Dolls may be mute and their eyes glassy and lifeless, but the tiny stitches used to construct them hold a myriad of stories about their makers, owners and users. Between the age of thirteen in 1754 and her death at the age of sixty in 1801, Laetitia Powell carefully dressed at least twelve dolls which, together, tell her personal and material story. Begun in childhood, but continued throughout adulthood, these dolls acted as a sartorial biography. Notes tacked to the hems of the dolls’ petticoats reveal the date they were stitched and proffer a description of each doll’s outfit. These snippets of information reveal that these garments were not generic specimens or imaginative fancies. Instead, they were often miniature versions of Powell’s own garments. This life-narrative through fashion, layered with the development and improvement of Powell’s own skill as a maker, can be read across the twelve dolls. Through these dolls, this paper suggests, the dynamics of making and buying dress were intricately entwined with biography. Dolls could be conduits for a wealth of personal and sartorial information.
Dr Serena Dyer is Lecturer in History of Design and Material Culture at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. She has edited, with Chloe Wigston Smith, Material Literacy in Eighteenth-Century Britain: A Nation of Makers (Bloomsbury, 2020) and is author of Material Lives: Women Makers and Consumer Culture in the 18th Century (Bloomsbury, 2021).
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At the crossroads of history, history of art, anthropology or sociology, material culture has appeared as an emerging field of reserach in the humanities, leading to what some have called a « material turn ». The project, set in the longue durée rather than in a particular time period, focuses on a wide variety of objects (from textile and quilts to photographs, paintings and touch-screen mobile phones). Its aim and purpose is to explore material culture as a field and methodology. With a background in various disciplines (history, literature, visual studies) the members of the project are all specialised in different time periods or countries. Together they are working towards a definition of material culture to interrogate what this intrinsically transdisciplinary approach does to more traditional academic disciplines.