Let’s sit down for a little history lesson, shall we? This post has taken months to write. There are dolls here of which I know a great deal, yet others – not as much. In my search to find the best doll concepts, I found that they didn’t have to be separated into fashion dolls and everything else – because – only fashion dolls matter, right? They do to me, because I’m a fashion doll collector – but when surveying the best – one simply cannot deny the overlap.
That doesn’t mean that fashion dolls are the only creatures out there. This is not a popularity contest, nor is it intended to shut out perfectly beautiful dolls existing within our arena. Rather, it’s meant to further illustrate exactly what makes a fashion doll significant. Many falling under this genre are relevant, and as I explain here and here, it’s damn difficult to compare them to each other. And although each can be given a FRODO evaluation, that doesn’t always work when reviewing a collective of dolls. So I chose to focus on the dolls that are the most distinctive – dolls best realized in concept.
1con·cept noun \ˈkän-ˌsept\ : an idea of what something is or how it works
Concept has its standard definition – and it is relevant in all dolls – because with the exception of the clear Imposters, most dolls started with an impassioned concept. Despite similarities in materials, scale or even wearing apparel, you can still see distinguishing characteristics that make a concept exceptional (but not always original). There are some of them that either did it first – or they did it in such a way that sets them apart from others in its genre. That doesn’t always mean they are better – so you must lick on that salt block to get your bearings, so to speak.
What makes a great doll concept? We’ve already taken a look at many elements that are seen in the greatest dolls. A doll differs from a doll concept in that a singular doll may be great in its own right, but bloomed under a specific concept that held a captive audience for a period of time. That concept might not necessarily be good, or even innovative. I can already tell you that the winner of this competition is Barbie, hands-down, the greatest doll concept in known history. But there are many others worthy of mention, and they are outlined below – in no specific order. For any person who wanted to know more about dolls, from whence they came, or just a fun skip through toy history, this post is for you. I will state now, that some of these concepts are more abstract than others – but read on, and you’ll get to see a bit more into the creaky hinges of Tommydoll’s brain…
Now, also know this: my opinion is based on research and experience with these types of dolls. It’s not meant to create an arguing point amongst my readers, or anyone else for that matter. Some consider fashion dolls to only have high heel feet – which is bullshit, I say. That characteristic may serve well for the modern fashion doll, but it’s simply unfair to group a genre of dolls based on just one element of fashion – that would leave out any of the flat-feet variations of modern fashion dolls, leaving them…umm, where? And there are such things as ‘child fashion dolls’ – what separates these is merely a matter of age range. The best argument for classifying fashion dolls are those that have separately available fashions. I’m on the fence about this, because there are plenty of fashion dolls made today where no additional clothing is made available to purchase separately, except through independent artists. So herein lies my definition of a fashion doll: an anthropomorphic miniature facsimile wearing, or capable of wearing, apparel that reflects a theme, fantasy or fashion of a given age. Or – a sculpture that wears clothes. Whatever…life’s too short to get hung on the details. You can easily subdivide fashion dolls into differing categories, but they are all dolls that wear fashion. You can dismiss any of the following as ‘not a fashion doll’ – but you cannot overlook their importance in concept: Hitty – Hitty is one of the first dolls to inspire a novel, which would become a beloved children’s classic since the early 20th century. Found as a 100+ year-old doll in the 1920s, an antique doll became the book’s heroine in her travels across the globe. It’s not clear if Hitty is supposed to be a child, or an adult – but she is definitely one thing – a doll…and a doll that wasn’t specifically created for the concept which she came to represent. From adventures told in the story, Hitty has become the inspiration for what we now know as a ‘travel doll’ – dolls we bring with us during our voyages, gathering things for a vast collection of journey memorabilia – that also includes clothing. Today, Hitty’s reach is far and wide – and the concept served as inspiration for literature, rather than a toy line. Her place is fashion doll history should be noted and celebrated. You can take a shot now…
The Paper Doll – First manufactured in 1810, the paper doll existed before this milestone – and I would even venture to say that more paper dolls have been made than any other doll, including Barbie – and that is a staggering thought. As long as there has been paper and something with which to draw and cut, paper dolls have enchanted both adults and children for generations. Simply put, you are only limited by your imagination and technical skills at rendering the visual appearance. It is a medium that appeals to all ages, all classes…and more recently, has become highly collectible based not only on the artist rendering the images, but the actual subject matter portrayed in the doll itself. Just grab a pair of scissors and try to not be sucked into the world of play. I’d love to place Flatsy in a different category because she kinda stands out on her own – but nonetheless, she is a variation of the paper doll.
Bru Jne – Or ‘Bru Jeune’, this unbelievably detailed ‘plaything’ came onto the scene in the 1860s. Known as ‘Bru Jne’ because of the markings on the doll, this little lady stood on the shore of an ocean of French and German porcelain/bisque dolls made for affluent families to give to little girls as a…yes…a toy. Aside from the incredible materials and detailing, not to mention the delicate fragility of these very rare poupées, the one thing that distinguishes the Bru Jne from its more widely produced cousin, Jumeau, can be seen in the doll’s eyes. The Bru sculpt is more expressive and has more soul than the Jumeau, or any other doll of its genre. That, and the Bru Jne is exceptionally rare given its low production numbers. Antique dolls get a really bad reputation from pediophobes, and it’s mostly the eyes that draw such fear. However, when you are captured by the beauty of the hand-blown glass eyes in a whimsical expression, you will fall in love with the Bru Jne’s luxurious soul. And…If you have $20,000, you can own one yourself!
