dolled up (paper dolls as underestimated pedagogical tool, kermit roosevelt = HEART THROB, + presidential underwear)

Tom Tierney thirties

when i was a little girl, i was obsessed with paper dolls.

because they typically involved pretty people in pretty clothes. (or at least they did the way i opted to consume them. the possibilities appear to have expanded exponentially in the last 20 years so that you can now have a rasputin doll should you so wish…)

paperdoll 004

because they were hits of biography tarted up as play.


because they were an uh-mazing time killer. seriously. here, child. here’s a toy. but first, before you can play with it, you have to ASSEMBLE IT YOURSELF by using your mother’s TINY MANICURE SCISSORS and PAINSTAKINGLY cutting out fifty pages of dolls (taking care to follow the instructions and not- in a paper doll cutting delirium- cut between the arm and body thus RUINING EVERYTHING) so that by the end of  the assembly process you’re scotch taping wads of kleenex around your right thumb and index fingers so you can PERSEVERE and cut out JUDY GARLAND’S LAST SHOE. 

please note: that is not a dramatization.

marie antoinette paper doll

i was obsessed enough with paper dolls to have to devise a specific triage routine to enable me to continue paper dolling despite blistered hands.

the greatest christmas gift my uncle ever gave me was he assisted me in cutting out the american girls paper dolls i got for christmas 1992.

most of the dolls i played with were by tom tierney. he seems to have gone in new directions since i played with them…


but when i was playing with them, there were a lot of film stars…



andrew jackson

historical figures…

rosa parks



and families…


the thing about paper dolls that i loved, i now realize, is that they were this incredibly interactive mode of storytelling. not just in that you had to cut them out but that they were often historically grounded (i was a grown-up before i saw a painting of nelly custis and realized that tom tierney was basing the clothes of the people of yore on ACTUAL PAINTINGS… mind=blown [also, how many people remember nelly custis? paper dolls as learning tool FTW]). and the kid playing with the dolls had the power to bring them together despite differences in time.

(in contrast, barbie had very little room to experiment with the time/space continuum. i had one of my mum’s barbies and an old VW barbie bus bought at a garage sale, but other than that it was ’80s through and through.)

for instance, in my imaginary world, kermit roosevelt cavorted with marilyn monroe. because in my imaginary world, kermit roosevelt was a sulky teen heart-throb.

(i couldn’t find a good picture of the paper doll but it was based on this…) Theodore_Roosevelt_and_family,_1903

admittedly, i was a weird one (few other adolescents were so moved by the death of dick nixon as i), but there’s something to be said for a form of play that can teach you that much. and in such a way that it sticks twenty years on.

so why am i writing about all of this now? well, because everyone should be playing with paper dolls, OBVIOUSLY.

but also because i’ve recently been thinking about them in terms of my own work.

as a little girl growing up and looking for stories of strong women, paper dolls were an enormously useful tool- providing those stories (tom tierney’s two books on famous and notable american women in particular) whilst also leaving the room for imagination and to make my own stories up.

victorian family

(with, mind you, the ever present threat of what might happen if you cut between the arm and the body.)

that said, as an adult, there is something SO DEEPLY CREEPY about them, non? especially in their un-cut state. in the spaces left for the dolls to fill.

this speaks volumes…

jo dfw paperdoll


they’ve become, in recent weeks, tremendously useful illustrations for my powerpoints as i’ve talked about silence and women’s lives. because there’s such a pathos. in the literal absence of the doll here…

jo wedding

and extending to the doll itself…


everyone is in their underwear!!!!

they are, even in paper doll form, just like us- a circumstance at once necessary (the user is to be dressing them and it’s not like they could be naked like barbie, so era-appropriate undergarments are obviously the way to go) and yet also one which renders the historical figure astonishingly vulnerable.

questions a historian would not expect to ask: WHY IS GW WEARING COWBOY BOOTS WITH HIS TIGHTY WHITIES?!!?! also, the detailing of laura’s chins suggests a liberal bias. in contrast, jackie and jfk got beachwear, erased jowls and spray tans:


the signatures there beg the question: who is tom tierney? he’s been around for AGES. the early dolls (garbo, garland, monroe, leigh) were all from the early 80s. he is to paperdolls what lisa frank was to psychedelic school supplies.

his website (and the bizarrely long and detailed CV found there) tells us he was born in 1928.

this floating head must’ve been sketched shortly after…


he looks delightfully mischievous, no? like a villain on scooby doo.

his work has been reviewed by the NYT on three occasions and, according to himself, “he is the only paper doll artist to have a review in their Literary Section.”

a slightly more recent photograph, by which i mean circa 1985

a slightly more recent photograph, by which i mean circa 1985

of his art, he says, “I feel that the most important thing about my paper doll books is that I am using the medium of the paper doll as an art form. To me, paper dolls can be more than just some ‘cutsie’ bit of fluff to be thrown at the children to perpetuate boredom. They can be artistic, vital, and alive and can tell us much about people, the clothes they wore, the way they lived and something of the times in which they lived. I also feel that the animation of the dolls and the costumes can indicate much about the personality of the subject. In conjunction with drawing the dolls I also write my own text, which I feel is an important adjunct to my books, explaining my `raison d’être’ for treating the subject. Of course, I also thoroughly enjoy doing all the other sorts of illustration that I am involved in. The greater the variety, the less opportunity for stagnation to set in!”


he’s apparently still kicking, bringing us will and kate: the paper dolls…

Tom Tierney William and Kate
though there seems to have been a bit of slippage in quality control, with william borrowing armie hammer’s face and kate showing up with blair waldorf’s day old headband hair.

there’s also another trend from the fashions of edith head book that i cannot explain but which concerns me. lucy, also, is not pleased…


the threat of something horrible happening should you dare cut in the space between the body and the arm persists (all that would happen is that the doll beneath would be visible and the illusion destroyed), but what horrible happening has occurred to their heads?!?!119a1a6589a713e30419397fabe48dcf


dolls1paper dolls: the clowns of the paper world??



3 thoughts on “dolled up (paper dolls as underestimated pedagogical tool, kermit roosevelt = HEART THROB, + presidential underwear)

  1. Pingback: the pathos of jackie kennedy dolls on etsy | finding jackie

  2. Pingback: why jackie?: an autoethnographic exploration | finding jackie

  3. Pingback: the pathos of kennedy dolls on etsy, 2.1 (emotions via britney) | finding jackie

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