· How American Girl sparked my interest in fashion history ·
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I read a novel in which the main character was a fashion historian. I don’t remember the name of the novel or much of the plot, but I remember that job title. I had no idea before this story that such a profession existed. As I grappled with what I wanted to do with my life, I kept coming back to this small detail from a forgettable book. And as I ruminated why I was fixated on this vocation, I realized it was exactly what I wanted to do with my own life. A history major who had always loved cultural history and fashion, when I looked back over my life, it began to make perfect sense. Especially when I considered my favorite childhood toy: American Girl dolls.
A year later, while studying abroad in London, I had a chance to recognize just how real of a possibility this was and also had an opportunity to start working towards this goal. First, I discovered the Victoria and Albert Museum and its fashion department that takes fashion history seriously. Second, I was able to do my first fashion-focused history project. While my Oxford-educated history professor may not have been the best person to advise me on how to develop a fashion history research project (by his own assessment), he did allow me to explore my interests and this helped give me the confidence to begin planning my fashion history honors college keystone project the next semester.
Fast forward to today, I now hold a master’s in fashion critical studies (an academic approach to fashion where I wrote a fashion history dissertation) and have volunteered and worked in museums with a fashion focus.
When asked about how I became interested in fashion history, it hit me: my interest in historical dress/fashion could most certainly be pinpointed to my love of American Girl dolls growing up. Once I realized this, I couldn’t deny that my beloved childhood toys had helped to shape an intense interest in cultural history, and more specifically, historical dress. Of course, the dolls – that I dressed in clothes from various eras, pored over glossy catalogs of outfits for, read every accompanying story for, and yes, obsessed over – could help foster an interest in cultural history.
And what a sneaky way to teach young girls that history can be fun. Spanning from 1764 to 1974, the historical doll line, first introduced with Kirsten (1854), Samantha (1904), and Molly (1944) in 1986 – has been an insight into how girls have lived in the US throughout its history. Each doll has a series of books telling their story which in turn is a well-researched look at what a typical young girl of that time may have lived. Accompanying these stories are outfits, accessories, and furniture. From hoop skirts to aprons, cloche hats to saddle shoes, the range of outfits and furniture inspires creative thoughts about living in the past. I truly believe my hours of play with my historical dolls (Kirsten, Addy, and Kit – I also had one modern day one who was thrown into whatever era I chose) is what sewed the seed for my very real and serious interest in fashion history as I got older.
There was something so special about those 18-inch dolls. Yes, special in that they were expensive, but also in their pervasiveness. Many of my friends had at least one and they were a favorite pastime for sleepovers (who could resist getting to dress their dolls in their friends’ outfits). In college, I remember being asked if I had “one of those American Girl dolls” by a guy friend and being told “you seem like you would have had Samantha” (I did not). That these characters could have inserted themselves into the zeitgeist of a generation (millennials) speaks to the enduring appeal of their stories. Today, there are Instagram accounts run by adults (and children) dedicated to the dolls and a blogger I follow has written about how working for American Girl would be her dream job (something I share). There are pieces all over the internet written by women who were raised on American Girl dolls. I am not an anomaly in feeling that these toys have had an enduring impact on my adult life, interests, passions, and career.
Unfortunately, since I’ve grown out of my American Girl dolls, the brand has shifted some focus from the historical dolls a little. They’ve archived characters (like Kirsten and Molly) and of those left, many don’t have very many outfits or accessories. In 2014, American Girl rebooted the historical line as “BeForever.” All outfits previously worn by the dolls were replaced with new, brighter, shinier versions. It was around this time that many characters disappeared and the rebrand, in my opinion, made the clothes less historically accurate. To me, it looked like they sacrificed truthfulness for what they felt would appeal more to contemporary young girls. Of course, American Girl is a business and they need to do what they need to do to make a profit, but I do think it’s a shame that the more realistic representation that inspired me was abandoned for what feels like fluff and pandering.
That being said, about a year ago, my alma mater featured a story about a doctoral student who is working as an in-house historian for American Girl. She consults on the characters, their worlds, and yes, their clothes. I must admit that, despite their departure from what I remember, I did have a moment of jealousy as the position would be one of my dream jobs. To be able to use my degrees in history and fashion history to help develop the dolls that would inspire a new generation of young girls to embrace history would be truly coming full circle. I would jump at the opportunity.
That is if it wasn’t based in Wisconsin.