The ‘Boudoir’ Doll Craze
By the mid 1920s Europe and America were immersed in a ‘doll craze’. All smart women had to have a ‘poupee’ doll and they were seen everywhere. They were not played with but were decorative or used as an accessory and took many different forms with a huge range of styles and costumes.
Dolls have been in existence for thousands of years and were predominately used by children of the feminine persuasion, although women too were partial to their allure. Their appearance and dress changed throughout the centuries and usually reflected contemporary attire. During the Renaissance and thereafter, dolls dressed in the latest fashions were sent around the courts of Europe. To impress and as a talking point, women of means had elaborate doll houses made and they dressed their dolls in wide ranging costumes to show off their sewing skills and creativity. Later, leading up to World War 1, dolls become increasingly elaborate displaying both character and costume.
But after the war with society changing something happened in Paris with a Russian theme that ignited a fad. According to Susanna Oroyan the European art-doll phenomenon may have been the result of the fact that the war had destroyed social and economic traditions ‘youthful survivors found no ‘grown up’ established world of custom to fit back into so they continued to be the children they were before the war.’
At the end of the war and with the Versailles Peace Treaty the West was introduced to the mysterious and ‘exotic’ Slavic countries of Eastern Europe. Equally, the Russian revolution had precipitated a huge influx of Russian refugees in Paris. Suddenly there was a great demand grew for Slavic and Russian art, handicrafts and fashions. The energetic Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and other Russian refugees organised a charitable sale of Russian handicrafts in Paris and then London in early 1921 that included toys, embroidery, drawings, sculptures and clothing. Russian dolls were also prominent and some were used as tea cosies and others simply for interior décor. This exhibition highlighted the new émigré craft of rag doll making with Russian peasant clothing.
Impetus to all things Russian was given by Nikita Balieff’s cabaret or variety troupe called La Chauve Souris, who had been immensely successful in Russia prior to the revolution. One of his more popular numbers was a Russian Doll number. In exile Balieff presented his shows in London and Paris before making it big in America in 1922 through the promoters Morris Gest and Clifford C. Fischer.
At the time the largest doll workshop in Paris run by Mrs Lazareva produced all kinds of dolls dressed in national or fashionable costume. The most avant-garde in style were created by the painter and sculptor Maria Vassilieff (another Russian refugee and a true modernist). In 1920 she collaborated with the couturier Paul Poiret creating a series of puppets for the first season of the Swedish Ballets Suedois. She also created the dolls that Paul Poiret gave away to clients that were dressed in the exact replicas of costumers new ensembles. Whether Poiret started this marketing ploy is not known since various other couture establishments did the same. Vassilieff was also one of the artists featured in Pavlovna’s handicraft exhibitions and no doubt featured her dolls. By 1924 they were so mainstream that the management of le Perroquet night-spot over the Casino de Paris foyer, that boasted the smartest crowd in Paris, gave each lady a beautifully dressed poupee (doll) as a souvenir.
Generically the dolls were called by various names that to some extent still endure today : art, portrait, boudoir, art deco, flapper, vamp, bed, smoker, salon or parlor dolls. These new dolls were different to what had been produced before as they were characterized by ornate, long limbs. long thin bodies, little hands and less ‘doll’ like, or ‘child’ like features or expressions; they had a stylized rather than a realistic appearance.
The dolls varied in size from 24″ – 32″ with smaller dolls averaging 14″ – 18″ and were made out of a variety of media. The heads were usually of composition (sawdust mixed with a staying agent such as sugar water or starch placed in a mould) or of cloth or felt and some hands, feet and bodies were of composition too. Most of the bodies were soft of cloth or felt and stuffed with cotton. The composition heads were beautifully painted with blush and eye shadow, ‘bee stung’ red lips and even beauty marks. Hair was human, camel, mohair or silk strands.