Automatons – Automated dolls – cool, huh? Sadly, I don’t know much about these creations except for those I saw in Monaco – but when you think of it, dolls that move – precursors to robots and androids – these babies were way ahead of their time, no? They are fascinating creatures – with intriguing histories – and they deserve a place among the most unique concepts in dolls.
Raggedy Ann – She is the most recognized rag doll ever, and despite her tragic origins and history, Raggedy Ann remains as one of America’s most beloved dolls. She has been widely manufactured by both doll companies and doll artists, and she was even made available to many a home sewer to craft themselves. In her given state, Ms. Ann draws the eye to her simplistic design and primary color palette. She is simple; that is what makes her one of the best doll concepts ever.
Patsy – Patsy (and her incarnations) remain as one of Bernard Lipfert’s most unique sculpts offered for doll manufacture. Produced by the Effanbee Doll Company in the early 20th century, Patsy has an expressive and innocently curious face that can only invoke a smile from even the blackest of hearts. Clearly one of the most popular dolls of its era, she has risen, faded and risen again only to fade in and around her 100th birthday. In 2002, Robert Tonner purchased Effanbee (yeah, shockingly enough, it’s in French) out of bankruptcy and re-sculpted Patsy to allow for production in vinyl and for rooting her wig with saran fiber. Patsy originally had all-molded hair that extended over her ear line…giving the impression she had no ears at all! But Tonner changed that, and with the extraordinary talents of face painting artist, Sherry Miller, Patsy was re-defined for the new millennium. Tonner’s Patsy was true to the doll’s character and delightfulness, and can be easily and affordably found on eBay (beware of Patsy dolls made in the 1980s and prior to Tonner’s 2002 takeover – these dolls are poorly designed and manufactured, and they do not live up to the dream that is Patsy).
However, that rebirth wouldn’t last long as Patsy could never seem to find an audience – the doll and its legacy would once again fade away. Tonner has since re-sculpted Patsy again, this time with greatly exaggerated anime/human caricature features seen in the enlarged, inset eyes. But this new Patsy wanders too far from the Lipfert sculpt to be included in this grouping.
Lenci – During the Lenci doll heyday between World War I and World War II, Madame Lenci (Helenchen Konig Scavini) created many types of cloth dolls in a bohemian influence and climate. But it’s Mme. Lenci’s children that stand out as the true signature of this artist’s vision. In keeping with the pouty look of most child dolls of the age, Lenci’s offerings, made of pressed felt, had certain warmth that other dolls simply did not have. The side-glancing eyes and puffed tiny lips led to a signature look that would be widely copied in the years since Lenci’s first felt creations. Today, Lenci dolls in good condition are not only rare, but highly collectible. You may also see some influence of Lenci’s children in today’s artistry such as R. John Wright, whose signature look tends to be taken almost directly from the Lenci ideal, although the artist tends to render his dolls mostly on the precise reproduction of the subject matter with which he is inspired (leaving very little of the doll artist, himself, in the process).
Shirley Temple – Say what you will regarding Miss ‘Good Ship Lollipop’, but she is still the most recognized child star of motion picture history. Since the release of ‘Stand Up and Cheer’ in 1934, the pint-sized commodity had made her way into America’s hearts – and the big cash flow began. Not only was she an amazingly talented child actor, but she had a face that lent itself to a genre of dolls like no other could. The dimples and hairstyle were distinctive, and the little pouty smile had ‘manufactured doll’ written all over it. Hundreds of Shirley Temple doll styles have been produced over the decades, some of them quite collectible, and some of them fairly forgettable. Ideal Toy Company cornered the market with its license of the star, issuing mass versions of Shirley Temple dolls that are the most widely known; however, several fakes and copies exist, so know your identifications and markings here.
Théâtre de la Mode– Not a commercially produced doll…and more of a mannequin, really…however, the wire figures made for the exhibition of the ‘Theater of Fashion’ deserve a place among fashion doll illuminati. World War II was over, and the darkness of Paris had been lifted. Artisans within the Parisian elite gathered to create one of the best propaganda campaigns in marketing history to firmly reiterate, and forever establish, Paris as the fashion capitol of the world. The 1/3 scale mannequins wore the most lavish and detailed of French fashions, including working buttons and zippers, exquisite hand-embroidery, millinery and jewelry the likes of which had never been seen – all fully functional in miniature. Once the exhibition touring was complete, the coveted items and jewelry (mostly real) were removed, and the mannequins were immediately dismissed to the rubbish bin. How very telling of the fashion industry (and some in the doll industry)! Some of the collection was lost, but most of the dolls and their clothing were retrieved and are now beautifully restored and housed at Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, WA (direct link to collection is here). Robert Tonner, recognizing the significance of the collection and its widely copied fashions in such fashion dolls as Gene, wanted to officially approach the collection as an artist. He licensed with Maryhill to reproduce fashions on his 16” vinyl/hard plastic fashion doll, Tyler Wentworth, and subsequently for the 16” doll Antoinette. The results are nothing short of breathtaking. Truly one of Tonner’s strongest achievements in doll-making, the Théâtre de la Mode reproductions were extraordinarily detailed, with colors inspired by the inner, non-faded seams of the original fabrics. Never before (or since) has any doll maker accomplished such an undertaking successfully, as each doll serves as a stand-alone testament to fashion in miniature. Wendy – In 1953, Madame Alexander introduced storyland character dolls in an 8-inch size that would cement the company’s place in the minds of the American doll enthusiast – and many little girls across the country. Introduced as the ‘Alexanderkins’, the rounded little pouty face was named for Alexander’s granddaughter, Wendy Ann. In the years that followed, ‘Ann’ would be dropped, and Wendy became a collector’s fantastic dream. The facial sculpt (by Bernard Lipfert) has been widely copied, but never successfully – and the commercial success of the doll would continue to be Alexander Doll Company’s bread and butter even to this day….which is sad, really…because the company would have no other truly successful doll sculpt, with the exception of Cissy and variants (see below).
