Black Dolls Continue to Renew My Spirit

dbgGuest Blogger: Debbie Behan Garrett is a doll-collector, blogger and doll historian. She is also the author of ‘The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls,’ ‘A Comprehensive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls’ & ‘The Doll Blogs: When Dolls Speak, I Listen.’ You can learn more about Debbie at her Black Doll Collecting website.”

Sometime during the early 1990s, after reading a passage in a book or article by bell hooks on the aesthetics of blackness where she wrote: “black art renews the spirit,” I had an instant ‘aha’ moment. The ‘act of renewing my spirit,’ explains exactly what black dolls, at that time, had begun doing for me. They still do.

I had been collecting black dolls only a few years when bell’s words so profoundly touched me. In the same manner that black art reflects positive images of people of African descent with an ability to renew the spirit, I find these three-dimensional inanimate representations of black people rejuvenating to my whole being.

I have always been extremely connected to my culture, proud of my heritage, and have always delighted in surrounding myself and my offspring with positive reflections. As a child, living happily in a black world, I was unfortunately, unable to own black dolls as playthings. Very few were available in our area. Those that were offered were not aesthetically pleasing to my mother, who viewed them as negative representations of black people that she would never allow in our home.

While my childhood excluded black dolls, in my early adult years, I subconsciously delighted in them through doll purchases made for my daughter, whose doll family only included black dolls. It was my desire for her to develop a positive sense of self and culture and to ward off any innuendos, subtle or obvious, from sources that viewed anything black as negative. Seeing herself in her playthings, educational materials, and art ensured a healthy development of self-esteem and constant spiritual rejuvenation.

I began actively collecting black dolls as an adult to fill the void of not owning them as a child. Collecting and learning about dolls resulted in establishing and maintaining a doll reference library of books on antique to modern dolls. These books were useful, but the predominance of non-black dolls only served to fuel my belief that few black dolls were made during my childhood. It was not until I discovered my black-doll bible, written by Myla Perkins, Black Dolls an Identification and Value Guide 1820-1991, that my world of black-doll collecting broadened considerably. Who knew, until reading Perkins’ book, that there were in fact as many positive black dolls made during my childhood? Thus, my early-1990s mission commenced to obtain as many of these lovely dolls as possible.

After the publication of Perkins’ first book and her followup title, Black Dolls an Identification and Value Guide Book II, the lack of black doll information resumed. No one else took the initiative to write another reference book on black dolls. In 2003, eight years after Perkins’ second book was published, I wrote my first black-doll reference book, The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls. It is the first full-color black-doll reference book ever published. In 2008, A Comprehensive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls followed, and includes over 1000 color images, references, and doll values. My third book, published in 2010, The Doll Blogs: When Dolls Speak, I Listen, was written to further serve the doll-collecting community, particularly avid black-doll enthusiasts. In The Doll Blogs, dolls both old and new, blog their experiences over a two-year period as chosen dolls in my now extensive and quite eclectic black-doll collection.

The passion I hold for black dolls (owned or admired from afar) is ever present. Conducting research and the documentation of the same—with an objective to celebrate the dolls and the people who make and collect them—is also a constant. My writings are published two to three times a week on the Black-Doll Collecting blog.

Will my desire to own black dolls ever cease? As long as they continue to renew my spirit, the answer is an emphatic, “no.”

The Theatre de la Mode Fashion Dolls

There’s another story from doll history similar to the story of the BIld Lilli dolls that I’d like to share with you today. This time its the wonderful story of The Theatre de la Mode Fashion Dolls.

The Theatre de la Mode Fashion Dolls

A display of Theatre de la Mode Fashion Dolls at the Maryhill Museum of Art

France had been liberated, although WWII was not yet over, and Paris, at one time the capital of the Fashion Industry was struggling to pick up the pieces. Out of the ashes that was Paris arose a little flicker of the flame of fashion. From pieces of hoarded and hidden fabrics and leathers, painstakingly hand stitched using the simplest of wire dolls (for there were no other materials in wartime Paris with which dolls could be made!) came the rebirth of the French Fashion industry.

Photo by Glen Bledsoe A different collection of the Theatre de la Mode Fashion Dolls

Photo by Glen Bledsoe A different collection of the Theatre de la Mode Fashion Dolls

For several centuries French Fashion dolls had been dressed in the latest fashions and sent abroad so that orders could be placed, or designs could be copied – so too in 1946, The exhibition of The Theatre de la Mode Fashion Dolls would tour cities across the Atlantic, and ultimately prove to the world that French Fashion was back!

The dolls were approx 27 inches tall with plaster heads. There were approximately 230 dressed dolls.