Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal; Exhibit Review

Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal; Exhibit Review

Currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now exhibit. Perhaps less known is Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal exhibit, on view now through March 3, 2019, curated by Kristina Haugland.

Little Ladies proved to be a hidden gem (and also more closely in line with the FFF timeline). Although most of the pieces date around the 1870s, many of the ideals and pieces themselves would have still been relevant and used in the 1880s, the beginning of the FFF area of study, though some of the silhouettes would have changed.

marie antoinette doll
“Miss Marie Antoinette” Fashion Doll’s trunk, clothing, and accessories, 1870s, France

The exhibit makes the point that these dolls were instructional in the sense that they provided young girls with what to expect in marriage and coming years. Beautifully ornate and detailed, the dolls provided a counterpart to written materials on how a lady should act, what she should wear during very specific times of day (down to the handkerchief placed in her pocket and the bustle under her skirt), and the realms in which she should primarily occupy herself.


The exhibit takes the viewer through various groupings of doll objects, all meticulously crafted, and many imported from France. The detail that went into creating some of these miniature items is definitely worth seeing! And as for the ladies’ magazine pages and related articles that were paired with each section….some of the quotes you’ll just have to read for yourself below!

“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.”
-Mrs. H. O. Ward, The Young Lady’s Friend, 1880

Letters and chores.jpg
Various letters, stockings, accessories, and doll’s baby, ca. 1860-1870

The exhibit noted in this section on household duties that often girls would make clothing for their dolls which would help them to eventually learn to sew their own clothes and that of their families (otherwise, she “might as well know nothing”). The dolls may even have a sewing kit or a baby of their own. In this instance above, there is also a stationary set as she would surely write many letters. Shown below, the detail in the sewing kit is amazing! It includes bobbins, needles, yarn, scissors – everything you would need to sew your own clothing!

sewing basket.jpg
Sewing kit, hangers, and doll’s quilt, ca. 1860-1870

“As it is the duty and pleasure of man to develop his strength, it is equally incumbent on women to cultivate and perfect each germ of beauty.”
The Manners that Win, 1880

Combs and mirrors.jpg
Various mirrors, brushes, and dressing table accouterments, ca. 1860-1870

A lady’s appearance was considered a great tool at her disposal. Women had to learn how to accessorize and dress themselves to their advantage without going too far as to look gaudy or out of place. Dolls equally had many different accessory options and different kinds of dresses for various times of day and appropriate activities. By choosing correctly for her doll, a young girl could learn to choose correctly for herself later on in life.

“A man likes the society of a woman who can walk a mile of two to see an interesting view, and can take long journeys without being laid up by them.”
-Susan C. Power, The Ugly-Girl Papers; or Hints for the Toilet, 1874

traveling
Traveling cloak, fur collar, roller skates, and outdoor accessories, ca. 1860-1870

Though there were not many socially acceptable instances for a woman to be out in public without her husband, travel was increasing as the railroads and improved transportation methods made travel for recreation a more viable option. Women were increasingly (though slowly) finding ways to properly join in public life closer to home too, with more outdoor recreational activities, like going for long walks, ice skating, and roller skating. This of course, came with its own set of necessary clothing items for women. Traveling cloaks might be worn along with other accessories for warmth or activity. Just wait until the bicycle craze of the 1890s, and then a whole new set of wardrobe items would appear!
All in all, I would definitely recommend Little Ladies, and especially as an exhibit that is family-friendly too! I think the dolls are fun for children to see, but the accompanying information allows for adults to dig deeper into the objects displayed. It also begs the question, how have dolls changed for girls today? And do we ever see dolls as a means of instruction?

-Danielle Morrin

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