Relay: Playing Dolls

For me, it’s clothes-play, not so much the buying of an outfit as the assembling of a look

When I was a kid I played with dolls. I was an only child and (maybe consequently) I had a lot of dolls. These were not mushy baby dolls; they were “fashion dolls.” This was the 1950s, folks, pre-Barbie. 

My favorite dolls were Madame Alexander dolls (they came in two sizes: 12-inch and 8-inch) and what were called Ginny dolls, which were only eight inches tall. That’s what I asked for at F.A.O. Schwarz at Christmas and birthdays, by size and hair color. I think I had about 10 by the time I outgrew them in sixth grade or so.

My mother could never understand why my dolls didn’t have names. She encouraged me to name them but I never did. I referred to the dolls as the 12-inch dolls and the 8-inch dolls when requesting a present of a new doll or clothing for the dolls I already had. Happily for me, my grandmother was a superior sewer, and she would come up with fabulous outfits for them (and me). Her creations featured lace, tiny buttons and dimity prints, old-fashioned puffed sleeves, and pantaloons. Occasionally something satin would show up, or sometimes a bit of fur. My grandmother went to the theater a lot, and she was very sophisticated.

My dolls were clotheshorses. Their job was to put on clothes. My job was to decide what they would put on. I was a fashion editor in training.

An activity that kept me busy for hours was to put all of my custom-made and store-bought dolls clothes in a pile on the floor. Then each 12-inch doll and each 8-inch doll could “pick” one dress. After each one picked a dress she would wear it and then each got to pick another until all the clothes were sorted evenly. I can’t remember what happened after that. Maybe I would have lunch. 

I never messed with their hair the way some kids did. I treated them like princesses. They were models and they got to be admired.

One of my friends, with whom I spent many rainy girly afternoons, would not play this doll clothes sorting game with me. I would let her pick a doll from my lineup and let her doll pick out clothes but she declared that her doll was poor and lived in a tenement and could only have one dress. I just could not understand this. It frustrated the hell out of me. Why wouldn’t her doll want to play dress-up?! Her doll would sit on an upside-down chair (read: tenement) and watch my doll. It was never fun to have it so inequitable, and eventually we would play checkers or draw. Having a doll who was poor was just not a concept I could grasp. Years later my mother mentioned that her parents were both social workers and I suppose that explained some of it. (Or maybe she just didn’t want to play that game.) I do not know what happened to her, but I grew up to be a clotheshorse. 

According to Google, “clotheshorse” is considered a derogatory term. I do not have a problem with the title. For me, it’s clothes-play, not so much the buying of an outfit as the assembling of a look. That’s the fun part. Shopping my own closet, I really play dress-up every day.

And when the seasons change I re-acquaint myself with clothes I haven’t seen for months by trying everything on. Warm weather to cold and back. Two times a year I go through that ritual. In between I do things with other people’s clothes: I volunteer at the Ladies Village Improvement Society thrift shop in East Hampton. 

One of the things we clothes-loving volunteers do is sort and categorize all the clothes that are donated week to week and season to season. Does this sound like all my doll clothes in a pile with the dolls picking? Yes indeedy. We are grown-ups and we have fun like little girls. 

We ask aloud: “What was she thinking? How could she give this up? Did she retire and not need office clothes anymore?” Hence the Armani suits and stiletto heels, the mink coat, or the Oscar de la Renta ball gown. We also wonder why people donate gym clothes straight from their gym bags, but that’s another matter entirely.

When we have finished sorting — summer, winter, designer, and specialty collections like bathing suits and leopard-printed things — the clothes that are season-appropriate hit the floor, priced to sell.

And then my real fun begins. I dress the thrift shop mannequins every Monday. While the shop is closed for weekly restocking you will find me with three mannequins, bald and naked (them, not me), and a rolling rack of curated outfits for my “girls.” I want them to look great when the doors open each Tuesday.

Some might think you just put clothes on the bodies, but I am here to tell you that it’s more complicated and intimate than that. The mannequins have faces and their faces have real character and their postures give them attitude. Like real people, some clothes actually look better on one than on another. I often change their outfits even after I have gotten them all dressed. I take into consideration that the athletic looking one should not be wearing something ruffly; I have tried and that stuff just looks wrong on her. I know that sounds silly, but in truth it’s merchandising. How can you make someone want to buy something if it looks crappy on the model?

There is a fourth model, and while I refer to her as one of “the girls” she is really just a torso (no face, arms, or legs). I don’t feel I need to cater to her attitude as far as outfits go. She does wear jewelry well, however, and often gets something with a deep V neckline.

The other dames I dress have removable arms and hands. To get them into clothing means that the floor gets littered with random hands and arms and wigs. 

Interestingly, the L.V.I.S. gets many donations of wigs. Some of the wigs are very beautiful and were no doubt very expensive. We can’t really sell them. Consequently I have a bin of wigs I sort through each week for the girls. One wig might look good with one outfit and wrong with another. One wig will suit one mannequin, while the same wig will make another look slutty. There is a wig I call Meg Ryan hair, which looks good on all three of the girls. There is a gray wig with bangs that I am partial to, but it does not look good with every outfit. Sometimes the girls are all blondes, sometimes brunettes. I love doing this.

To some of you readers this may sound like the dumbest waste of imagination, but for others of you this is a dream job. Admit it.

Each week I pick a fashion theme. For Easter the girls were in bright pastel colors. The week before everyone was wearing flowered dresses for spring. Sometimes they are in black-and-white stripes, and they have been known to all wear denim jackets. Once they all wore gingham shirts, but accessorized to give them entirely different looks. My aim is to educate and inspire, much like the editorial pages of a fashion magazine. Yes, you can wear this with that, and have you considered a yellow pashmina with that red shift?

Well, you could say (loudly) that I do get carried away choosing the right scarf or bag or earrings for each dame, but for me it is fun. I want the outfits to get sold: The aim is to have the girls look so good that people want to buy what they are wearing. Some outfits only last a day or two and are replaced quickly by the sales staff. Come in Tuesday mornings to see the girls in their fullest fashion glory.

The mannequins are really my own very big fashion dolls. Unlike my childhood dolls, these dames will soon have names! In May, there will be an opportunity for everyone in town to name each mannequin. After the hunt for names is over, the dames will be called by their names forever. (I know what I call one of them behind her back, but I am not sharing that yet.)

Here’s how it will work: There will be ballots at the cashier that people can fill in and place in a jar for the whole month. There will be space for four names in the order of how they are standing in display. The ballots can be filled again and again. Kids are encouraged to participate.

The ballots will be put into a container and behind closed doors each mannequin will magically pick her own name.

So unlike my childhood dolls who remained nameless, soon I will be dressing Clara or Monique or Jemima, Carmen, Prunella, or Daisy, Murgatroyd, Melania, Ivanka, Sophia, Emma, Gabriela, Isabella, Zoe, Clementine, or Betty. Stay tuned.

Durell Godfrey is a contributing photographer for The Star.