Over the decades, Wendy has developed in a number of different body sculpts – and more recently, the molds were re-made to remove the little ‘1982 moustache’ impression the doll’s upper lip seemed to develop from years of use and re-use. New head molds were made to spruce up the company’s 8-inch doll collection, including ‘Maggie Mix-Up’ (actually, a much cuter face sculpt than the ever-depressing Wendy – and suspiciously very much resembling Betsy McCall, (see below), ‘Billy’ (no, not the one discussed further down – originally a ‘Wendy’ doll dressed as a boy that ultimately became an original little boy sculpt in the 2000s that doesn’t hold a candle to the other sculpts with which he is meant to accessorize), and newer sculpts representing different ethnicities.
Wendy makes this list because in her ‘golden age‘, the quality of the ‘American-Made’ doll was unparalleled…today, not so much. Because the commodity seems to keep the struggling Alexander Doll Company afloat, she is terribly over-produced, recycled and she seems to be everywhere. Now produced in China (as are all Alexander dolls), the design effort that goes into each doll is visibly lacking. Exclusive editions are produced for just about any retailer asking – including severe discount houses such as Tuesday Morning. A strong push by Madame Alexander to re-focus Wendy and her friends toward children may be helping, but the open-window packaging and ‘Toys-R-Us’ merchandising cheapen this doll’s rich past toward a very uncertain future.
Betsy McCall – When I think of ‘cute’, I think of Betsy McCall. This doll always makes me smile, and she has been able to lift my mood out of the darkest of depths. She originated as a paper doll in McCall’s Magazine in the 1950s…and American Character Doll Company reimagined the two dimensional tyke into one of America’s most popular little dolls of the 1950s. Pre-dating Madame Alexander’s ‘Maggie’ face mold, the diminutive smile placed on Betsy’s little smirk instantly warmed the heart of little girls. So extensively played with, it is difficult to find an 8inch Betsy doll in good condition.
There have been several incarnations of the Betsy McCall doll, including the famous ‘flirty eyes’ version in which the doll’s eyes move from side to side with a tilt of her head. However, the one version that stands in the mind of most Betsy fans is commonly referred to as ‘Tiny Betsy’, the little 8-inch articulated doll with sleep eyes and a rooted wig cap. In the 1990s, Robert Tonner acquired the license to make dolls under the Betsy McCall name (even though the magazine no longer exists). Again, Tonner created different versions of the little girl, but his Tiny Betsy remake and his original 14-inch Betsy McCall remain as favorites to collectors.
Cissy – We’ve already discussed the origins of Cissy here, and make no mistake, her presence on this list is not only warranted, but many of the dolls that follow can thank their very existence to this fashion queen. Despite such dolls as Miss Revlon being more commercially successful, they do not make this list because they can’t compare to the change effected by the flame that is Cissy. Her clothing was always meticulous, luxe, and full of detail blown off by other companies in an effort to create a less expensive product for the masses. Beyond that, when you look at Cissy next to Miss Revlon, there is a design artistry evident in the Madame Alexander creation that simply isn’t present in Ideal’s attempt. I say ‘attempt’ because although Miss Revlon was unique in her look, the doll possessed unappealing proportions, cheap clothing (laughably named such exotic titles as ‘Queen of Diamonds’ – when it’s quite obvious the only true intent of the doll is to advertise Revlon Cosmetics), and packaging that sold a very specific image to little girls – when they would get a very disappointing reality check once the box was opened (the illustrations of the doll and its posing ability are clearly false advertising).
Once Barbie changed the doll industry, Cissy fell by the wayside – in her place, a number of Madame Alexander ‘Portrait’ dolls would be created using the more realistic, and infinitely less attractive ‘Jacqueline’ (or Jackie) head sculpt – each specifically targeted to the adult collector rather than children. Now, Alexander’s reputation of ‘display versus play’ was already well in place – you simply didn’t play with a Madame Alexander doll – they were put high up on a shelf to look at and admire – and dust, if one was so inclined. With this end in view, Alexander’s market would naturally shift to the adult collector on its own.
The Cissy head sculpt would be used rarely in the next 30+ years, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Cissy re-emerged to take back her crown. Designed by the late John Puzewski, the ‘Cissy Comes Home’ collection re-introduced a vinyl and hard plastic version of Cissy using a slightly modified head mold, stronger make-up and large acrylic eyes that can only be described as mesmerizing.
