Where do dolls get their personalities? There's no doubt that they have them, or at least that many of them do. As soon as you start to think about how this comes about, though, you keep thinking of more and more ways it happens. Oh, sure, they come out of the factory with their initial looks, but even then, it can be quite hard to pin down what you first notice; and why; and how it influences you.  And besides, there's more to it than that. 

1: Doll with big boots. She's the one who prompted this piece. At first sight she's a cheerful early adolescent, though her expression is perhaps a little precocious: there's something oddly knowing about those big, blue, painted-on eyes and that faint smile. But if you start looking harder, her eyelashes are even more stylized than her eyes; she appears to have a tattoo; her arms are absurdly short; and her clothes are quite an interesting fashion statement, not least those enormous boots, the likes of which I have never seen before or since on a doll. Perhaps she can walk and the heavy boots help keep her upright.

A lot will depend on who you are. An old man and a young girl may well read the same doll in different ways: it would be odd if they did not. Also, very few people apart from little girls are likely to think as hard about dolls as I am thinking here, and if they do, their reactions and frames of analysis are likely to vary widely: the collector, the historian, the sociologist, the feminist...

2: Doll with ageing mother. This one looks surprised rather than quizzical, and I rather suspect that dolls, like characters in books, are not always fully under the control of their authors. Whether as a result of the designer's subconscious or by pure chance, their faces are rather less bland than one might expect. 

The beginning of personality is probably the face, and indeed, well into the 1920s this was the principal and sometimes the only naturalistic feature of many dolls, though legs and arms (or at least lower legs and lower arms) might also be moulded in porcelain or “composition”; the latter a sort of primitive MDF, a mixture of sawdust and glue. The head, throat and upper chest – either a single unit, rather resembling a traditional diver's helmet, or in two pieces with a simple swivel at the neck – were then sewn onto a fabric body which made no attempts at realism because it would, after all, normally be covered in clothes. 

3: Doll in a dress. The simplicity of the dress suggests that it may actually be home made. If it isn't, it was probably surprisingly expensive. She is quite a big doll, after all, and although she was doubtless more or less mass produced, she is not as uniform as (say) a Barbie or any other doll where the manufacturer's main aim is to sell mass-produced accessories. It may also be that she was made big enough to wear clothes her owner had outgrown: this idea apparently dates back to the 19th century. The flesh tones are interesting too. Taking the white background as a neutral tone, the bigger doll is quite sallow while the smaller one is distinctly florid. 

An interesting aspect of “realism” is opening/ closing eyes. These first appeared in the late 19th century and tend to be more realistically sized than painted-on eyes, which are frequently unrealistically big; though you could say that opening/ closing eyes are sometimes a bit piggy. 

Closely related to their faces is how their hair is styled: little girls often have quite firm opinions about this, and may even wreak havoc with (often blunt) scissors unless restrained. Hair is much more varied today than it used to be; the hair of the doll in the dress, above, reminds me of one of Frances's nieces as a little girl. 

4: Blue haired doll. What can I say? This strikes me as a perfect illustration of the truth that just because you can do something, it doesn't necessarily mean that you should. 

The next aspect of their personality is how they're dressed – and where the clothes come from. I've already mentioned this several times. Nowadays there are probably very, very few little girls who make clothes for their dolls, and probably about the same number who have indulgent mothers or more likely grandmothers with the ability, time or inclination to make clothes for them. But where do they find the ready-made clothes? Do they in fact change their dolls' clothes much? A few months before I wrote this I read about a little girl who was given a set of “hospital” dolls; or maybe it was just dolls' clothes. Inevitably the doctor was male and the nurses female. To her eternal credit the girl switched around the clothes and (that badge of office) the stethoscope, then set up her dolls' house as a hospital.

5: Droopy drawers. When my brother and I were small, our father used the phrase “droopy drawers” as a sort of exasperated endearment, especially when he wanted to hurry one of us along: “Come on, droopy drawers!” When you think about it, the very idea of dolls' underwear is pretty odd. The other thing to note in this picture is the way in which opening/ closing eyes can be weird too. Droopy drawers herself looks pretty vacant; the doll beneath her knees looks convincingly asleep; the one above looks as if she is either waking up or trying hard not to fall asleep; and the one with the golden curls has a truly astonishing expression which you can read in several different ways.

As I have already said, though, the personalities of dolls are often (and inevitably) intimately linked to the personalities of their owners. That's before you start thinking about their owners' parents, or indeed of the reactions of third parties, such as myself. Obviously there will be wide variation. Some little girls will go for the Disney princess types, while others will have (for example) medical ambitions. Something that was not obvious to me until Frances mentioned it is that different girls have different preferences for the age of their dolls, which are not necessarily much related to the age of the girl. She said that she never had much interest in baby dolls and that most of her favourite dolls were, in her mind, older than she. Typically, she regarded them as young adolescents, though there was also a dream-like dimension to their ages. As she put it, “in dreams you are every age, and no age.”

6: Baby doll on television. I originally chose him (her? it?) because the pose was so convincing: reaching out, but slightly shakily. Then I was going to drop him, because there's a limit to the number of pictures I can use in a piece like this. But Frances said, “No, don't.” When I asked why she said, “It's because you feel like you want to pick it up.” She's right, and I don't even like dolls. Or babies.  Also, the wrinkles and the navel are unwontedly realistic.

