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Dolls Meant for Adults at Craft & Folk

December 26, 1987|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

When archeologists sifted through the ruins of Herculaneum, an ancient Roman city that had been buried along with Pompeii during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, they were startled to discover the preserved body of a child still clutching her doll.

Dolls have been in existence as far back as 40,000 BC, since Cro-Magnon man. They have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and the early Greeks and Romans fashioned them from such materials as wood, wax, terra cotta and ivory.

Not all dolls have been little girls' playthings. Early civilizations worshiped a number of them as idols. They have also appealed to adults. Some of the finest examples of these are currently on view at the Craft & Folk Art Museum.

Master's Thesis on Dolls

Stephanie Farago became interested in doll history while studying at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. While there, she completed a number of life-size mannequins for her master's thesis and researched ancient forms of puppetry. Seven years ago, she purchased her first doll, a flapper from the 1920s. Today the collection of cloth dolls she and her husband, Fred, have acquired is one of the largest in the world, and you will view some of the best at the museum.

Farago admits she never played with dolls as a girl, which could account for the fact that the main focus of her collection is on dolls that primarily appeal to adults.

The most colorful dolls on display were manufactured during the 1920s. They were called art dolls and were also known as boudoir, salon, or bed dolls, popular during the Art Deco era. They were made from silk or felt with cloth bodies, glass eyes and often elaborate costumes. They were not designed to be children's playthings but were aimed at a women's market as fashion accessories. It was not uncommon for women dressed in couture gowns to carry dolls as matching outfits.

Manufacturers patterned the clothing of their dolls by copying from leading fashion designers such as Paul Poiret and his most famous understudy, Erte, whose first designs for Harper's Bazaar appeared in 1915 and continued in that publication for 22 years.

Strong Greek Influence

In his autobiography, "Erte Fashions by Erte" (Academy/St. Martin's Press, 1972), he writes that the main influence on his work were Greek vase paintings: "I was overwhelmed by their beauty and their stylization of design."

Erte, who created dresses for many MGM films, added that he designed models out of his own imagination without any precise objective.

"The result was that they became sources of inspiration for the fashion trade, yet were designed as works of art," Erte said.

Little wonder that thousands of women wanted gowns he designed. If they couldn't afford an Erte creation, a cloth doll wearing a copy and reclining on a pillow was some solace.

Recall Silent Screen Era

A number of the dolls, which are displayed in miniature sets, recall the era of the silent screen. They were used to promote the motion pictures in which their real-life counterparts appeared. There is a rare Rudolph Valentino doll, used to promote "The Son of the Sheik." The two-foot replica of the romantic idol is depicted emerging from a richly carpeted tent somewhere on the blowing sands of the Sahara, and his roving eye isn't just searching for his camel. When Valentino appeared in a similar scene on the screen, women swooned.

Other faces many visitors will recognize are Jackie Coogan, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Temple, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. There is also a doll that was one of the most popular animated cartoon characters of the era--Betty Boop.

Stephanie Farago is the author of "The Magic and Romance of Art Dolls." The volume contains color photographs of many dolls from the Farago collection, which now numbers more than 1,000. Erte contributed the introduction. It is on sale at the museum gift shop ($39.95).

The Craft & Folk Art Museum is at 5814 Wilshire Blvd. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $1.50 for adults, $1 for seniors and students, 75 cents for children. The exhibition closes Jan. 17. Information: (213) 937-5544.

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