Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal

Three doll dresses from Miss Fanchon’s wardrobe, late 1860s-1870s, possibly France. Gift of Gardner H. Nicholas in memory of Mrs. Gardner H. Nicholas, 1922-58-9a—c, 14a,b,3.

In November, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be presenting a new exhibition titled Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal. It features four gorgeous Victorian dolls and their equally gorgeous Victorian wardrobes. The dolls—known as Miss Fanchon, Miss G. Townsend, Miss French Mary, and Marie Antoinette—were all made in France during the 1860s and 1870s. They have painted bisque heads, leather bodies, and measure between 18 and 22 inches in height. The Philadelphia Museum of Art calls them “the ultimate toy for privileged girls of this period.” But these dolls were much more than mere toys. They were models of perfect Victorian womanhood.

In the Victorian era, well-to-do ladies were expected to dress well and to excel in their social and domestic duties. Fashion dolls gave little girls a chance to play-act the role of fashionable lady long before they must take on the role in reality. Some Victorians even went so far as to claim that, for little girls, fashion dolls were a necessary step in cultivating the art of tasteful and effective dressing. As the cover of the 1872 book The Doll’s Outfit proclaims:

“The girl who takes a pride in dressing her doll well is thereby learning to dress herself in a suitable and tasteful manner.”

“Miss French Mary” Fashion Doll, around 1875, France. Gift of Mrs. James Wilson Wister, née Elizabeth Bayard Dunn, 1970-215-1a.

Indeed, according to exhibition organizer Kristina Haugland, the Le Vine Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles and Supervising Curator for the Study Room:

“The fortunate young girl who played with one of these dolls—changing clothes for different times of day, paying social calls, hosting tea parties, and mimicking other grown-up behaviors—could imagine her future life. Such play helped her master the arts of dressing and etiquette and become familiar with accepted social conventions, important lessons in the Victorian era, which defined the ideal woman’s role to please, adorn, and refine.”

“Miss Fanchon” Fashion Doll, around 1870, France. Gift of Gardner H. Nicholas in memory of Mrs. Gardner H. Nicholas, 1922-58-1a.

The effect of Victorian fashion dolls on little girls was not entirely dissimilar from the effect of Victorian fashion plates on mature women. In her 2007 book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, Sharon Marcus notes the similarities, writing:

“Like the images of women in fashion plates, dolls exemplified ideals of genteel female appearance…Both depicted vividly colored, self-contained figures who represented luxury, elegance, and leisure, and both were designed to inspire a passion for femininity in girls.”

“Miss G. Townsend” Fashion Doll, 1870s, France. Gift of Edward Starr, Jr., 1976-58-9.

To that end, the dolls’ clothing and accessories in the Little Ladies exhibit are intricate, miniature versions of those worn by fashionable ladies of the day. There are dresses for every occasion, as well as a full range of undergarments, outerwear, bonnets, jewelry, fans, and footwear. Each piece is remarkably detailed. For example, Miss Fanchon’s two-inch gloves have all the features of full-size gloves, including gussets and button closures.

Miss Fanchon’s Gloves, late 1860s-1870s, France. Gift of Gardner H. Nicholas in memory of Mrs. Gardner H. Nicholas,  1922-58-109a,b.
Doll’s Handbag, late 1860s-1870s, France. Gift of Mrs. William Hill Steeble and Martha B. Newkirk in memory of their mother, Mrs. I. Roberts Newkirk, 1977-189-4aa.

In addition to clothing and accessories, the dolls also come equipped with a plethora of diverse personal items. There are toothbrushes, combs, books, visiting cards, a sewing kit, and even roller skates.

Doll’s Sewing Equipment, late 1860s-1870s, France. Gift of Edward Starr, Jr., 1976-58- 9Ah1-7 and Gift of Mrs. William Hill Steeble and Martha B. Newkirk in memory of their mother, Mrs. I. Roberts Newkirk, 1977-189-4y.
Miss Fanchon’s Roller Skates, late 1860s-1870s, France. Gift of Gardner H. Nicholas in memory of Mrs. Gardner H. Nicholas,  1922-58-80a,b.

This miniaturized depiction of femininity didn’t sit well with all Victorian women. In fact, according to Marcus:

“For many Victorian feminists, the doll was a metaphor for women’s status as inferior playthings.”

Lucky for us, the Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal exhibit promises to highlight not only “the delights of these special playthings” but also “the roles of fashion, toys, dressing up, imagination, play, and gender roles.” It will also examine “how social ideals and values are shaped and often subtly imparted to children in entertaining ways.”

The exhibit will run from November 11, 2018—March 3, 2019. For tickets, or for more information, please contact the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

*Author’s Note: I was fortunate to receive a press release and press image bank for this exhibit.  

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.


Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Cousin Nelly. Dolly’s Outfit: Teaching Children How to Dress Their Dolls. London: Samuel Miller, 1872.

West, John. Maidenhood and Motherhood, or, Ten Phases of Woman’s Life. Chicago: Law, King, & Law, 1887.

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2 years ago

Another excellently written, interesting article. Thank you so much. I want to see these dolls!=:-)

Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
2 years ago

Now I know more about the doll I picked up in a junk shop in my teens, she had a broken neck saddle, so she wasn’t expensive!

Laura Bienz
Laura Bienz
2 years ago

I enjoyed your article. I would love to see the dolls. I hope the exhibit goes on tour. Thank you. I do like learning about the Victorian era. I will take advantage of your hard work and buy your books. Even the Title’s are fun.

2 years ago

Those miniature accessories are incredible! I wish I could go to this exhibit, but your article is the next best thing. Thank you for bringing this amazing exhibit to our attention!

2 years ago

Thank you Mimi, I love this article. My sister and I had many dolls but none as exquisite as these. What a treat to see them and their accessories – I agree with the other commenters – I would love to see them in person but you have given me the next best thing through your article. And of course I own all of your books and enjoy them immensely!

2 years ago

Terrific post! The attention to detail! Swoon

Just History Posts
Just History Posts
2 years ago

Wow, those little roller skates are fantastic!

2 years ago
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