Object in Focus

‘Incroyable’ Doll


Fashion doll of painted wood with wig and accessories, c.1870, Los Angeles County Museum of Art M.83.37, image copyright of author








Prepared by: Peter McNeil, University of Technology Sydney / Stockholm University

Read the full paper here.

An under-researched area of study is the 18th-century fashion doll as a means of fashion communication. There is always enormous debate surrounding surviving 18th-century dolls as to whether they are meant to be fashion advertisements, some form of entertainment or for the use of children or adults. It is well known that by the 19th century, many dolls that appear to be toys, particularly mechanical dolls, were in fact made for the enjoyment of adults. They were often expensive and displayed in parlours and boudoirs. Dressed in fine fashions, there is an argument in the literature as to whether they continue a much older tradition of providing fashion information before the world of print.

Let us consider one such survival, a French male doll fully dressed with wig and all of his accessories in the ‘Incroyable’ fashion of the 1790s. He lives in a carefully packed box at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the curatorial staff kindly let me examine him. Of painted wood, he is 59.7 cm x 17.8 cm. He wears red striped culottes and a green striped jacket, an enormous exaggerated cravat, a waistcoat, bicorn hat, silk stocking and slippers, a pair of gilt-metal chateleines at his waist, and carries a ‘Hercules’ club of twisted wood. The coat has deep revers of rose silk, large ‘Artois’ buttons and he sports lace cuffs. His face is heavily rouged. His woollen wig can be removed and is tied at the back in one place. Catalogued originally as of the period, on the basis of his construction (glass eyes, style of painted face, separate rather than carved wooden shoes and the wool wig) he is now believed to be made c1870. LACMA Conservation analysed the silk ribbons and noted: ‘XRF results from the silk show no significant amounts of metals that would suggest that it had been weighted, a process that began in the 19th century in which the manufacturer added metallic salts to increase the weight of the silk. Traces of silicon, calcium, iron and lead were found, but the low concentrations of these elements indicate that the source is environmental, not a result of the manufacture of the silk. The shattering of the silk is due to the past storage and display conditions of the object’. However, the textiles might simply have been reused at any stage. The lace cuffs are hand-made but might be later than the 18th century. He demonstrates the ‘long life’ of 18th-century taste and also the revival of the Directoire style in the late-19th century, a trend that was marked until WWI.

The German researcher Max von Boehn gave a special role to the doll in terms of the dissemination of fashion: ‘At a time when as yet the press was non-existent, long before the invention of such mechanical means of reproduction as the woodcut and copperplate, to the doll was given the task of popularizing French fashions abroad’ [V.Boehn 1966: 136]. The extent and exact function of dressed dolls is highly problematic. Although the function of the LACMA ‘Incroyable’ doll remains enigmatic, great care was expended to create him. Whether he was for amusement, some form of advertisement or other such novelty cannot be determined without further evidence. No-one has satisfactorily explained whether surviving dolls are to indicate fashions, or amusements for children or adults. Some accounts prefer to see surviving dolls as fashion dolls rather than toys. Most of the surviving dolls are relatively small; the presence of articulated figures and part-bodies of saints further complicates the survivals, although many of these mannequins were of higher quality and likely made by sculptors, sometimes in wax. The male doll at LACMA has a strange ‘brother’ there, a wooden male doll with two penises. This is an interesting variation on what Juliette Peers describes thus: ‘One group of surviving dolls attributed to the eighteenth century displays fully detailed genitals – in various examples male, female or hermaphrodite. Their bawdy image differs from the accepted image of the doll since 1800’ [Peers 16].

The ‘Incroyable’ doll represents an extreme type of male fashion that was highly topical at the time. In post-Revolutionary Paris, wearing the dress of the ancien-régime was also dangerous. This did not mean that fashion was necessarily less mannered; fashion change for the wealthy had sped up so much by the 1780s that the elements of dress almost became ‘self-referential’. Ultra-fashionable wealthy men of the late 1780s – 1790s wore sets of buttons that might be changed every day, several collars appeared to overlap each other, multiple watches and seals jangled from the waist. Other Parisian groupings used fashion in the post-Revolutionary period to emit signals about their political affiliation.

The ‘Incroyable’ doll belongs to a tradition that reaches back to the Renaissance when dolls were a part of court life [Croizat] and forward to the development of mass-produced dolls and also of clothing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He reveals the longevity of an older type of communication and the continuing interest in the dress of the ancien-régime. He also reveals the troubling question of the function of such dolls. This ‘double life’ of dolls indicates a part of the reason why such ‘fashion models’ continue to puzzle and perturb.


Related material

Visual sources

All images copyright of author.


'Incroyable' doll

'Incroyable' doll: chatelaines

'Incroyable' doll

'Incroyable' doll: accessories

Related link

Artist’s Lay figure, Museum of London




Boehn, Max von, Dolls, trans. Josephine Nicoll, New York, Dover, 1972 [republication of the one-vol. English trans. Dolls and Puppets, n.d. first published in 2 vols. in German in 1929].
Croizat, Yassana C, “‘Living Dolls’: François I Dresses His Women”, Renaissance Quarterly 60.1 (2007) 94-130.
Peers, Juliette, The Fashion Doll. From Bébé Jumeau to Barbie, Oxford and NY, Berg, 2004.


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