What We Talk About When We Talk About Ill-Fitting Doll Suits
November 26, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
For all humanity’s technological achievements, no one in the history of the world has ever succeeded in producing a realistic-looking miniature suit for a male doll. Any father doll who works a white-collar job looks instantly ridiculous: lumpen, clownish, stripped of all authority. The only play scenarios in which a miniature male doll’s suits make any sense is that in which he has just gotten out of prison and hasn’t had a chance to get new clothes, or if the dollhouse paterfamilias is David Byrne. I need not say that neither plotline is popular.
In his 1913 essay “On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel,” Rilke wrote, “Sexless as the dolls of childhood were, [the doll-souls] can find no decease in their stagnant ecstasy, which has neither inflow nor outflow.”
Which is all very well, but seriously, doll men have terrible-looking suits.
Part of it is of course just a scale issue: it is hard to approximate fine gabardine on the 1:12 ratio typical of most dollhouses. And the seaming and tailoring inherent to the craft of suiting is, as anyone on Savile Row will tell you, a challenge at any size. But for centuries toy-makers have been dealing with these same challenges and dressing the distaff counterparts just fine, including in suits, so there really is no explanation beyond deliberate discrimination. Even during the heyday of doll fashion—think of the elaborate Parisian trousseau of the Last Doll in A Little Princess—one never heard a peep about doll tailors. Consider the most famous doll dressmaker in literature, Our Mutual Friend’s Jenny Wren:
“Dolls’. I’m a Doll’s Dressmaker.”
“I hope it’s a good business?”
The person of the house shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. “No. Poorly paid. And I’m often so pressed for time! I had a doll married, last week, and was obliged to work all night. And it’s not good for me, on account of my back being so bad and my legs so queer.”
They looked at the little creature with a wonder that did not diminish, and the schoolmaster said: “I am sorry your fine ladies are so inconsiderate.”
“It’s the way with them,” said the person of the house, shrugging her shoulders again. “And they take no care of their clothes, and they never keep to the same fashions a month. I work for a doll with three daughters. Bless you, she’s enough to ruin her husband!”
But then, who cares about doll husbands, anyway? We are, it seems clear, touching on the larger question of male-doll marginalization. Traditionally girls have been the target market, and children like the world made in their own image. Plus, lady dolls’ wardrobes are more fun. But when you get to the dollhouse level, where the traditional nuclear family holds sway, male dolls become a necessary evil. Anyone who has attempted to put together a dollhouse family (as opposed to installing a prefab family unit) knows the challenges of acquiring a dad who is not ludicrously attired. And I will venture to guess I am not the only child to have had to throw in a random highlander in a kilt to round out a family meal, or conduct a wedding between what are, obviously, two toddlers. Indeed, strip a souvenir Doll of the World of his lederhosen and you are likely to find budding breasts identical to those of his dirndl-clad companion. I even own a groom doll who, on closer inspection, has a bow molded to his hair. Clearly, we are either dealing with an elaborate, Rosenkavalier-style farce, a stealthy lesbian cabal, or simply the fact that male dolls are an afterthought.
Rumer Godden, one of our most prolific (and certainly strangest) chroniclers of doll life, is a case in point. Several of her books don’t feature male dolls at all. In Homeward the Sailor, the father is MIA, having been lost at sea on a long-ago beach picnic. In The Doll’s House, by contrast, the father doll is present, but is an abuse survivor who appears to suffer from debilitating PTSD, even after he is adopted by kind and careful children. We are told that “their mother made him a check flannel suit and a blue shirt and a tie of red silk ribbon.” Ill-fitting, no doubt.
Put a male doll in anything but a sailor suit and he looks instantly uncomfortable, like an eighteenth-century wild boy who’s been dressed up in a cravat and paraded before local dignitaries. I do not exempt Ken from this; Ken, by inclination, is clearly a nudist. Yes, by male standards he is relatively well turned-out but his wardrobe is a pale shadow of Barbie’s and, as Yona Zeldis McDonough wrote in the Assouline book Barbie, “Ken, for all his virile good looks and affable charm, really is an accessory.” Plus, his suits look terrible.