This new version of Cissy had an identity as a world-traveling redheaded debutante, whose life was laden in luxurious clothing, jewelry and accoutrement. The doll was a hit with collectors, but as the first styles shipped, customers would soon be introduced to one of Madame Alexander’s most notorious practices, that of changing the prototype doll shown in catalog images to the lesser version arriving in collector hands – all to keep production costs down. Simply put, the dolls just didn’t look like they did in the catalog (this is a particular peeve of many collectors today and a problem with all doll manufacturers) – whether it was a mussed wig, revisions in make-up…or the substitution of lesser jewelry/accessories, the new Cissy would have some ups and downs.
It would be with the passing of designer John Puzewski that Cissy’s legacy would plummet to rock bottom. Mired with rising prices, and a more discriminating collecting audience, Cissy eventually became like Wendy, being whored out to every store, event or table centerpiece until she would lose her identity all together. A host of guest designers would lavish their egos onto Cissy, making her terribly inconsistent, and ultimately, off-putting to the collector. Cissy can still be seen today, often heavily discounted by doll retailers in a desperate attempt to unload their inventory. Madame Alexander continues to put this poor girl through every imaginable look and marketing scheme seen in the industry, when all she probably needs is a nice long rest.
G.I. Joe – is a doll, plain and simple, I don’t care what Urban Dictionary says. Dolls were out there for centuries before some marketing schmuck at Hasbro came up with the ‘boys don’t play with dolls’ axiom. To quote a wonderful tee shirt worn by friends at the Barbie Convention, “Barbie – making boys wish they were girls since 1959.” And it’s true, you know. Why on earth would anyone seem to feel that they needed a new name for a doll? Ahhh…money, of course…
G.I. Joe had all the stuff, all the clothes (though nowhere near as glamorous)…and he even had dramas in which little boys could live vicariously. It seems utter genius was at play when someone decided that boys needed a doll, too.
What makes G.I. Joe unique and brilliant is simply because he is the antithesis of Barbie. The first actual use of the term ‘action figure’, Joe was for Hasbro what Barbie was for Mattel, but the main difference was how Mattel fought so early on to protect their brand. Hasbro did, too…but before long, it seemed that just about every company was issuing its own version of the ‘action figure’ which was too broadly defined. All Hasbro could do was sit back and watch them eat away at Joe’s sales.
Nevertheless, G.I Joe is an icon – the doll was wonderfully designed, paid great attention to detail, and taught all little boys that war was cool (despite the emerging disgust of the Vietnam War). Interesting to think: “G.I.Joe – making boys want to kill since 1964.”
Crissy – Crissy is one of the few dolls the superseded a doll concept and inevitably became much more popular than the original version by American Character. Tressy was a knock-off competitor to Barbie, and she housed a mechanism within the torso to allow her hair to ‘grow’ – Ideal recycled the patent as the much larger and hipper Crissy in 1968/69 – Crissy went on to become one of the most popular play dolls of the 1970s. What made Crissy better than Tressy was the change in scale to a larger doll, thereby allowing for easier styling of hair – that and long, beautiful hair was a much more popular fashion statement in the 1970s than it was in Tressy’s day. Children didn’t even have to do much styling to get that Marsha Brady grooviness in Crissy’s hair. I loved my sister’s Crissy – loved her so much, I pulled and pulled on that hair to get it longer (how telling) – and ultimately finding myself stunned on the floor with a red ponytail in my hand. Surprisingly enough, this didn’t scare me away from dolls…
Dawn – Meanwhile, while Barbie was cleaning up town and taking names, one little toy maker produced its toy fashion doll, Dawn. Hers is probably one of the most tragic stories in fashion doll history, notwithstanding the overnight demise of the pre-Barbie Glamour Girls. Dawn was riddled with so many problems in her marketing and production – whereas very popular with children, the manufacturer, Topper, couldn’t seem to get its head out of its ass before finally going bankrupt in 1973. Dawn was just so little…and that made her cool. True, her clothing wasn’t very detailed or varied, but when she got on that rocking Fashion Show runway, this little boy was learning to sissy his walk before puberty was even a glimmer in his eye.
Dawn was interesting in her simplicity, original to a fault, and almost sarcastic in her being a miniature of a miniature. I couldn’t get enough of my sister’s Dawn dolls… Cabbage Patch Kids– I hear you – this isn’t a fashion doll, you say…whatever (did you read my opening intro?) I won’t go too much into these…by marks, they are amongst the most bizarre dolls ever created (in my own humble opinion) – but the reason they appear on this list is by sheer virtue of the creator, Xavier Roberts.
‘Little People’ cloth dolls by Xavier Roberts became Cabbage Patch Kids. You can read the history here, but the reason I add them to this list is this: I personally witnessed two women have a knock down, hair pulling, wondrous spectacle of a show trying to buy the last one in Panama City, FL around 1984. My mother and I were enthralled at the sheer determination these women had – just to acquire one of these dolls for their children. Would you lose an eye over this?
Despite their testament to popular dolls in our pop culture, the Cabbage Patch Kids stand as a reminder of marketing gone wrong. Oh yes, they were well done…dare I say it, even designed well (well, there is that face). Nevertheless, creepy little children that spring from the cabbage patch deserve a strong kudos in terms of make and model…and America’s attempt to own one.
Chatty Cathy – I’m only including this doll because she was Mattel’s number two behind Barbie, and the most popular child doll of the 1960s. I never liked Chatty Cathy…and it doesn’t surprise me she inspired a Twilight Zone episode. Be that as it may, Cathy was a powerhouse. Read all about her history here, if you will – but in short, she was popular, cute, represented American ideals and childhood innocence…and she talked. Sorry folks, but when dolls start talking, I’m walking…and that’s all I got to say about that.
