What is Museum Quality Doll Clothing & Costumes?

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Appropriate doll clothing is essential in the display of antique dolls. There are many differences in repairing and restoring doll clothing than just making doll clothes/dresses and in sewing museum quality doll costumes. The doll costumer must understand the clothing of the era. In order to have authentic doll clothing, thorough knowledge of dolls is needed, as well as the periods the dolls were made, and how they were dressed when they came from the factory.

Many people dressing old antique dolls dress them so inappropriately it is almost comical. For example: a bisque head child doll from the 1900 –1925 era would never be dressed as an 1860’s fashion lady! Not only is the time period wrong, but the type of clothing a child would wear verses an adult is different and that is the same for doll clothing! This devalues a beautiful heirloom. For museum quality costuming, it is essential to have an excellent knowledge of antique dolls and fashion history.

Comprehensive knowledge of doll clothing is essential. Antique dolls were dressed as dolls are today, in costumes reflecting the human dress or costumes of the era.
During the Civil War era, ladies wore hoop skirts — Dolls at the height of fashion wore hoop-skirts under their costumes, along with corsets. In that same era, women wore “bloomers,” long underpants with ties at the bottom of the legs or gathered with a band of lace or eyelet. These bloomers were open in the crotch! (cold in those privies!) Later “pantalettes,” were

Brown eyed china doll in authentic doll clothing

Brown eyed china doll in authentic clothing

shorter, falling above and below the knee, no longer gathered or puffed at the bottom.White was the only appropriate color for these cotton undergarments — it was considered “pure” because it could be (!) boiled in LYE to clean and sanitize it. Since no fabric dyes at that time were truly permanent, even if white was not considered the only “clean” underwear, there would have been serious problems with keeping colored underwear clean, as boiling would soon fade and destroy any colors. White cotton that has been around for a number of years may have yellowed, making people think off white was the original color. If those garments are properly cleaned (happily we no longer have to boil them in Lye) you would see they were white!

In the later 1800’s, bustles became fashionable. Dolls mirrored the fashionable styles of the day and were dressed with bustles made of woven wire and heavily padded with cotton. By the turn of the century, the bustle was gone and big sleeves were in. Dolls from 1905 would not have come from the factory with a bustle and a child doll would not have come in a long dress like a lady, but wear a dress that was shorter in length and loose fitting.

Original does not necessarily mean “hand sewn”!
Most people think “all original clothing” on antique dolls is all hand sewn with no machine stitching. This is nonsense. There are original clothes sewn by hand, but also many original clothes, even back to the 1850’s, were sewn with a straight stitch on a sewing machine. The sewing machine was in common use in factories by 1870 and was marketed for home use by 1889. No one would pay ladies to sit in a factory and sew by hand, when they could do the work much faster using a machine!

Since there were no machines that did a blind hem stitch or other machine finishing stitches, such as sewing on snaps and buttons, finishing was still done by hand. Therefore, most old costumes after 1870 have a combination of hand and machine work, although many, many dolls had their first clothing made at home by the loving hands of a mother who didn’t have a machine. Thus, clothing that is the appropriate style and fabric can indeed be all hand sewn and completely authentic. It is up to the costumer to make the appropriate mix of handwork and machine stitching.



French Fashion doll clothing

French Fashion Suit

A working knowledge of fabrics, their history and usage is critical!
Before 1900, there were only a few fabrics in use — linen, cotton, silk and wool of various types. Thus, costumes from that period and earlier, if to be considered Museum Quality, must be made with those fabrics. This includes any trim! To use a lace made with any kind of synthetic would automatically disqualify the costume for museum quality. Museums, above all else, want authenticity!
In the late 1800’s, rayon fabric made of cellulose, (the first synthetic fabric) was first manufactured, and called imitation silk — being much cheaper than silk, it was greatly welcomed — but it was so highly flammable, it was soon taken off the market.
It wasn’t until about 1905 that a good, safer rayon came into common use. This was pressed into service for all kinds of things, called “imitation silk” by most people, it was not only commonly used for ladies fancy undergarments, but was used a lot for dolls. Old doll catalogs, from the early 1900s, contain clothing descriptions that say “dress of imitation silk satin” — these were rayon clothes.
All cotton French Valencia lace was, in the beginning (back as far as the 1600’s), made by hand and was the most expensive lace made. Later when machines were made and turned Valencia out in volume, it became an inexpensive lace to use, and later was mimicked by US manufacturers. French Valencia lace was produce in 100% cotton, which was also inexpensive.
In the 1800’s, and earlier, when commercial lace was not used, skilled homemakers used crafted, hand-crocheted or tatted lace in costuming. None of the lace was synthetic. It was cotton, in weights chosen for doll costuming.

original Madame Alexander baby doll in original doll clothing

original Madame Alexander baby doll

Appropriate Fasteners

Of course, when you repair a doll costume or fabricate authentic costumes, museum quality doll costumes have appropriate fasteners, hook and eye or buttons for the early clothing, a little later sewn on snaps came into common use.

This general overview is only part of the many details that goes into doll repair and making doll costumes that are considered “museum quality.” Authenticity is, of course, the most important factor, along with historical knowledge of dolls to assure authenticity. Research is essential in the repair accuracy of any costuming and knowing the differences between day and evening wear, fabrics, accessories, trims, style changes through the years and on and on are additional pieces to the puzzle of authentic costuming to attain “museum quality” in doll repair.



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Janie Nafsinger
17122 W. Locust Lane
Caldwell, Idaho 83607

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The doll arrived and she is absolutely beautiful. You did an outstanding job on her, I was going to sell her but now I am definitely keeping her for my ...

Marianne Kerr
Composition fashion doll