Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Mantua-Maker's Dolls

Thursday, January 21, 2010



















Susan reports:

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. 

12 comments:

News From the Holmestead said...

I'm a visual person, so I love the concept of having dolls in miniature clothes! And dare I ask, but is that, by chance, a *puce* gown that one doll is wearing in the 2nd and 3rd pictures? *g*

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I have to say I've never understood why the "puce" (French for flea) would ever be considered an enticing name for a color. Who wants a reddish-brown dress the color of the back of a flea?

That said, I can happily say that the doll's gown may look more puce than it was, thanks (or no thanks) to my camera's flash. I recall the color as being more grey-lavender, shifting to rosy-pink; it was a "changeable" silk, and it did change.

And yes, there must have been great appeal in being able to see an outfit in miniature before you have it made up for yourself. :)

Vanessa Kelly said...

I did not know that about the dolls, but it makes perfect sense. And that little shop is adorable. I see a visit to Williamsburg in my future - soon, I hope.

Margaret Evans Porter said...

Lovely poppets!

Nancy said...

Too, too cute!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Vanessa, if you can, go. You'll have a blast, and remember, it's RESEARCH.

Yes, Margaret and Nancy - the are lovely and too, too cute! I have to admit that I wanted to, uh, play with the little shop tableau. What is it about miniature things that is so appealing, anyway?

nightsmusic said...

I WANT ONE OF THOSE DOLLS!!!!

Whew! Okay, now that I have that out of my system...

When I antique shop, I often see miniature tables, sewing machines, chairs, things of that nature, all 'salesman's samples', and I've bought a few. But I've never seen one of the dolls. I must keep my eye out for one, though if they're anywhere near as expensive as the other salesman's samples, I'll just have to drool from afar...

*sigh*

Lovely though. Truly.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, I think you're probably safe. There are very, very few of these dolls left, and those are tucked away in museums. Even so, I made a quick jaunt around various internet sites, looking for links to original examples, and I couldn't find any -- so I'd say they're a good deal more rare than miniature furniture samples.

The CW dolls are, of course, replicas, and I believe they were made for the shop by the husband of one of the interpreters. The dolls were beautifully crafted, with jointed arms and legs. I'd love to have one, too. ::sigh::

nightsmusic said...

You know, Susan, maybe if someone gently suggested they sell those dolls...

*angelic smile*

Mme.Tresbeau said...

At once beautiful, yet whimsical. What lady could resist?

Marg said...

You could totally see these dolls becoming collectables! Such a fun and fascinating post!

Rowenna said...

Just lovely! Look at the bitsy blue silk calash in the bottom photo--talk about the skill required to create this clothing in miniature!

Thanks for pointing out that fabric was the high-cost element of clothing in the eighteenth century--so important to understand that before really getting how clothing "worked" so to speak then.

 
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