Jem – Truly outrageous, indeed! Jem was considered to be a failure by Hasbro – but in my opinion, they didn’t give her enough time – well, that and Barbie & The Rockers exploded onto the scene as the result the potential for Jem’s success, leaving the poor girl with the big pink hair in the fashion doll dust. Jem is here because of her concept smashing through the fashion doll norms of the day to give – yes – truly outrageous designs and styling, with just enough of a different scale and look to be a contender (if not stand out on the toy shelf). Jem bordered on the sexy – and as with Barbie, parents hated Jem – which means kids loved her! She is now considered an icon toy of a generation, despite Barbie’s machine.
Jem fans everywhere need to give Integrity Toys a shout out for not only reviving Jem, but making her in such a high-end, well-realized concept. And with the new movie in the works for 2015 release – methinks Jem is staging a big splash (making her truly relevant, more than outrageous). I just can’t wait to see what Integrity does with AHS: Coven in 2015.
Gene – I’ve talked at great lengths about Gene and her history here, here, and here. For many fashion doll collectors, the 1995 introduction of Gene was a game-changer in not just scale, but also in the way fashion dolls arrived as collectibles – no doubt, she will serve as a prime case study for future marketing generations, much in the same way Barbie was, although targeting different audiences. Gene can also be attributed to the rise of the secondary market, as companies like eBay formed, and collectors flocked to the new online auction site to sell their limited editions.
The brainchild of illustrator, Mel Odom, Gene Marshall represented a Hollywood movie star who came from a small town and made it big in the 40s, 50s and 60s. The dolls were manufactured and sold directly by Ashton-Drake Galleries – and in the beginning, a limited number of dealers in its fabricated NALED network.
Gene was marketed largely to the Barbie collector audience, amongst others, including Madame Alexander. What she represented was a gaping hole in the doll market: the lack of anything to challenge Barbie from an adult collector’s point-of-view. Add to the ethereal blue eyes and unusual proportions, Gene also had a fascinating story with lots of clothing and stuff which you could play with until your fingers fell off. Customizers loved Gene, re-making her into known Hollywood icons, and sewing couture wardrobes to rival Paris or New York.
Gene introduced the 16inch 1:4 scale size to the mass market, and although Robert Tonner’s marketing people (like me) tried to remind you that he was already working with such proportions four years before Gene, the reality is you can hardly compare a $1,500 porcelain doll limited to 50 pieces to the mass presence of Gene (that and Takara was already playing with its Lady Luminous – see Honorable Mentions, below). Nevertheless, one had to marvel at Tonner’s multi-jointed porcelain creations in all their fragility, and years ahead of any other multi-articulated hard plastic or resin doll. It was purely coincidence that a fashion doll-loving doll artist would work in 1:4 scale. Nevertheless, Mel popularized it first.
Eventually leading to Gene’s downfall were lack of innovation in the doll itself, and the rise of Tonner’s Tyler Wentworth, which gave collectors a bright new option that did evolve as technology and collector tastes did. With Tyler came a host of Doyennes and Wannabes that would make your head spin, also contributing to more choices for the collector, albeit some of them contrived concepts with amateur (but decent) execution and glossy packaging at best. Just because your doll is a ballerina does not mean you invented ballet…and that’s all I have to say about that.
When Gene’s innovations did come, they were too little, too late – her shrinking base in an oversaturated market virtually sealed her fate. In addition, you had the retailers who hoarded the dolls before retirements were announced in a criminal act pitting greed and price-fixing against the people who made Gene a star – a plan that eventually back-fired as Gene’s popularity plummeted.
Gene was sourced to other doll-makers, but few wanted to touch the box-office-poisoned star – until she staged her first comeback attempt in the hands of Integrity Toys. IT’s ‘Gene by Jason Wu’ was an admirable attempt, bringing a higher level of quality to the clothing and accessories. But the doll just didn’t look the same, at least not in the eyes of the Gene faithful. Other problems in manufacturing and ideals would be a challenging ordeal for Integrity and Gene’s Mel Odom, and production ceased in 2010.
Today, Gene has risen once again, like the true Hollywood Phoenix, in the hands of JAMIEshow. Now a resin realization, Gene’s look is more in line with the Ashton-Drake version – that and she retails for almost three times what an original dressed Gene did. But the quality is there, and it’s a way for the star to embrace her faithful…still out there in the dark. Billy – Totem’s ‘Out & Proud’ gay doll wasn’t the first ‘gay’ doll – actually Gay Bob holds that honor, despite his still being in the closet. What you have to understand about Billy and his friends, is that they are one of the rare instances where mixing sex and dolls actually worked. Being anatomically correct (well, we might wish that), Billy brought a fashion doll collection that celebrated the various stereotypes of popular gay culture. He was a doll that was targeted to adult gay men as a sexual novelty (not unlike Bild Lilli to some extent), not realizing what they were creating would make fashion doll collecting history.
