Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal, an exhibition of Victorian dolls at the Philadelphia Art Museum, is not only charming but a revelatory lesson in the education of young girls in the 19th century. The figures are made of bisque, glass and kid leather stuffed with sawdust, all highly detailed and about ten inches tall; these were the prized playthings of wealthy children and reflected the values and events of a privileged world.
As do the Barbies of today with their plastic hot pink convertibles and their ‘dream houses’, their wasp waists and high heels. (Only recently has the manufacturer added dolls of various skin tones; some have fantasy jobs, like TV reporters, microphones in hand, and clothes to match.)
Much of the appeal of the Little Ladies show is seeing the craftsmanship involved in creating them with their porcelain faces and hands, the hand-stitched tiny tiny leather gloves to hold tiny tiny calling cards, and the elaborate wardrobes, from wedding gowns to mourning dress suitable for the proper lady to wear to a funeral. (Contemplate for a moment, the narratives created in little girls’ minds as they played with that one, pictured above.)
The exhibition wall text offers these tidbits from Victorian books:
“A little girl without a doll is nearly as unhappy and quite as impossible as a wife without children.”
“To fail of love, honour, peace and happiness in her domestic relationships, is with most women, to made a failure of life. Therefore marriage is to her a great event—the great event of her life.”(right)
“If a woman does not know how the various work of a house should be done, she might as well know nothing, for that is her express vocation…A woman who does not know how to sew is as deficient in her education as a man who cannot write.”
Consider the ‘big ladies’ next door, the headliner exhibition at the PMA called Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now. (above)
We may all imagine we are familiar with the Diors and Givenchys since haute couture is one of the main attractions of award shows and red carpets, along with celebrity sightings and royal maternity clothes. The fabulous cost of such garments—imagine spilling red wine on the $60,000 beaded dress Saoirse Ronan wore to last year’s Oscar event—is nearly matched by the fabulous discomfort of designer shoes. One wonders how much designers secretly hate women.
[Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Ben Franklin Parkway] Both exhibits run through March 3, 2019. philamuseum.org