When I was a little girl my Grandma Ethel made me my very first rag doll out of fabric scraps. I loved her. She reminded me of the rag doll Laura’s ma made for her in the pioneer classic Little House on the Prairie, except that she was much bigger.
My mother was never much of a sewer. Once in the second grade I badly wanted a pilgrim dress for my Barbie doll for a school project. I begged my mother to please try to make one for me. She gave me that “You know it’s hopeless” look and put me off. I persisted, because if kids are good at one thing, it’s making their parents feel guilty. I must have had the guilt part down because my mother finally relented. But she really didn’t have a clue how to sew. While my grandmother had been home sewing, my mother had been busy taking business courses and getting secretarial jobs. So when she handed me back my finished Pilgrim Barbie, I should not have been surprised at the unconventional approach she had taken. Realizing that she would be hopeless at the sewing machine, she had raided my sister’s Barbie clothes stash and pulled out Barbie’s black cocktail dress. You may remember it from the 60’s. It had a tight fitted bodice, a very full skirt, and a broad white gauzy off-the-shoulder collar.
I can only imagine how my mother managed to look at that cocktail dress and see Hester Prynne instead of Ann-Margaret. Somehow, though, she did. She then took a pair of pinking shears and cut a rectangle out of a piece of black fabric, and sewed it by hand with long, uneven running stitches around the bottom of the skirt to make the dress the right length. She probably spent about five minutes on it. Then she handed it to me, said, “There you go,” and breathed a sigh of relief. And here is the part that showed her brilliance. I remember looking at that dress and knowing that it didn’t even begin to resemble a Pilgrim dress. And I didn’t care. My mother had sewn a dress for my school project and I loved it. I carried it into class the next day feeling totally proud and mostly oblivious to the snickers of the other children and the raised eyebrows of the teacher.
When I got old enough to have sleep-overs at my grandma’s house, she would take me to a five and dime store near her home and let me pick out a remnant of fabric in the fabric section. Then she would make a dress for my rag doll from the remnant. I wanted to help her in the worst way. My little fingers were just itching to have a go at her machine. Occasionally if she was ready to sew a straight seam she would let me stand in front of her and feed the fabric under the presser foot while she worked the pedal. That is one of my favorite childhood memories. To my grandmother, sewing was a utilitarian necessity that her frugal lifestyle required, but the time she spent sewing with and for me imbued me with a love of sewing that has stayed with me to this day. It taught me that if I could imagine it, I could create it. That impression took a great leap forward one day when Grandma took me back to the five and dime store to pick out a new remnant. On this memorable occasion, I discovered that the fabric department was selling panels off of a bolt of fabric and every panel had an assortment of pre-printed Barbie clothes. It was like a wardrobe for a three-dimensional paper doll. All you had to do was cut out around the printed pieces, sew them together, and you had an entire wardrobe of cool clothes for your Barbie. I was transfixed. I don’t remember begging or pleading, but I do remember coming home with a panel cut from that bolt and the feeling of wonderful anticipation that accompanied that purchase. Finally I got to make my own doll clothes and all I needed was a needle and thread! I disappeared into my room for days. My mother had to hunt me down for dinner and swimming lessons, which was unheard of. Eventually I emerged with my Barbie’s new wardrobe. I was one mighty proud little girl. The raw edges, sloppy stitches, and mismatched seams didn’t faze me. In fact, they looked just like my mom’s. But I had met the fabric, and I had conquered it. I couldn’t wait to show my grandmother. As I recall, she looked my efforts over, smiled, and said, “Very interesting.” I chose to give the words a positive spin.
Often, books I was reading stimulated my imagination and made me want to create new clothes and accessories for my dolls. I remember especially reading A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and being transfixed as I read about the doll and doll wardrobe Sara’s father sent her for her birthday:
When she took out the Last Doll it was so magnificent that the children uttered delighted groans of joy, and actually drew back to gaze at it in breathless rapture.
"She's dressed for the theater," said Lavinia. "Her cloak is lined with ermine."
"Oh," cried Ermengarde, darting forward, "she has an opera-glass in her hand—a blue-and-gold one!"
"Here is her trunk," said Sara. "Let us open it and look at her things."
She sat down upon the floor and turned the key. The children crowded clamoring around her, as she lifted tray after tray and revealed their contents. Never had the schoolroom been in such an uproar. There were lace collars and silk stockings and handkerchiefs; there was a jewel case containing a necklace and a tiara which looked quite as if they were made of real diamonds; there was a long sealskin and muff, there were ball dresses and walking dresses and visiting dresses; there were hats and tea gowns and fans. Even Lavinia and Jessie forgot that they were too elderly to care for dolls, and uttered exclamations of delight and caught up things to look at them.
When I had two beautiful little girls of my own, I found myself sewing doll clothes again. My sister showed me how to cut out lace and applique it onto a finished doll gown and then add beading to it. We made our girls some mighty fine looking doll evening gowns. It was so much fun and our girls loved them. There was always a pile of remnants lying around from other sewing projects, so it was a very inexpensive hobby in every way except time. And my girls got as excited about fabrics from watching me as I had watching my Grandma Ethel all those years before.
My girls grew older and I became a homeschooling mom, I enjoyed figuring out what their particular interests were and then putting them together in a comprehensive curriculum. When we did a unit on Ancient Egypt, for example, one of my daughter’s projects was to make a beaded collar like Egyptian women had worn. When we did a unit on British history, I asked my other daughter to pick out any dress she saw in the portraits and illustrations we studied and I told her that we would copy it for her American Girl doll. I was a little surprised when she came back with a picture of Queen Elizabeth in full regalia including a beaded bodice and complicated neck ruff. However, I had promised. And so after the academic subjects were finished for the day we spent many pleasant afternoons studying that picture and making paper patterns on graph paper, cutting out pattern pieces, sewing them together, and then beading and embellishing the final product. She was able to do most of the work herself, although I confess to helping quite a bit when we got to the neck ruff. She ended up with a very respectable Queen Elizabeth outfit, and felt very proud of her efforts.
We visited England a few years ago and one of my favorite parts was touring the hall in Windsor Castle which housed the two dolls given to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in the 1930’s. These were designer dolls from France and they came with complete wardrobes, just like in A Little Princess.
Now I have grandchildren. When they visit, I love reading chapter books out loud to them. A few years ago, I gave my granddaughter an 18” doll for Christmas with a doll wardrobe, not quite as elaborate as the doll in A Little Princess, but fun. And now when we start a new chapter book together, I give her a doll dress appropriate for the book so she can dress her doll up like the character we are reading about. It is a pleasant thing to share.
So I have always associated doll clothes with happy, funny memories. Dolls and doll clothes speak to me of sweet, gentle pleasures and opportunities to dream. I hope to continue to expand the Doll Clothes page here at Civil War Ball Gowns. My goal is to offer outfits which reflect different historical eras, different cultures, and different characters from well-loved books. So if you are looking for something specific for your doll, feel free to contact me and I will be happy to help if I can. I may be older and starting to gray, but the doll lover in me still loves to dream.