There are rumors circulating that tell the tale of Billy’s demise resulting from a lawsuit by UPS (challenging Totem’s use of the signature brown suit in its ‘BPS’ Billy), but I don’t find much reference to this as truth. Mostly it’s reported that Billy ended when his trademark expired, as is stated on Wikipedia. Hmmmm…you just know there’s a juicy story here…
What made her unique was her wardrobe realization – but her world was also accessorized by a vast cast of characters, many of which actually became dolls. Created by Robert Tonner in 1999, Tyler was the ‘modern’ equivalent to Gene – from a design and manufacturing point-of-view, Tyler was superior to Gene in many ways – but in her clothing, you found the most significant departure. French hand-beaded lace, embroidered Italian silk, cashmere – these were the materials that the fashion designer, turned doll maker (Tonner) infused into his fictional account of a – wait for it – a fashion designer – in modern Manhattan. Over the years, Tyler amassed an incredible wardrobe – one that has not been seen since the likes of Barbie – one could argue that Gene also had an amazing wardrobe, but comparing nylon shower curtain fabric to beaded silk chiffon just doesn’t infuse a closet with much scintillation to roll your moth balls around – correct?
Tyler’s concept followed a roughly similar idea to Barbie, except the target market was the adult collector. Tonner embraced the ‘power of play’ to bring a doll that could be enjoyed with multiple fashions and accessories, or easily customized into new and exciting visions.
What brought Tyler down was the rise of Ellowyne Wilde’s popularity (see below), and the creativity that was being poured into Wilde Imagination – leaving Tyler, Sydney Chase and friends with a pale shadow of the wardrobe they had become accustomed to (as was also the case with her customers). Mixed with rising production costs and evaporating accessories, the value of offerings from direct-sell Wilde (a Tonner company) was sharply stronger than that of its parent.
Tyler was the fashion doll that ushered in a new millennium, evolving and changing in face paint, hair styling, body articulation and even a new head sculpt (known by her fans as Tyler 2.0 – a term never adopted by Tonner officially). She is the only fashion doll marketed to adults that even comes close to Barbie in breadth and depth of design and concept. What with basic dolls, dressed dolls, wigged dolls, new sculpts, fashion boutique, ready-to-wear, friends and rivals, family members, accessories, furniture, fashion shows, weddings, varied body articulation, squishy heads, wonky eyes, and the bloody Théâtre de la Mode – no one did it like Tyler did.
Anime Resin Ball-Jointed Dolls – They vary in quality, and you’d get into a fist fight defending their honor – but they still all pretty much look the same because of anime origins infused in this genre of Geisha. Most people refer to the ‘A’ in ‘ABJDs’ as ‘Asian’ – but it should refer to ‘Anime’. Huge eyes, sexually suggestive Lolita lips – lucky to even have a nose at all – these dolls vary greatly – but they call upon the exact same fantasy elements that make them all look similar. And that, my Puddings, is why they rank in this list – because their concept of ‘unique’ comes from something no other doll maker would touch (not yet, anyway) – anime. Sure, you can point to Volks/Dollfie as the originator on the scene of manufactured ABJD dolls – so I’ll let you draw upon your own conclusions as to who did it first/best. But ball-jointing was nothing new in dolls – nor was anime-inspired design in doll-making. Nevertheless, you cannot deny that the resin ball-jointed doll based largely on anime design ideals doesn’t qualify in a class of its own.
Ellowyne Wilde – The only reason this hateful bitch is included in this listing is because of the brilliance in her realization. I hate her, let there be no mistake – but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize a unique and quality concept when I see one.
Ellowyne is perhaps the only mass-produced doll that, aside from Bratz, epitomized anime ideals as her signature look. Again, paired with an exceptional and broadly imaginative wardrobe, Ellowyne also blogged about her endless ennui. This is a woman who would have either committed suicide by now (oh no – let’s not forget she wasn’t depressed – just bored) – or she would have OD’d experimenting with drugs to alleviate her boredom. Really…anyone who is bored in this day an age obviously does not watch FOX News.
What eventually made Ellowyne cliché was the exact same thing that made her a star – and it all came down to boredom. One could even say Gene, and many other previously successful fashion dolls suffer the same fool gladly – they simply cannot sustain the excitement of being new.
Fashion Royalty – Most would say it is Barbie done better – and I’d bitch-slap that person for being such a narrow-minded fool. It’s true, they share a scale, and even a collector base – but what Jason Wu’s breakout collectible divas hold as unique is also driven by the same concept that made Tyler unique – a dazzling wardrobe (though nothing out there holds a candle to Tyler Wentworth’s extensive line of varied clothing crafted in top fabrics). And like Tyler and Gene, Fashion Royalty had a complex story of heroes and rivals – however, what makes Integrity’s concept brilliant is the subterfuge of bitchery, sexuality and conniving that is infused in its fiction.
Integrity pushed the limits with the development of their signature line, bringing an almost too fast evolution in its body articulation, and multiple interchangeable body parts that borrow a toke from the action figure and BJD worlds. Nevertheless, you will find its most interesting characteristic in its head sculpts that do not smile – some even scowl – showing a propensity toward beauty being represented by not just race or facial shape – but in expression.
These bitches have attitude, and no one int he 12inch world has enjoyed the success Integrity has captured in creating feuding fan collectives based on a library of head sculpts (Robert Tonner gets that honor in the 16inch world).
The FR line also has a much broader collection of interesting men, some even gay – and sexual power is intermixed with clever fashion storytelling to create a stand-out concept that has sustained itself far longer than the 5-year lifecycle of a collectible (I didn’t make that up – it comes from Pam Danziger).