There were hundreds of different styles and treatments that followed exotic, historical, theatrical, foreign, fantasy or mythological themes. More popular inspiration came from the Eighteenth century of the French court and Marie Antoinette, the Elizabethan or early Georgian period, the romantic styles of the 1840s, Napoleon’s first empire, Pier rot, Harlequin, and Commedia figures from the Italian theatre, contemporary flappers with cigarettes, harem girls and flamenco or apache dancers.
The trend of adopting these dolls appears to have started with the theatrical profession when dolls were created imitating great actresses and some actresses gave these portrait dolls to their co-workers. Later, they spread to society at large. As one contemporary commentator observed ‘we must have our little fads, otherwise life would jog along in too monotonous a fashion.’ Seemingly, most people ordered dolls for their own amusement. They were regarded as funny and their owners like to laugh at them and show them of to their friends. But equally they symbolized the rise of the new woman and epitomized a feminine dream of an adventurous, glamorous and more exciting new life. As Pat Brill (a boudoir collector) says ‘Here was a doll that represented all that was titillating and taboo and could be proudly displayed in their home particularly in the bedroom. The dolls were very tactile to the touch, so it easy to imagine a flapper enjoying playing, posing, cuddling and whispering secrets to her boudoir pal.’
Soon there were many companies making boudoir dolls including Le Poupees Gerb in Paris, the elegant creations from Lafitte Desirat and Italian dolls from Lenci a company started by Enrich and Elena Saving of Turin in 1920. There was a growth in ‘Functional boudoir dolls’ that included such things as cushions, doll lamps, night light dolls, doll head pillows, laundry bag dolls, candy box dolls, manicure doll, cigarette and pencil servers, door stops, incense burner, telephone cover dolls and handbags.
The fad in America quickly took hold. With prices in Europe at bargain levels, thousands of Americans flocked there particularly London and Paris (to escape prohibition too) and the women took back dolls. But America was also quick to make their own versions. In 1922 the Belgian sisters Helene and Mathilde Sardeau arrived in New York and began making dolls. One of the first dolls made was ordered by Eva Le Gallienne of Liliom (1921) fame and she gave it to Nazimova. Some dolls were made to represent stage characters or portrait dolls. For example Lenore Ulrie in the role of Kiki. (1921-22) Other notable customers included Elsie de Wolfe, Doris Keane, Carlotta Monterey, Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino. The Valentino’s had 160 dolls made as props or advertising objects to send around for exhibition at theatres where their new films were to appear.
Other American toy and novelty companies followed suit and started to produce similar dolls including the Flapper Novelty Doll Company and Gerling Toy Company. McCall’s and other pattern companies also began to make both patterns for dolls and patterns for clothing.
Of course the biggest impetus to the adoption of boudoir dolls was the effect of the movies and once the doll fad reached America, movie stars took them to heart. And as we know it was the movies that became the trendsetters in hairstyles, lifestyles and fashion. Soon Marlene Dietrich, Clara Bow and others were seen on the screen with their dolls and their fans were enchanted and copied them.
But not everyone was amused. The fad amongst London’s fashionable young women was viewed with some disdain when at a dance at a leading hotel 30 young women were seen carrying their dolls. In Paris a book entitled Les Poupees de Paris by Pierre Calmette had a preface by Anatole France, the philospher who suggested that the decrease in the French birth rate was to be blamed in part to the fantastic dolls that have found their way into every boudoir in the French capital. He sounded a note of alarm saying women of France are forgetting their duty when they choose to play with their dolls.
Max Schlapp, professor of Neuropathology thought ‘these exaggerated dolls are the temporary whim of abnormal women. I use the word advisedly, because women who are normal have children and have no time to waste on baubles. The changes in the economic and industrial world in the last 50 years are to blame in a great measure for the emotional instability found in women of today.’
The stock market crash of 1929 destroyed many doll companies and although the boudoir doll continued for a while she soon waned in popularity perhaps due to the onset of the depression.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
New York Times, Theatre Magazine, Variety, Dancing World and Illustrated Sunday Herald
Dolls of the Art Deco Era by Susanna Oroyan
Beauty in Exile by Alexandre Vassiliev