Back in 2010 I learned of a charming little book published in 1953, written and illustrated by Laura Bannon, called The Wonderful Fashion Doll. I'd acquired a copy and was instantly swept away with the sweet and exciting tale of a little girl named Debby, whose family moves to the country, a farm owned by the family for over a hundred years. And, a letter by Debby's great-great-great grandmother that describes a hidden treasure within the old farm house - a "...wonderful fashion doll. A lady doll with a complete wardrobe."
After the family moves, and they settle in, the hunt begins for the doll described in the letter.
While reading the story for the first time, I was inspired to create a Debby and her antique fashion doll, Gay Event. Debby was going to be a Lawton 9" doll redone, and I would use a tiny doll house doll for Gay Event. Well, I never did it. While I was experienced dressing miniatures, what I suppose I really wanted was a real Gay Event doll for myself. I was not yet designing patterns and sewing, so inspiration for the project went away and six years passed.
When I began transforming Lawton dolls into new characters, I'd purchased a Jo, from Wendy's Little Women collection. My plans at the time were to turn her into a Nellie Bly. Yet, so sat the doll as I did a number of other things, and inspiration for Nellie went the way of Debby and her doll. This is how it sometimes happens. So we wait, and hang onto our dolls until just the right idea at just the right time occurs. For some reason I'd been thinking about The Wonderful Fashion Doll about three or four weeks ago. And, for some other reason I picked up "Jo" and decided right then and there that she would be my Gay Event. After all, if I couldn't design and sew her clothing by now, the only thing lacking would be desire.
I bought a wig to resemble Gay Event's. "There she was, the loveliest doll ever. What a sweet little face! Her brown hair was piled high on her head with short curls clustered at her temples", the book read. "And such a tiny waist! Goodness! all she was wearing was a slip and a wee blue satin corset laced tightly around her little kidskin body." Of course, Jo isn't an antique kidskin doll, but to me she'd be perfect in her porcelain and wood one. So I began the corset.
Instead of blue satin, I used a blue silk. I began the pattern by forming Press 'n' Seal around her torso, then clipping it off. I'd read about this somewhere in a doll costuming article and this would be the second time I tried it. I then made the three part pattern of a back, and two sides that would lace up in the center. I lined the silk corset with a slightly weighty cotton as I knew corsets were meant to be uncomfortable. I thought, "Poor Gay Event!", but make the corset, I did. Silk would be much nicer squeezed around the poor girl, under her arms and around her front.
Studying Victorian corsets online, and the drawing of the one Laura Bannon made, I devised a way to seam stitch the lines, which were most likely inserted with boning in a real corset. Once I pinned a curve or straight line, like the ones in the illustration, I ran a white chalk line down the center, folded the corset in half, and rubbed so the white chalk line would be in the exact place opposite the first. This didn't come to me right away. I thought more about how to actually make this little beast of corset, than I spent time sewing it...or just about.
Once the lines were seamed, I cut two lengths of silk to front the corset edges where the lacings would go. After sewing them on, I cut thin strips of the silk on the bias and hand edged it above and below. Earlier I'd been awed by the work of this Russian seamstress on Facebook. She'd made her doll a corset and hand stitched (embroidered) eyelets in it. I had to try this. Since my Gay Event is a petite 14" lady doll, and there are eight eyelets on each side, the embroidered ones would have to be awfully tiny. Normally you would use an awl and poke a hole in the fabric, then embroider around them. This wasn't going to work with this tiny corset. And, I've never had luck with metal eyelets. Ever. So I took an afternoon, or two, to embroider these tiny eyelets, then used a soft cotton cord threaded through the eye of a large needle to "sew" in the laces.
Next on the list were these pads she wore on her upper arms. There is a page in the book dedicated to these pads as Uncle Nate, Butch, Mother and Debby try to figure out what these actually were used for. "At last they discover the real use for the pads. They tied around Gay Event's arms to keep the sleeves puffed out."
As I studied the illustration (see the story page), they looked to me like Mandarin orange slices. This was not an easy pattern to make by far. I had to think of it as soft sculpture and proceed from there. The pads are made from a muslin, which I assumed the original ones would have been made from. I also had some raw wool, which I'd purchased recently to begin learning needle felting, and used this to stuff the pads - which I assumed as well, would have been "correct". I sewed the same cotton cording through the ends of these pads to be able to tie them to the doll's arms. I'd first tried using a synthetic cording, but the ties wouldn't stay put. Those done, I moved onto the stockings.
I made two simple white stockings the way I do all my doll's stockings. The pattern I use has the shape of a foot, and this helps keep the doll from suffering baggy ankles. They are not just straight tubes. Stockings done. Slip time. I fussed and fussed over this half slip. Were I to have made it to look exactly like the illustration, the half slip would have been a circle skirt pattern. Oh I made one. Then fussed and fussed about how to get straight Swiss beading lace to go on a curve. Again, what an illustrator draws, can often not be replicated by a seamstress. Trying to figure out the right laces for the hem was another issue. I think it took me a couple of days to give in to the idea of a regular gathered half slip, and choose the laces.
What I ended up doing was clipping off the top and bottom of some Swiss insertion beading lace. The 3/8" beading was the right size. I used a one and a half inch lace just below the edge of the beading to overlay the bottom hem of the slip. At the edge is a pull gathered half inch lace to promote a ruffled effect.
The silk ribbon was "beaded" into the insertion lace prior to sewing it onto the slip. Little bows of the same silk ribbon were then equally dispersed among the centers of the insertion lace.
Lastly I made her black dressing slippers. In the illustration they are pointy-toed. With the first pair of slippers I made, I cut the leather upper in a point at the toe. When I went to turn the leather under to the foot bed, I lost the point. So I designed a foot bed with a point to pull the leather over. This worked to some degree, but the slippers did not stay on her feet, and I had to try again. Finally I cut the leather upper with more width to bend and glue beneath the foot bed, using the pointy foot beds once again. The points completely disappeared.
I began to wonder if fashion doll shoes from the 1800's would have been pointy-toed, or was this a representation of Laura's shoes from the 1950's. With her next pair of shoes I'll try again to achieve the points, but I'm not going to lose sleep over it if I don't get the look. In the end Gay Event has her black dressing slippers and the first of her outfits is done.
Please welcome Gay Event, The Wonderful Fashion Doll. I'll be making her accessories and garments from the story and the illustrations provided, and continue to share Laura's, or Debby's, story with you. It may take me the rest of this year to complete the trousseau, but there are other dolls wishing new outfits and I do like to mix up my projects. And, there is needle felting to learn!