I was born in an era when every young girl owned two dolls – a baby doll and a bride doll. I still remember discovering my bride doll in my Santa sack early one Christmas morning. She was porcelain, and wore an exquisite cream satin dress with fine lace trim. Under the dress were cotton lace-trimmed knickers and a pretty petticoat, both cream. She was perfect, and possessed an individuality that my friends’ dolls seemed to lack.
When I was in my forties, with three young children of my own, I learnt more about her. It was Christmas time and my mother had come to stay a few days.
I’d had one of those last minute brainwaves. My daughters had wanted costumes since Halloween. My three year old still rode our straw broom around the garden. And my son ran outside whenever he heard a siren. Wouldn’t it be fun to make fancy dress outfits for the children?
I’d already checked out ready-made costumes in a big department store, but they were far too expensive for our budget. And something else bothered me. They didn’t seem as well designed as the ones we’d found in our Santa sacks as children. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
During the past week I’d managed a few solo shopping trips, bringing home lots of black cotton material, and a piece of sheer pink gossamer-like fabric. These lay hidden on top of my wardrobe.
That night the children were finally in bed, and my husband was sent in with instructions to tell them an extra long bedtime story.
My mother’s eyes lit up as I showed her the fabrics and trims.
“This brings back a lot of good memories,” she said. Her eyes lit on my bride doll, which lay on the sofa.
“What do you mean?” I was puzzled. The only fancy dress costumes I could remember my parents making were a Queen of Hearts outfit made from layers of white crepe paper with shiny red hearts fastened on, and a black witch’s costume with high-pointed hat made from hard cardboard. We’d watched them creating them at our kitchen table one Saturday afternoon, and helped. None of this cloak and dagger stuff.
“Dad and I had to stay up every night for a week to make your cowboy and cowgirl outfits,” she said.
“My Annie Oakley outfit?” I couldn’t believe my ears. It was the envy of all my school friends, most of whom came from families who were better off than ours. My costume had so much extra detail. There were badges, gold trim, fringing.
“It took me hours to sew on all that gold braid,” she went on. Then she added, “And Dad sewed the boys’ gun holsters from free samples of vinyl.” My father was a colour consultant and interior decorator. When had he learnt how to use my grandmother’s old treadle sewing machine?
“But the holsters were attached to a belt?” I said.
She nodded. “Yes, we had to ask for help with that.” I remembered that the lady over the road had worked for a tailor and had a special machine for punching holes in leather.
I shook my head in wonderment.
Mum spread out the black fabric on our old wooden table. Together, we cut out a witches skirt and cape, and when the little voices in the next room had quietened, we sewed them up.
The pink gossamer became a fairy outfit to match the one the new Barbie was wearing.
For my son, we cut out a fireman’s suit. I began on the trousers. But my eyes watered. It was a struggle to sew the black fabric.
“Let’s call it a night,” I suggested to Mum. “I’m having trouble sewing straight seams.”
As we packed everything away, and gathered up some telltale scraps of fabric from the floor, she commented, “It’s much easier sewing light-coloured fabric at night-time.”
I sat up. “What else did you sew for me when I was a child?”
Mum picked up my bride doll from the sofa. She was still wearing her beautiful outfit, but it was a bit the worse for wear. My daughters had been allowed to play with her tonight as a special treat.
Mum carefully fingered the dress.
“This is real bridal satin, you know,” she said. “I was able to get a remnant from Gardams.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Did you really sew this yourself?”
She smiled, her eyes shining. “And it’s Swiss lace. I had to sew it all by hand, it was too fine for my sewing machine.”
I realized these delicate hand-sewn garments would never survive the games my daughters played with their dolls. Perhaps it was time my bride doll acquired a new outfit?
In the nights that followed, not only did the fireman’s outfit take shape, complete with red trim and a big plastic hat and Wellingtons, but bride doll acquired a red knitted top and a bright cotton patchwork skirt. Her ‘going away’ outfit.
She could wear her special satin dress when she sat in pride of place on my dressing table, but when my daughters wanted to have a picnic with her, we’d dress her in these more practical garments.
I hugged Mum in gratitude. After all these years, I’d discovered the secret of my bride doll’s special individuality.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem