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Doll Couture Vintage Style

This article was written by Yvonne Williams This month’s guest columnist is doll couturist Yvonne Williams who does marvelous tricks with turning vintage fabrics into vintage fashions for today’s crème de la crème fashion dolls. If you have been yearning to be a Dior or Schiaparelli in miniature and use your old fabric to create fabulous frocks for your favorite dolls, follow along as Yvonne provides advice, tips and resources.  If you’ve ever longed to wear or design haute couture but find the times unsuited to such elegance, you might find that vintage Doll Couture is for you.

With the modest investment of a fashion doll such as Gene, Alex, or Kitty, you will find a lovely lady, willing and waiting to model for hours on end – no fussing, fidgeting, or arguing. If you like the design, so does she, and she looks great. Costly fabrics are not a problem in Doll Couture, either, because most designs can be made from a yard or less. Splurge! What Is Doll Couture? Doll Couture differs both from haute couture and from simple doll dressmaking.

Doll Couture incorporates the principles of haute couture – quality craftsmanship, luxurious fabric and findings, and uniquely creative design – and scales it down for a fashion doll a quarter of the size of her human counterpart. Doll Couture takes doll dressmaking to a high level of detail and adds elaborate and time-consuming touches found in true haute couture, such as handwork, thread tracing, finished seams, and the like.

While it is both doll dressmaking and haute couture, it is neither, remaining an art form unto itself. Not all haute couture practices are appropriate or even possible at the quarter scale of doll costuming; nor will many standard doll dressmaking practices live up to the rigorous demands of Doll Couture. Having focused the last few years on haute couture, fashion history, and Doll Couture in particular, two main elements come to my mind in discussing this art form: proportion and movement. These are the keys to my designs.

Doll Couture Vintage Style

Tools of the trade — sleeve board with vintage fabric (1930 silk broadcloth) draped over it; mini Clover iron; 1/4″ scotch tape for tissue-paper slopers; architect’s rule with 10-60 marks/inch gauges; thread and notions box with silk thread for hand sewing; 1/4″ tape measure; size 0 snaps and hooks; embroidery scissors; 1/4″ quilter’s guide; 1/4″ – 1/2″ quilter’s guide; dual tracing wheel, set at 1/4″ seam allowance; bee’s wax for lubricating and strengthening hand sewing thread; needles – size 8 betweens for hand sewing; straight pins – both extra fine and sequin (extra short); roll of felt to make a Gene-sized seam roll; standard sized ham with cotton/wool cover.

In the background, white cotton batiste for linings, slopers, etc. Under, hand-made tabletop pressing mat with Teflon on one side and cotton on the other. Proportion Full-scale design involves a human body 8 ½ heads tall, although fashion illustration exaggerates this, sometimes up to as much as 10 ½ heads. Haute couture design frequently employs the Golden Mean in proportioning the garment. We see this often in the principle of “unequal thirds” used in color blocking, waist treatments, shoulder lines, etc.

The Golden Mean is a proportion of 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 5, 5 to 8, 8 to 13, etc., and can be seen over and over again in the human body and in nature. Its use results in a natural, rhythmic line in garmentry. Doll Couture must work around the Golden Mean in that a doll’s head is much larger than her human counterpart. Her hands are usually larger, legs longer, and feet smaller. The entire body is elongated and slenderized. The Doll Couture designer faces the challenge of appealing to the audience’s natural sense of rhythm (the Golden Mean) while actually balancing the design on a body of unequal proportions.

Often the designer will create an elaborate hair style or hat to compensate for the unequal balance of the lower body’s length. Collar treatment, gloves, hand bags and the like can also provide the sense of balance and proportion needed for the doll. On a more practical side, when designing for your fashion doll, you’ll need to take into consideration the weight of the fabric, and allow for the turn of the fabric in joining seams, plus allow for the bulk that usually accumulates at the waist of your doll. Light- to mid-weight fabrics work the best, and sometimes you’ll be challenged to find haute-couture quality in these weights. For this reason, I work predominantly in silk. Silk, as a natural fabric, works with you, not against you.

The colors are glorious, and the weaves are many: satin, velvet, dupioni, twill, and brocade, to name a few. For linings, I typically use very light cotton muslin or batiste, usually in white to prevent dye discharge against the doll’s body. When designing vintage styles, you’ll need to research the era and know what fabrics and colors were in style; vintage Doll Couture usually eliminates the use of synthetic fabrics, with the exception of rayon and some acetates. Silk, being centuries old, is a safe bet when in doubt.

Doll Couture fabric prints and findings also require a low-key pattern and size to keep from overwhelming your doll – remember that by human standards, she’s only about 5 feet, 2 inches tall. A quarter-inch seam is the equivalent of a one-inch seam in human garmentry. The swatches in photo 1, both mid-weight wool, are about as large as you will probably want to go for the 15-16″ dolls (although, obviously, as the height of your doll increases, the size of the print can also increase).

Beware of prints that are too busy and detract from the design of the garment itself; beware of buttons, bows, and other such trims that overwhelm your doll. If you must make a choice, understate your design, rather than going to the extremes of blowsiness. In photo 2, “Black Mystery,” I opted for the understated design. I had toyed with the idea of a gold swag on the right shoulder to balance out the line of gold graduating down Gene’s length; however, it was too busy and looked tacky, to be frank.

