May 9, 2018 | by Ellen Dial
Boudoir Dolls or Vintage Dolls for Grown Women
As most of you know, Pinterest is one of my favorite time sucks and the catalyst for many a vintage musing. When my feed isn’t full of photoshopped Instagram images (which I exit 99% of the time, BTW) I see loads of vintage loveliness – oh so thought provoking and fascinating.
It’s full of silent film stars, gorgeous vintage fashion and appalling vintage ads – I’m equally delighted, intrigued and horrified. I’m also one of “those” people who point out when an image is not properly identified. My favorite dings include: Susan B Anthony pins that aren’t actually SBA, Edwardian fashion being touted as Victorian, modern photo shoots presented as Victorian or Flapper, faux memento mori pictures, ridiculous narratives about “girl gangs” and other modern alliterations slapped on vintage photos. Seems obvious to me, others? Not so much. But I digress already! Too much coffee.
Recently I was presented with an array of semi-creepy dolls. On beds.
Now, let me backup. I am a product of my traditional 1960’ s childhood; I grew up playing with dolls. Baby dolls when younger (Pussy Cat being a favorite – she was “accidentally” decapitated by my girlhood friend, Leslie. I’d like to add, neither one of us had children, probably best, all things considered) to more art/fashion type dolls when older. Madame Alexander dolls were the thing and I had several, as did my friend Jean – we played dolls for hours. Scarlett O’Hara and other large character dolls, smaller dolls…. Dolls!
Of course, this was long before iPads, smart phones and other social media ridiculousness, we had to entertain ourselves and interact in person. As I grew up, I quit playing with dolls. Moved to horses, then boys. The rest is history.
Now, my fantastic momma kept all my dolls. Every Christmas she created a terrifying display of them on her gorgeous, late 19th century armoire. Perched upwards of nine feet in the air, the dolls literally loomed over her living room, getting more beaten up as time passed. Subsequently getting more horrifying. Did that one just move? We conjured tales of nighttime raids on the knife drawer, with the dolls lurking throughout the darkened house, brandishing the Henkel. My cousins and I were certain they did all this and more. Wine and over-active imaginations fueled the legends.
Thankfully, they are now gone. Sold at auction – night-lurking in some other hapless person’s home. Where am I going with this, you ask? To Boudoir dolls, that’s where…
These little creepsters started showing up in my feed some time ago, the reason is unclear. But they interested me and sent me on a journey – what are they and why?
Side note: To be fair, some of the boudoir dolls are quite pretty – it’s just my distrust of dolls in general that causes them to be creepy in my eye. Dolls and clowns, dolls and clowns. Perhaps too many Saturday night horror movies, Stephen King novels and Sammy Terry growing up.
Vintage Dolls | Mr. Poiret is in the house
OK. In the years surrounding the Great War, women’s suffrage went into overdrive. The push for the vote, temperance and less restrictive female fashions. I’m all for two of the three, just sayin’… After the conflagration, fashion design genius Paul Poiret created art dolls to showcase fashion and fashion history, as well as, create jobs for displaced artists and aristocrats – things after the Armistice weren’t great in Europe. So, in 1919, at a French commerce convention, the poupee de boudoir was born.
Originally, they were created to be works of art and displayed on one’s couch as well as on one’s bed. They were lovey and opulently decked out. Lace and silk drenched, many dressed for presentation in the 18th century French court. Beauty marks and fantastical millinery. With camel hair eye-lashes and gleaming floss hair, they were the ultimate coquette.
Amazingly, the 18th century aristocratic dolls kept their heads (unlike Pussy Cat). Their popularity grew, and these little characters crossed the pond.
Vintage Dolls | Flappers and Film Stars
American women embraced the easier fashions of the 1920’s – loose, flowing dresses, flat shoes and bobbed hair, they also began to look toward more social freedoms and the vote. Add to this, early film stars frequently crossed over to Europe, bringing home these beautiful, over-the-top dolls. These stars were often photographed cuddling with their dolls. Grown women playing with dolls. Odd?
Things have changed little, who doesn’t want to emulate a film star, right? Apparently our 1920’s friends wanted to be just like Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich and others, because women started purchasing boudoir dolls with great abandon.
The dolls were Americanized through the mid-20’s. They began to look more and more like film stars, dressed as Flappers, girls dressed as men and, horror beyond all horrors, smoking cigarettes.
Women lived vicariously through their dolls. They began to epitomize the Flapper and Hollywood lifestyles. Their dolls lived the life they wanted to live, but frequently did not. One of non-stop parties, couture fashion, sexual freedom, raucous dancing, illegal drinking and the unladylike habit of smoking cigarettes.
Why? Contrary to pop culture, women were still expected to be fairly reserved. Oh, we roared, by “back in the day” standards, but real promiscuity was unusual and non-stop partying wasn’t realistic. Lives still had to be lived, the procurement of a respectable husband and the subsequent creation of children was still the ultimate expectation for many women. But, our flapper friends could have a wild, fulfilling fantasy life with their dolls. They were also frequently used as “confidants” – oh, the stories some of these dolls could tell! The reputation of boudoir dolls became scandalous. Only “fast” women had them on their beds. Hollywood perpetuated this myth. To have one, or more, wasn’t totally proper. At the same time, many women had them! (This 21st century vintage maven is smiling!).
Boudoir dolls remained a thing up until WW2. At the start of the war, as people’s lives became more entrenched in the real world and the war effort, they faded. Women got rid of them or lovingly tucked them away as a memento from a different time.
Even though they made it through the horrors of the Great Depression (since the world around them was collapsing, did women needed a good imaginary friend to deal?), popularity waned, perhaps because women joined the workforce – shoring up productivity after the men marched off to war. In addition, social values and expectations loosened – changing with the advent of the war, as is often the case… Fantasy lives didn’t seem as relevant. Regardless, they were no longer a thing.
Boudoir dolls are now fairly popular with collectors. A high quality European doll exacts thousands of dollars and more mass-produced examples warrant a few hundred. Some of them are truly lovely, some not so much and others downright scary. There are more technical examinations of their composition all over the interwebs – a good example resides here.
I found it interesting that a DOLL was a catalyst of imagination for adult women. A toy for little girls – embraced by women. They couldn’t actually have the freedoms they envisioned, so they appropriated these freedoms to a doll.
Things that make a 21st century woman say….. hmmmmm
To our darling readers: What are your thoughts on boudoir dolls? Are you familiar with them? Do you have one?
The author would like to thank Wikipedia.com, Pinterest.com, frenchgardenhouse.com, motherxmas.com and those who post their images freely on the internet.