As a fairly typical little boy of the 1950s I didn't play with dolls, and I took less than no interest in girls until I was maybe eleven years old. Over the next few years I steadily became more and more interested, indeed to the point of obsession; but I didn't have a proper holding-hands-and-kissing girlfriend until I was 16. I should perhaps add that we were both at single-sex schools, as indeed were all my subsequent serious girlfriends but two. And Frances was mightily annoyed when, just before she was 16, a boy kissed her; a boy for whom she did not particularly care. She had long cherished the ambition to be “sweet sixteen and never been kissed” and indeed to spring this on a boy on whom she had a crush. She was much peeved when the other boy spoiled it. “And,” she adds, “I was too damned honest to lie.” 

7: Gossip. “See? I told you that boy dolls are more like girl dolls than you said.” It is impossible to guess whether the juxtapositions that arise at vide-greniers are by chance or were carefully set up. 

There are famously (or perhaps more accurately, notoriously) little boys who look up dolls' skirts; but I was not among them. I had very little interest in what little girls, let alone their dolls, had under their skirts until I was, as I say, ten or eleven: I think perhaps a theoretical interest slightly preceded a practical interest. Again I should add a short explanation that I had only a brother: no sisters. By the time I was taking a serious interest in girls, most had put childish things behind them. Some of them may still have had dolls from their childhood, but they fully understood that their boyfriends were unlikely to be deeply, or even ever so slightly, interested.

As a result, dolls did not really enter my life until I was in my very early 30s and married Frances. She still had quite a few dolls from her childhood, ranging from late 19th century dolls with porcelain heads and hands via dolls with partially papier-mâché or composition anatomies to celluloid and even plastic. Even then, I did not pay them very much attention. It was only 20 years later again, when I started going to vide-greniers in France, that I really started to notice dolls at all. 

I could hardly do otherwise. They are one of the most common things for sale at vide-greniers, even more common than crucifixes and other religious flim-flam, the basis of a series I called La Réligion Recyclée or Recycled Religion. So I started to photograph them. As you can see, the pictures were rarely successful: I found them much harder to photograph than religious knick-knacks, though some have a little humour in them, rather like The Secret Life of Chairs

Even so, I could hardly fail to notice the “personalities” that prompted this piece. Frances had of course long been alive to dolls' personalities, but there were still some unexpected stories to come. For example, when her sister came to stay (in France, from the United States) she expressed some surprise that Frances still had a particular doll. As Lucy put it, speaking of the doll rather than her younger sister, “She was always such a BRAT!”

7: Martine and her friends. “What am I doing here?” Her pose bespeaks timid puzzlement, but you'd be timid and puzzled too if you were sitting stark naked at a vide grenier and could only speak when someone pressed a button just below your navel. Suddenly it becomes clear why dolls need underwear, and what they have to hide. She's also an odd cross between a totally childish doll and a teenager, perhaps reflecting the age when girls start to lose interest in dolls. 

Cue an aside. Some yearsago a musician friend commented on how, in his lifetime, music had shifted more and more from participation to consumption. Whereas even in the 1970s it was common to make the stuff, or at least try to, by the 1990s it had become the norm to pay to listen to it. When Frances and I returned to the UK in 1992 after five years in California, I could not believe the change in the folk music scene. As late as the 80s, it was normally free in pubs – a load of thirsty folkies was all but a licence for the landlord to print money – and substantially participatory: everyone joined in for at least the chorus of anything they knew. By the 90s, they paid an admission fee and listened respectfully. Or maybe that was just the difference between the West County and Kent. 

Dolls seem to have gone the same way. Today you can buy more and more and more clothes and accessories, but fewer and fewer little girls learn the skills necessary to make clothes for their own dolls. Of course you can read this as a welcome step in the defeat of the patriarchy, and perhaps it is; but you can also read it as an unwelcome step in the rise of consumerism and the decline of participation and creativity. 

9: Purple-legged doll. Quite often when shooting this series I have been every bit as perplexed by dolls as I was when I was a small boy. I mean, why has this doll got purple legs? Never mind the tiny feet, the strange mask and (though you probably can't see them here) the moulded-in flesh-coloured knickers. When I was a small boy I thought dolls were weird and now I'm beginning to think that they're even weirder than I realized 60 years ago. But as Frances said, "She's probably a 'character' doll, and they never have any character."  This is an impressive insight into the limitations of a manufacturer's ability to give a doll a personality. 

Probably the first influential “sex symbol” doll was Barbie; and it is interesting that she was provided with a “boyfriend”, Ken. Frances says that when she was of an age when it was normal to play with dolls, she never really noticed whether they had breasts or not. This seems an entirely healthy attitude for a little girl, but it does raise the question of when and why (and indeed in what form) doll manufacturers started adding them. 

Then of course there is posing. Because of the way they are articulated (always assuming they are), dolls are often found with their legs apart. In such a pose, some look abandoned; some look vulnerable; and some look downright tarty. But there are worse ways you can pose a doll...

10: Doll on po. Something else you find very often it vide-greniers is babies' potties, and I couldn't help feeling that this unfortunate girl doll looked as if she was sitting on one. This in turn prompted somewhat queasy speculations on the popularity of peeing baby dolls, where you “feed” them at one end and it comes out at the other: an odd commentary on the relative acceptabilities of acknowledging the differences between girls and boys, and glorifying excretion. 

There's already one piece on this site about dolls, called “Unlucky Dolls”, and I can't help feeling that the one above falls into that category. There's another piece on the way called “Dolls' Party” which, I should warn you in advance, does not involve miniature tea-services. Here's a taster from it.

11: After the fight . "Well, your Honour, it was like this. It was sort of a dull night at the doll's hospital, so me and a couple of the lads went out for a drink..." If this isn't a doll with a personality, I don't know what is. 

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Words and pictures copyright Roger Hicks 2018