Sitting down for simple tea with Miss Polly would likely be beneath the terribly chic fashion dolls in Julie Manley’s collection, on exhibit at CMAG since last month. ‘Fashion doll’ does not mean they are Barbies or toys. They’re high-end; Manley reports that the artist ball-jointed dolls–favoured by fashion doll collectors because they are far better for posing than the ubiquitous Barbie–can sometimes cost thousands of dollars.
But the dolls in Manley’s collection are more than just pricey, they are individually crafted works of art. She customises each doll in some way, repainting their faces, restyling their hair or designing and sewing them their own bespoke outfit. And my gosh, the care and effort shows.
The amount of detail in these dolls is phenomenal. They wear tiny, perfect pieces of jewellery, delicate strappy high heels, hair styles that would impress at a Fashion Week and clothes that are so neatly pleated, tucked, hemmed and panelled that a haute couture seamstress may gasp with approval. In fact, I think that seeing the ‘real world’ done in miniature is what makes dolls in general—and these dolls in particular—so culturally appealing and so impressive. If nothing else, you’ve got to marvel at the craftsmanship and wonder at the skill it takes to be a doll-sized cobbler.
The fashions modelled by the dolls in Manley’s collection are varied, which adds to the joy of the exhibition. They wear everything from silky Egyptian goddess costumes to the nipped-in silhouettes of Dior’s post-war “New Look” to rich embroidered gowns that celebrities would slink the red carpet in. There are 80s prom dolls, replete with mullets and wide lapelled jackets. There are Star Wars dolls with miniature lightsabres. There are dolls in layered silk kimonos, in restrictive Victorian dress, in skimpy bikinis. Manley does not discriminate; in these dolls she combines her love of fashion, sewing, and history.
The sheer number of dolls on display in Fashion and Fantasy, the sheer variety of their sartorial choices, and the sheer meticulousness of the detail means that this exhibition is best absorbed slowly. Take time to study each doll; be impressed by the way they tell a story about fashion, history and culture. But most of all, ensure you get to see them before the exhibition closes on November 22nd.