“A Doll’s Wardrobe”: Maison Martin Margiela’s toy clothes

By Serafina Lee

Maison Martin Margiela's Fall/Winter 1994 collection brought doll's clothes to life, creating a complete wardrobe in miniature. The show was endlessly inventive, transforming a range of classic dolls clothes and accessories into adult-sized proportions. 

 

Dolls and fashion have a longstanding relationship, from touring couture puppet shows during WW2 to Walter Van Beirendonck’s 2020 Spring digital fashion week collection. Within unstable industries, doll shows are a historically ‘important method of communication and reproduction. Given their minute dimensions, couturiers and textile producers would often use dolls on which to present their creations to a broader public, in turn limiting their fabric needs and shipping expenses.’ During the turbulence of WW2 France, Théâtre de la Mode puppet shows were used as a way of showing couture items at a time when ‘the industry had no choice but to reinvent itself in order to perpetuate its enchantment.’ Dolls therefore have a very practical function, and as the industry faces similar turbulence during COVID-19, dolls are a creative way to digitally showcase designs.

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However, alongside this practicality comes a whole host of associations, as dolls are expressive of many contradictory cultural meanings, from childhood nostalgia to the gendered commercialism of ‘Barbies’. Toys, plastic and minutia seem to closely resemble some of the central concerns of clothing, investigating the relationship between materiality, commercialism, popular culture and the living human form. There’s a tension present between flesh and plastic as dolls are inherently detached from, yet also replicate, the body.

Margiela’s collection brings to light some of these explorations. The show lays the groundwork for the house’s iconic labelling system, introducing 5 categories of clothing that would later be extended to the recognisable numbered label. The third category, ‘clothing reproduced from a doll’s wardrobe’, draws on Margiela’s ethos of meticulously reproducing, rather than imitating, vintage garments. He enlarged the scale of a 1960s and 70s doll’s wardrobe, evenly increasing all the proportions to fit a human body. The collection therefore preserved elements of toy clothing, featuring oversized fixtures like zips and clasps, large woollen knitwear and giant pockets on jeans. Loose threads were often left exposed, making the physical construction of the garment an integral part of its overall aesthetic. In line with Margiela’s ethos, these clothes revealed (or at least seemed to reveal) all their tricks.

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 Along with novel features also came the idiosyncrasies of small scale clothing. The enlarged garments alter the proportions of the body, making it appear tiny. This oversized cardigan (pictured below) diminishes the size of the model’s form as the clasps appear ridiculously large in comparison with the rest of her clothes. Through such incongruities, Margiela questions the functional purpose of clothing, abstracting it into something conceptual when it is no longer able to fulfil practicality. After all, dolls clothes are made for rigid, plastic forms, not the moving dynamics of the human body. We are reminded that the body cannot be standardised, and clothing should cater to differences in form. 

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 Such stylistic experimentation of miniature clothing also brings a real sense of nostalgia and escapism, as dolls are, for many, reminiscent of childhood. Margiela himself recalls learning to sew with his grandmother by constructing dolls clothes, and so there is also a playfulness to the distorted proportions. There is complete creative control when shaping the identities and the stories of such blank canvases; the dolls start to inhabit a world of their own. The minutiae of Margiela’s wardrobe is a nostalgic distraction from the limitations and necessities of the human body.

 

The timelessness of the collection rests in its capacity to merge such plural, even contradictory, meanings. The miniature clothing expresses joy in the processes of construction, whilst also questioning the purpose and functionality of clothing itself. ‘A Doll’s Wardrobe’ is therefore a central iteration of Margiela’s philosophy, bridging the border of the material and the conceptual.