By LINDA COMINS
The stories behind the creation of a collection of fashion dolls, now on display in Moundsville, resemble a tale of old Hollywood glamour and an insider’s look into the realm of style-setters.
The collection, “Ladies’ Fashion Dolls of the 19th Century,” is being exhibited at Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex. The 56 dolls, created by nationally known costume designer and museum historian Pete Ballard, have been displayed in Charleston and Logan and eventually will be shown in Morgantown.
The dolls had been in storage for several years before the West Virginia Division of Culture and History mounted the statewide tour. “I haven’t seen the dolls for a long time,” Ballard remarked as he surveyed the display at the state facility in Moundsville.
Ballard, a native of Welch who has retired to Peterstown, W.Va., utilized scraps of fabric left from costumes he designed and from costume conservation projects for museum collections. He also drew upon his film connections to acquire fabrics and costume pieces from Hollywood friends such as Walter Plunkett, the legendary costume designer for “Gone With the Wind,” and actress Vivien Leigh, immortalized in GWTW as Scarlett O’Hara.
“Vivien Leigh was a friend, too, and she gave me tons of stuff,” he remarked. “Vivien gave me one of the bodices of the white gown (from the 1939 film).”
Ballard, 80, made the fashion dolls 30 years ago, and he is still bemused by the irony of the situation. “I don’t know anything about dolls. I hate dolls,” he declared during a gallery talk at Grave Creek Mound.
Each of the dolls is named, with the names borrowed from friends and relatives, Ballard said. One of the dolls is named for a friend who happens to be a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth II, he confided.
In the 18th century, fashion dolls were used as portable forms of advertising, much like miniature furniture, to be carried around to prospective buyers of merchandise, the designer explained.
For his own collection, Ballard decided to create dolls of the 19th century because each decade had its own silhouette. He set out to make five dolls for each decade, but ended up designing six extra dolls, or, as he also said, one for each of West Virginia ‘s 55 counties, plus one more. From a fashion point, he added, “The 20th century is interesting, but I haven’t got there yet.”
Describing the trends of the eras depicted on his dolls, Ballard said that in the early 1800s, American women kept an eye on French and English fashions.
During that time, a new look – Greco-Roman – emanated from England, he said. When French Emperor Napoleon’s invaders returned from the Far East with textiles unlike anyhing seen in France, “all of these exotic materials were new and worked perfectly into this Greco-Roman silhouette,” he said.
The Empire line was “all geared to the bosom,” with gowns constructed with “two fan-shaped bone arrangements for each breast to rest upon,” he explained, adding that first lady Dolley Madison reportedly “had drawstrings in her bodice to raise or lower” the neckline of her dress as she deemed fitting for the occasion.
Muslin was the main material used for women’s dresses from 1800-20, he said. Cashmere shawls also were a rage and were “as expensive as mink coats,” the designer related. He found cashmere shawls in New York charity shops to use for his doll costumes.
By 1820, hems had gone back to the floor and waistlines began to drop a little, he said. Popular interest in ballet in the mid-1820s prompted romantic gowns of tutu length.
In the 1803s, “the point was to get the waist as small as they could,” he said, so skirts were wide and leg-of-mutton sleeves were popular to create an illusion that “the waist looked smaller.”
Ballard described the 1840s as “the dullest decade in19th-century costumes.” Hem lengths were longer and attention was drawn to the floor with petticoats; to perfect this look, some women wore as many as 26 petticoats; he said.
Fashion got to be interesting with the invention of the sewing machine in 1846 and the invention in 1852 of spring steel (which proved useful for hoop skirts), he said. Also in 1852, Amelia Bloomer, “a women’s libber,” tried to pioneer the concept of getting rid of petticoats; bicycling costumes with Turkish trousers became known as “bloomers,” he noted.
As Ballard chronicled women’s fashions of the 19th century, he had to be conscious of the budding women’s liberation movement, making costumes that reflected women’s growing interests in recreational pursuits such as golf, tennis, bicycling and hiking. Of course, the voluminous costumes of the era elicit laughter from modern-day women who can’t imagine trying to fish or catch butterflies while wearing such elaborate outfits.
Meanwhile, he said, skirts got bigger until about 1863-64. The widest hoop skirts were made in 1863, but “hoops began to narrow a bit” by the next year and fabric was dropping back to the bustle style.
In the 1870s, “corsets got even more tight,” he said, adding that the bustle was gone by 1876. The 1880s marked a “somber, cover-up period,” with the return of the bustle. The bustle went out of style in the 1890s, though, and didn’t return until the evening gowns of the 1930s, he added.
The designer related that in the 1890s, “stage actresses became fashion plates.” Round skirts were gored and leg-of-mutton sleeves were bigger than ever, as the look was “back to tiny waists and big skirts,” he said. Corsets were tight to create wasp waists and hips were padded. The opulence of feathers was revived in this era.
Ballard ended his collection with a doll wearing a tea gown. In that era, he explained, “Fashionable women changed clothes at least four times a day.”
The dolls for the collection also were handmade. Ballard found a carpenter who made a base for each doll, which Ballard then fashioned from papier mache. He made the dolls first, then created the clothing.
Ballard, who also has written two mysteries, worked for many years with the late Stella Blum, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He started costume collections for the Mint Museum of Charlotte, N.C.; Reynolds House Museum of American Art in Winston Salem, N.C., and many other museums in southern states. “I had a good run as a costume curator, primarily in southern museums,” he commented.
“It’s been fun and it’s something that I’ve enjoyed doing,” Ballard said regarding the doll collection and his extensive career.