Relay: Playing Dolls | The East Hampton Star

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…

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