Paper Dolls: Design your own

When I was younger, I loved playing with paper dolls. I loved the beautiful colors and patterns of the clothes, finding new ways to match and mismatch skirts and shirts and pants, imagining the possibilities they represented. Now, paper dolls interest me because they convey more than the trendy clothing styles of a time period: Through the types of clothes offered with a doll, they also discuss lifestyle and career options to aspire to, as well as the ideal version of women’s — and men’s — bodies. I am interested in the ways the toys children play with function as the first teaching tools for how we pass down ideas within our society.

In addition to functioning as toys, paper dolls have been used more blatantly as advertising tools throughout their history: In the late 1800s and throughout the first half of the 1900s, newspapers, magazines and catalogs often featured paper doll versions of the new styles of the week or season for people to cut out. Movie stars, brides and women wearing clothes for leisure were often the main subjects; after the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1970s, the paper doll wardrobe began to expand, integrating professional and leisure clothing styles.

To find the origins of the paper doll, we travel back in time to Bali before the first century, when people made paper into puppets, and Japan in 800 A.D., when people folded paper into kimonos. The paper doll as created with clothing options dates to 1650 in Southern Germany, where jointed paper female figures featured dresses, hairstyles and accessories they could be dressed in, dolls created for upper-class adults. Little Fanny, a paper doll sold with a story written by Amelia Troward Girdlestone, appeared in 1810 in London as the first manufactured paper doll, devised to teach moral lessons to children about obedience and humility. 

“The History and Adventures of Little Henry,” published in 1812, was the first American manufactured paper doll; the dolls were sold with the book, so children could act out the scenes with the dolls. Following that, paper dolls became popular in America throughout the second half of the 19th Century and into the early 20th, due in part to the low cost of paper and the ease of printing. They enjoyed rising popularity throughout the following decades until the 1960s, when their popularity declined due in part to the creation of Barbie, who functioned as a sort of 3D paper doll. 

Of course, paper dolls are still created today and reflect the ideas of the artist and society about women, men and fashion trends. Have fun!  


Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Secret History of Paper Dolls;” National Women’s History Museum, “History of Paper Dolls and Popular Culture: A Two-Dimensional View of Fashion;” Wikipedia, “Paper Doll.”