Bratz – Move over Barbie, toy fashion dolls had just brought it – well, kinda-sorta. Blythe did it first, and Diva Starz made it current, but MGA Entertainment’s Bratz collection smashed everything with its Steve Madden advertisement-inspired, little sparkly whores with huge feet, head, eyes and lips – and a tiny, itty bitty body. And you think Barbie sends a bad body image to little girls? Bitch, please. Only Dr. Frankenstein could achieve such success with that human body.
But as parents freaked out over the onslaught of Bratz – somewhere, someone was turning them into the first and only head-on rival to Barbie, except maybe Hasbro’s Jem – but to nowhere near the level of Bratz success. Why? Bratz was designed and styled with a cutting edge toy doll alternate reality, breaking every stereotype and norm when it came to target market colors, ‘proper’ attire, and behaviors befitting a Pink Powerhouse or Disney Princess. You cannot deny what Bratz brought to doll making trends (ahem, Ellowyne Wilde?).
As when threatened by Jem, Mattel reacted swiftly and head-on – inspiring a severe departure in its design consistency. Be that as it may, dolls like My Scene Barbie still couldn’t touch Bratz in terms of little girls’ attention. So I guess we’ll just have to leave it to the lawyers, right? Therein lies the toy-industry-nastiness of intellectual property and trademark protections – and who-did-it-first-while-under-whose-employment – Bratz was squashed by Mattel. It wasn’t a fast, easy or inexpensive fight. Just as Toy Wars documented Hasbro v. Mattel – the case of Mattel v. MGA will probably serve as a generation’s legal battle resulting from someone sniffing around Barbie’s litterbox.
Bratz is still around today through some special legal magic that re-designed the dolls into something that is not only passé, but just not unique anymore – along with hybrid cross-over bastardizations leading to Monster High and others.
The Sybarites – From Superfrock to Superdoll, the evolution of this design house is absolute. They did what no one has been able to do with a doll – they brought about not only fashion industry attention worldwide, but became successful at creating the haute couture label inspiring fashion doll collectors everywhere. Brilliance in marketing, design and concept, plain and simple – though, there really is nothing simple about The Sybarites.
Scale was the only thing Superdoll borrowed for its idea – everything else has been unique and sublime ever since. These are doll makers that really don’t watch what anyone else is doing, because they are already into their next world. That’s not to say they don’t care what others are offering…but it just doesn’t impact their creative process in the way it does other doll makers. Superdoll created a fine resin 1:4 scale model without a specific storyline, but more of an idea – a mood, if you will. The Sybarite wardrobe makes Bergdorf Goodman look like a common thrift store. The Sybarites cannot be classified by just clothing, however – their artistic influence in fashion design, photography, styling and ambience create more than a ‘look’ – you are left with a presence…one you are unlikely to forget – ever.
The Sybarites have a savage androgyny to them that crosses a line most sexual, sometimes extreme, and always pristine. The clothing they wear borrows from a wealth of haute couture infused with sarcasm that is highly prized in the eyes of its creators and its customers. From the outside looking in, one might see a world of fashion snobbery in its audience, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Theirs is a world that embraces fashion, admires artistry and devours criticism as a first course appetizer.
Like Gene, The Sybarites are trendsetters in its genre of fashion dolls – I refer to them as the Goddesses. But Superdoll walks a fine line between Goddesses and Monas, often simultaneously co-existing on both sides of the invisible, but permeable membrane that divides the two. Is it an art doll? Is it a manufactured doll? It’s both – it’s neither – it’s a super doll.
Poppy Parker – Poppy Parker did what Daisy & Willow couldn’t do, that is, make the 1960s fashion genre interesting. And by ‘interesting’, I don’t mean the shock value of its minimalist simplicity – rather – fascinating it its range of diversity, showing us that the 60s really wasn’t lost in a purple haze of hallucinogens. Possibly the least ‘interesting’ period in 20th century fashion when you remove the threat of nudity or deflate the beehive from a dead president’s widow – the 60s did have some significant moments, and Poppy reminds us why they worked.
Oh yes, there are the detractors that just hate the girl’s puckered lips, comparing ‘Poopy’ Parker to some ducked-lipped plastic surgery ninny. Bullshit and balderdash, I say. As with Integrity’s other fashion dolls (save the arguable possibility of the ITBE Collection), Poppy excels in having a distinctive expression, one that successfully transitioned into a popular 16inch variation.
Across Poppy’s storylines, there has been no misunderstandings of her character, or her ideal. She is not the most ‘original’ of ideas…just one of the most unique incarnations of the concept.
Mary Magpie – She is a work of love by artist Joey Versaw, and probably is the closest thing to Gene you will see in terms of uniqueness. Don’t misunderstand me, Mary and Gene are nothing alike – but Mary is quite possibly the most original and unique concept to come along since Gene.
You can easily see the retro black light influence of day-glow posters we saw in the 70s and 80s – but a styling that speaks to the 50s, 60s…and today. Mary is all over the place in terms of style – from super-high-glam, to girl-next-door charm – see her captured by Ernesto Padró-Campos – and you’ll be drawn into her quirky hypnoses. Why trip on acid when Versaw does it for you – and gives you a fabulous doll to boot? Why, Samantha Stevens couldn’t have conjured up anything more mesmerizing and kitschy, even while trying to restore Darren from an Endora-conjured turnip.
She looks nothing like anything else out there – and that’s a good thing (even his First Love men are a breath of fresh air). Versaw creates his 3-D printed dolls and characters all by himself, and they invoke a magical spell of color, brightness, expression and camp. When (and if) he decides to interpret Mary in plastic, she’ll be much more available to the public. Versaw is in Mona/Goddess territory – and as such, methinks his advancement to manufactured dolls should be closely watched by fashion doll aficionados everywhere.
