of a well-stocked shop has goods that range from tiny boned stays to a red cardinal cloak, and the customers definitely seem ready for some serious shopping.
While the CW interpreters admit that historians have yet to discover documentation for a similar 18th c. tableau, no one has proven that they didn't exist, either. We're fine with that, and quite sure that Barbie would approve, too.