Competition among Renaissance courts intensified, so did the pace at which clothing styles changed. Achieving sartorial supremacy was no longer simply a matter of flaunting wealth, but of following trends in order to set new ones: hence the attention paid to fashion in diplomatic reports.
Portraiture provided detailed descriptions of fashions and how they were worn, but could only supply a visual approximation of their tactile qualities.
The best way to appreciate the economic and aesthetic value of a garment was by handling or viewing it in three dimensions: thus the emergence of fashion dolls.
Sent as diplomatic gifts, these enabled their recipients to fully experience foreign dress styles, and thus constituted a particularly effective method of promoting trends.
Lavina Fontana Italy 1580
Queen Elizabeth 1546
Queen Mary of Scots, 1575
Italian Court doll
November 1515, it states: “My Illustrious and Exalted Lady, Most Revered Mother and Lady, Monsignor de Moretta (Italian) has told me that the King wishes My Lady to send him a doll dressed in the fashions that suit you of shirts, sleeves, undergarments, outer garments, dresses, headdresses, and hairstyles that you wear; sending various headdress styles would better satisfy his Majesty, for he intends to have some of these garments made to give to the women in France.
“To satisfy the wish of His Most Christian Majesty, we will gladly have a doll made and dressed in all the fashions we wear on our body and on our head, although his Majesty will not see anything new, for the styles we wear are equally worn in Milan by the Milanese ladies.”
French Court dolls
1700’s Court Dolls
Queen Anne Wooden Doll 1700-1800
As for the size of the dolls and their wardrobe, von Boehn and Singleton argue that, given their cost, they must have been made to the English queen’s measure. If this theory is correct, these were not dolls per se but rather dress figures or mannequins, raising the question of what is meant by poupée.
Derived from the Latin pupa, -ae (“little girl,” “doll,” “figurine,” and “nipple”) in the thirteenth century the term referred to a drawing, model, or statuette.
By the late fourteenth century poupée had also acquired the meaning of “a child’s doll.”
References to fashion dolls in royal inventories suggest they were considered worthy of keeping once they had fulfilled their initial function. For example, two dolls sporting elaborate bridals (dresses with fitted sleeves) under mantillas (outer garments often lined with fur) were listed among Queen Juana of Spain’s (1479–1555) possessions at the time of her death. Along with chess games, devotional objects, and other mementos, Catherine de’ Medici (1519–89) kept fourteen dolls dressed in mourning and “as ladies” in her personal cabinet at the Hôtel de la Reine.
Gifts to children
While Marie wears a youthful bonnet and apron, the doll is given an elaborate coiffure and ruff, accessories appropriate for a noblewoman. Since Marie’s doll is clad in Saxon attire, we may assume it was not a gift from a foreign court, but rather the product of a local doll-maker.
Native American children also appear to have inherited elegantly dressed dolls from English settlers, who may have brought them to the colonies to facilitate dressmaking. In 1590 the folio edition of Thomas Hariot’s A Briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia was published in Frankfurt, with engravings by Theodore de Bry. The engravings were based on a series of watercolors, executed by John White between 1585 and 1587, representing the fauna, flora, and native peoples of Virginia.