The final result is restrained, but Gene has no need to blush for this c1932 design (undarted sheath, built-up neckline, and snug fitting hip line which harks back to the dropped waist of the twenties). This gown is made of vintage ultra-light, flowing silk crepe from the 1930s, thoughtfully provided by Joan Kiplinger, editor of this column.

Doll Couture Vintage Style

These wool swatches are scale both in design and weight for fashion dolls.

Doll Couture Vintage Style

Black Mystery is a model of restraint in this 1932 silk crepe gown.

Doll Couture Vintage Style
Fanfare in silk dupioni is a creation of visual balance.

In photo 3, “Fanfare” (c1953) is made of cross-dyed sapphire and black silk dupioni and employs a ribbon streamer at the left hip. The streamers are in proportion to Gene’s body, as is the ribbon rose. From a full-length view, the ribbon streamer is balanced by the dropped curl on the right side of the head. This note of visual balance brings us to the second principle of my designs.

Movement Unlike her human counterpart, your doll will only be standing, not moving. It’s a static environment, and I like to build in a sense of movement and energy into my designs. Again, without being too busy, I strive to add an element of space to the garment. In photo 4, “Carnival” (c1954) provides such space – the ribbons flowing from the wrists displace the space around her, as does the tulle stole which stands out from the body.

Doll Couture Vintage Style

This 1954 Carnival gown is a subtle study in movement and energy. The cape in photo 5, “Serenade in Gold,” (c1954) provides a sense of movement through its graduated hemline – shorter in front, moving to full length in the back. Additionally, the gold brocade of this gown as shown in photo 6 provides subtle shimmer, as do the hundreds of Austrian crystals*. Shimmer and sparkle equal movement and energy. With these touches, “Serenade in Gold” is not a static display, but rather attracts its audience through the use of color and light.

Additionally, the crystal swirl down the front of the gown is a stylized treble clef, and with it, my thought was to evoke a feeling of flowing music – especially considering that this gown was a dual tribute to Glenn Miller and Christian Dior, both geniuses in their respective fields of music and haute couture.

* Another touch of Doll Couture as Austrian crystals are higher quality than Czech crystals and are head and shoulders above acrylic “stones.”

Doll Couture Vintage StyleDoll Couture Vintage Style

Shimmering brocade, crystals and cape hemline team to effect sophisticated movement in 1954’s Serenade in Gold. Resources The following resources have been helpful to me. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but one that might provide guidance. Any Sourcebooks by John Peacock · Couture Sewing Techniques, Claire B. Schaeffer; Taunton Press, 1998 · Any of the Little… books by Bonnie Holt Ambrose; techniques for hatmaking, bodices and corsets of 19th century.

Guides by the Cunningtons which cover the 18th and 19th centuries · Dover publications which are reprints of Victorian and Edwardian fashion magazines · Books on quilting techniques – these will give you tips on working with quarter-inch seams and help you to starting thinking in quarter scale · Online research centers such as www.costumes.org, known as The Costumer’s Manifesto · Online museums such as the Metropolitan Museum, the Hermitage Museum, Kent State University’s museum, etc.

Note: Use a good search engine like www.google.com to search for keywords like “fashion/history design couture” and you’ll be amazed at the wonderful resources available to savvy surfers. Online fabric stores: www.fabric.com , www.dollarfabric.com , info.fabrics.net and www.supersilk.com which all carry silk at reasonable prices. As you learn your way around the world of fabric, you’ll find the descriptions and photo swatches adequate for intelligent ordering. Supplies from www.nancysnotions.com , www.clotilde.com and www.kapres.com, the latter especially for Schmetz machine needles of all descriptions · Online support groups such as Doll Dressmakers through www.quiltropolis.com · Computer software such as Patternmaster Boutique (www.wildginger.com) or Doll Shop 4 (http://www.livingsoftnw.com).

PMB has been created for full-sized design, but I have entered Gene’s measurements in at 4x her size and then print slopers, etc., at quarter scale · Sloper and dressform patterns from Lyn Waring www.lynwaring.com – these can save a lot of time in drafting basic slopers, and using Lyn’s patterns, you can move on to actual design Yvonne Williams, a dyed-in-the-wool Texan, has been a lover of history and fashion all her life. The art form of Doll Couture provides a creative outlet for fashion design that would otherwise have been denied.

She founded Perqs (short for perquisites, “Because You’re Looking for Something Extra”) in 1999, and the web site at www.perqs-plaza.com shows additional photos of the designs mentioned in this article. Yvonne was included as one of the designers in Lark Books’ tribute to the 100th anniversary of the teddy bear. It was her first and only attempt at teddy designing. Another vintage fabric site to browse: Antique Fabrics is a new source for fabrics from the mid-19th century through the 1960s.

Owner Flinda Terteling specializes in cottons for quilters and offers a selection of 1930s-50s rayons for costumes and swing-era dresses; lawn, dimity and organza for doll costumers; and silks, satins and brocades for crazy quilters. Also featured are feedsacks, antique cigarette silks, lace, trims and buttons. Site is updated daily with new inventory. http://www.antiquefabric.com or contact Flinda at info@antiquefabric.com The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.

To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.

Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.

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