JAMIEshow Demi Couture – Okay, so they are not unique in scale or even genre – but what makes them one of the best concepts out there is because of its scale and genre. Let me explain…
Other resin ball-jointed dolls have been made in 1:6 scale, but few have been realized in such a mainstream way, that they beg collectors to not only notice them, but to actually own them. Watching the evolution of the JAMIEshow 16inch dolls has been fascinating, and given the exponential experience gained through that line’s development, we are now presented with a new size variant at a popular price point that harks across a broad realm of 12inch doll collectors.
This is where Demi Couture has a true opportunity to shine like no other doll in its scale. Like Superdoll did with its Sybarite, JAMIEshow merges the art doll with the manufactured doll, creating a unique hybrid, and quite possibly the first in resin to appeal to so many collectors. The truly remarkable art seen in MicroDivas brings mind-blowing reality to an even smaller scale, but the price point of these Monas place them beyond the reach of collectors at large. Not so with Demi Couture – at $275 for a 12inch resin dressed doll, collectors can integrate them into an existing 1:6 scale grouping, and share clothes, too. Not to mention adding well-conceived accessories like rooted wig caps for extra realness.
I would expect to see other 12inch fashion dolls to start appearing on the scene trying to garnish the same attraction as Demi Couture…but I suspect the folks at JAMIEshow already know this, and will stay one step ahead. My assessment of this doll may seem premature, but I would guess we will be seeing much more of these little ladies as the concept matures.
Dollikins – These Cissy/Revlon knock-offs earn a place in this list not because they were beautiful or original – but because they paved the way for multiple points of articulation – a trend that wouldn’t truly progress until years after their time. They did possess a charm all their own, however – and Uneeda’s foresight into maximum posing ability was clearly a triumph in an industry about to be pulverized by Barbie.
Kitty Collier – Kitty Collier is Tonner’s vintage beauty that died before she had a chance to truly live. Evolving from Tonner’s porcelain 20inch lady sculpt used in such collections as Decades of Fashion, the size would shrink to 18inches when cast into vinyl. Initially lacking in articulation, Kitty represented the vintage shop display mannequin, and great lengths were taken to give her a wardrobe of vintage appeal.
Different from the painted-eye porcelain version, vinyl Kitty would have deep-set, acrylic eyes full of wonder and life. Collectors commented on the warmth in her expression – something Tonner understood fully in many of his sculpts of the day. Her wardrobe was not complex, but it was enchanting in its day-to-evening possibilities – and when they really dressed her up, she was a stunner. She also eventually found increased articulation, but the explosion of 16inch Doyennes and Wannabees left this poor lady wandering helplessly close to obscurity.
Not Tonner’s intention, but Kitty was clearly a rival to Cissy and Gene for the vintage fashion doll lover. But the unusual scale set her apart, thereby making her unique, and may have contributed to difficulty in finding an audience – if dolls can’t share clothes, that makes them the red-headed stepchild. Her price points (slightly above Gene, and half of Cissy) were also remarkable given the level of detail and quality.
To further expand Kitty’s reach, Tonner created Tiny Kitty Collier as his homage to the Little Miss Revlon dolls he so loved in his youth. Tiny Kitty was incredibly popular, and held onto her reach much more tightly than her 18inch counterpart. Tiny Kitty was a real contender for the Barbie collector market, although proportions were markedly different (and she looked nothing like big Kitty) – but people love their tiny, and they could find interesting matches for the 1:6 dolls in Tiny Kitty’s world.
Lady Luminous – Takara’s Amazonian fashion mannequin also presented a unique take on the fashion doll, with smart styling and impeccable clothing. Though not inexpensive, Lady Luminous preceded the manufactured Asian ball-jointed origins (and even Gene Marshall) to give a more Western point-of-view to an Asian fashion doll. The line was never fully realized however – and Takara eventually merged with Tomy, but it all went tits up in 2006. Pity…
Elizabet Bizelle – In a murky sea of 16inch dolls, Elizabet instantly found her audience in 2004’s Haute Doll Debut. Again – more of a mannequin, what she and her sister, Kotalin, brought to the fashion doll scene was an original point-of-view from an artist/sculptor, fully realized in form and function – but unfortunately, not with advanced articulation – which was emerging as the defining factor in fashion dolls of the day. What earns these ladies a spot in concept comes from their sinuously elegant physical form, something lacking in many of its contemporaries – and would later become a more pressing subject in the ball-jointed doll arena, Superdoll, Integrity’s emerging fashion dolls, and the CED glamazons by Doug James and the late Laura Meisner.
Given the fact that creator Jozef Szekeres also had a Disney-based artistic past, you can see why the Bizelle girls are unique in both face and body. They can still be found on the secondary market, and if Szekeres transitions his debut concept into mass production, methinks you’ll see a new contender.
So there you have it – toys who wear clothes that contributed significance to fashion doll history. There are many others, of course – but I feel these dolls stand out as top shelf contenders – each bringing something specific to dolls as a whole – whether you think they are fashion dolls are not. There can be no question that many dolls exist that deserve mention for one contribution or another – and that leaves the door open to other significant accomplishments amongst our diminutive divas. Remember…all dolls deserve love – and most deserve recognition. What are your favorites and why?