Skip to Content

History of French Fashion Dolls

History of French Fashion Dolls

Dolls have been a part of cultures all around the world. From the babushka dolls to the traditional Chinese dolls, these popular children’s toys depicted what people wore and how they conducted themselves in different eras and places. 

Modern dolls, the most popular ones being the Barbie dolls, are no different from the bigger, more lifelike classical dolls gifted to children in the Victorian era.

These were inspired by French fashion dolls, present within French culture long ago. 

Fashion dolls became popular in the 14th century, as mannequins were used to display popular clothing so that people could view it before purchasing.

These were modified and molded to fit smaller mannequins, and by the 17th century, we were introduced to the Pandoras. 

The Pandora Dolls

A Pandora Doll.
A Pandora Doll
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pandora dolls became popular long before the 19th century. They were seen mostly with the queens and princesses of the era.

A reflection of the fashion and way of life of the courts of Europe, these Pandora dolls were much more lively and accurate than paintings. 

Some queens, such as Mary, Queen of Scots, were so attached to their childhood dolls that they became a part of adult life too.

Queens were known to order fashion dolls so that they could emulate the style of a particular court. 

After 1642, these French fashion dolls were popularly known as Pandoras.

Before Worth introduced the earliest human models in the 1850s, seamstresses or tailors did not have much to work with. It was hard to know how a garment looked until the client saw it on someone (or something). 

Thus, during the boom in French fashion from 1715 to 1785, Pandora dolls were widely used to display clothing items in shop windows.

Tailors could get the dolls manufactured and use them in their shops or dress them up and ship them abroad to display their fashion trends. 

Pandora dolls witnessed their fall towards the end of the 18th century for two reasons.

It was either the introduction of the first fashion magazine by Cabinet des Modes or the paranoia of Napoleon I which made Pandora’s disappear from the market. 

The 19th Century Bisque Dolls 

German Antique Doll.
German Antique Doll
gailf548, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The trend of the fashion dolls did not end with the Pandoras. The 19th century welcomed the Bisque dolls with open arms.

This was due to the much preferred realistic look and feel. Bisque dolls were mass manufactured by French companies, and the dolls started to become popular across Europe. 

The heads of the dolls varied. Some could swivel while others were fixed in place. These dolls had bodies that could be made from different kinds of wood, leather, and other material.

They could be as small as 9 inches and as large as 30. 

These dolls were much more expensive and difficult to make. The head of the doll was the most difficult to construct, and it is thought that these heads were a German production.

Although German production was far superior, the French fashion dolls were more fashionable!

No one did Haute Couture quite like the French!

Importance of French Dolls

A French Doll.
A French Doll
Mtorrite, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What was the significance of the French dolls?

The most important component of a French fashion doll was fashion. What a doll wore spoke volumes about the fashion of the era.

It was no wonder that the fashion dolls became dear to the children in the courts. 

These dolls came with shoes, hats, gloves, mirrors, and other accessories. They had everything a woman needed at the time

Magazines contained entire wardrobes that could be bought for these dolls. The dolls could be gifted. They soon became luxury toys that were owned by the royalty.

As the women in rich households were supposed to learn to dress in style, these dolls came in handy. 

Girls were taught that a woman was supposed to sew for herself and remain prim and proper at all times. The French fashion dolls had a big impact on the thinking patterns of women at the time. 

The Purpose of French Dolls

Three girls playing with a doll. vintage engraved illustration.
Three girls playing with a doll. vintage engraved illustration. “La Mode Illustree” 1885, France, Paris

French fashion was mirrored in the popular French dolls. These dolls were created to showcase the styles and trends the French followed at the time.

They were disguised as toys for little girls but fulfilled the much more important purpose of finding wealthy suitors for them and teaching them their inevitable roles. 

As the women grew older, their parents faced the responsibility of marrying them off. Attitudes to working women were quite aggressive, and there weren’t many opportunities for those who couldn’t secure a proposal. 

Women feared the label of the “spinster”; through these dolls, they learnt that a woman was only worth a marriage and could only fit into the role of a wife or mother.

The dolls, however, did one good thing. They taught women how to sew. This training helped them to support themselves if society chose to shun them. 

These dolls started to lose popularity in the 19th century. As attitudes to working women started to change, women began to reject the labels attached to the dolls. The dolls were widely used in fashion until the latter half of the 19th century. 

These dolls kept representing trends set in a particular region and were shipped abroad to educate people about the dressing styles followed in different countries. 

Fashion Dolls Against Plants.
Dolls sitting against plants
Image by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Summing It Up 

Fashion dolls may have impacted French fashion, but these dolls were mainly used to promote the trends and make them even more popular.

One cannot deny the effects these dolls had on how the world viewed women. Most importantly, it affected how women viewed themselves. 

Although we have left these attitudes in the past, they still come back to haunt us time and again. The typical Barbie and Bratz dolls mirror the popular trends and change with the changing fashion every decade. 

Nowadays, a woman may not be expected to adapt to the role of a wife and mother. However, there are more dangerous roles to be adapted to. These are the cosmetic trends that have become so popular. 

Barbie’s unachievable tiny waist paired with the curvy upper and lower half has quickly become an important ideal. We can only hope for a shift in the presentation of popular fashion dolls!

Header image courtesy: