Fabric Faces: The Sculptural Beauty of Hally Levesque’s Historical Dolls

Dresser-top Duchesses

I love dolls, especially fashion dolls. I love costuming them just as much as I like costuming myself! Dolls are one of the most ancient toys and have been made in just about every material possible. Before the 20th century, fashion dolls were made of wood covered in gesso (a thick, white paint) and were used less like little girl’s playthings and more like mini mannequins that showed off the latest fashions, called “pandoras.” Other dolls were made from cloth, like this rare 16th century pandora in Stockholm’s Royal Armory with embroidered features and real human hair!

Pandora fashion doll, circa 1585-90

Today, fashion dolls have evolved. There are many types of fashion dolls made in a wide variety of hard materials like resin, thermoplastics, and porcelain. However, the fashion dolls made by Hally Levesque are made of meticulously sculpted fabric with delicately painted features, just like their antique counterparts! Hally’s dolls have such a charming, friendly elegance about them and I fell in love with her Etsy shop the moment I found it! Every doll she creates is thoroughly researched and has a personality all her own. I am especially impressed with how perfectly scaled all of the trims and accessories are. Here are some of her stunning creations:

Anne (c. 1530)

Margaret (c. 1560)

Hally doesn’t limit herself to a single era, but rather explores the costumes of many centuries and countries. For example, the cloth doll that originally piqued her interest was a medieval princess in a book on cloth dollmaking. Her own version is quite stunningly dressed in a houppelande and imposing gold escoffion:

Felice (c. 1440)

And any Georgian woman would be envious of this lovely Georgian beauty out for a springtime stroll in her lovely polonaise:

Susannah (c. 1779)

What impresses me most about all of Hally’s dolls is that she takes the time to carefully research and design their outfits and personas. According to her online bio, just as a human-sized costume looks best over proper support garments, each of Hally’s dolls are “costumed from the inside out (meaning that the undergarments are also constructed according to historical records).”

I was so dazzled by her level of skill and dedication, I asked her a few questions about her creative process and she was kind enough to oblige!

Maxine (c. 1928)

Question: What made you decide to focus on historical dolls? Do you have a favorite era of history that you like to draw from?

Hally Levesque: Well, I’ve always had a love of history – in fact, it was my favorite subject in high school. I believe it all began with reading my mother’s collection of historical fiction novels by Jean Plaidy. I quickly became fascinated with British history and particularly the medieval and renaissance periods. In fact, I still can’t get enough when it comes to reading about the romances and tragedies that plagued the royal houses of England – very few can outdo the Plantagenets and the Tudors on that score! My main passion; however, has been dolls and so it seemed perfectly natural for me to gravitate towards making dolls that represent my other interests. Besides being a history buff, I also enjoy sewing and was curious to find out how clothing from other periods was constructed and just what was going on under all that material!

Marie Claire (c. 1755)

Question: I admit that I’m a “chaotic creator”– I usually follow my latest fancy wherever (or whenever) it goes, so I often find myself getting “lost” in projects: either I have too many at once or I get frustrated, burnt out, or just can’t find the inspirational spark. How do you decide what you are going to make next and how do you stay the course?

Hally Levesque: I wish that I could say that it’s easy for me to stay focused but it’s not and I think that it comes with the territory of being a creative person. I get distracted all of the time. I am constantly inspired by other doll artists and there seems to be no end to the different types of dolls that I would like to make. Quite often ideas for other dolls will flow while I am working on a project and I have to allow that to happen. It’s all part of the creative process. At one time I would finish one doll project before starting another, but now I have no problem with setting a project aside temporarily to start on something new that really intrigues me.
However, to avoid having a bunch of unfinished dolls waiting in the wings, I do make a deal with myself to the effect that it’s okay for me to start another project providing that as soon as I get to a certain stage, I will go back and finish the other. For instance, I have started making an Elizabethan cloth doll and two mixed-media dolls (one’s a pirate and the other I am making for a doll almanac that will be published later this year), but had to set them aside to make a medieval doll for submission to a doll challenge and to make some primitive-style cloth dolls for an arts festival. In the meantime, I am just beginning to play with ideas for a new series of dolls.
Now I’ve had to make a “deal” with myself that I can’t do any more work on the new doll series until the mixed-media dolls are completed. As for the Elizabethan doll, she will probably have to wait a while longer. I’ve joked with my husband that sometimes I wish that I could clone myself so that I could bring to fruition all of the ideas for dolls that I’ve already started and the new ones that are still swimming around in my head.

Tatiana – The Russian Ballerina
One of the hand-sculpted dolls from Hally Levesque’s mixed-media series.

Question: Where do you get your inspiration from? Are there any books, websites, or techniques you recommend?

Hally Levesque: I get my inspiration mostly from historical illustrations and movies. I was fortunate in that I worked at a university with access to a vast library. Over the years I have accumulated a pile of information on historical costuming, but the majority of it has been photocopied (this was back before copyright became such a huge issue) and so sadly I don’t have the names of the books from which they were taken. However, when it comes to making Tudor clothing there is an absolutely superb book called “The Tudor Tailor: Techniques and patterns for making historically accurate period clothing” by Ninya Makhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies. I came across it at a library and absolutely had to have a copy of my own. I used this book in making “Anne” and “Catherine”. Another great book is “Period Costumes for Stage and Screen” by Jean Hunnisett, although the instructions can be a bit daunting as they are intended for the highly experienced sewer. I have plans to make an Elizabethan doll at some point and will be using her book as a guideline. A website that I have referred to many times in the past for information is the Costumer’s Manifesto.

Catherine (c. 1536)
“A lady of the royal court, Catherine’s high station is evident in her composure as well as the richness of her dress. This is a woman accustomed to being obeyed, but with a quiet authority and goodness of heart that earns her the love and admiration of all.”

Be sure to check out Hally Levesque’s Etsy Shop, Creative Doll Works to see more of her stunning art dolls! She is also working on a doll project for Cult of Doll (you can see a sneak peek at her entry here).

artists supporting artists

Don’t be afraid of art: share it!
If you know a deserving artist, support their craft any way you can: word of mouth, social media, donations, purchases, or even just a kind word of encouragement! Art keeps the world beautiful.

A big THANK YOU to Hally for creating such inspiring work and graciously taking the time to answer my questions!

One Dress Two Weddings: An 18th Century Gown Remade in the 1840s

Recycling Grandma’s Old Dress

There’s a large debate in the vintage community about whether we should wear vintage clothing or save it. It’s a tricky question.  What most people consider vintage clothing– clothing 80-20 years old– was usually mass produced. It’s fun to wear older clothing because it’s made differently and fits differently than modern mass produced clothing– so many different shapes, colors, and fabrics to explore! Even hand-sewn items are abundant because of population boom, especially after WWII, so there were more people to clothe and printed patterns became cheap and easier to use.

Wedding gowns are a favorite vintage item because they are often worn for only a day, then carefully preserved and passed down to the next generation. Little girls dream of one day wearing mommy’s or grandma’s dress to their wedding, and dresses from the 1930s to even the 1980s (yes, big, poofy sleeves coated in plastic pearls are coming back into vogue) are being re-worn by this generation’s brides or updated to suit modern tastes by shortening skirts, removing sleeves, or adding trims. Altering a wedding dress to suit changing fashion norms and different body types is a common practice that has been going on for ages.

For previous generations, however, vintage clothing wasn’t mass produced. For our grandmothers and even our mothers, vintage clothing stretched back into the era of home sewing. Go back even further and everything was not only home-made but hand-stitched as well. The investment of time, labor, and materials was much greater, and dresses were picked apart and re-fashioned much more frequently to squeeze every last iota of usefulness out of the fabric. In the 1840s and 50s, 18th century inspired fabric designs were all the rage and women began turning to their grandmothers’  old-fashioned, outdated 18th century gowns into then-modern designs.

Take, for example, this gown for Augusta Auctions:

AugustaAuctions18th19th AugustaAuctions18th19th2

It’s made of airy muslin decorated with small sprigs of flowers and trimmed with an elaborate hand-painted border:

AugustaAuctions18th19th3

They list it as a 1795 Wedding Gown, but just looking at it tells you that something is off. The fabric is right, as is the petticoat-overdress styling, but everything else is off. Perhaps it’s just the lack of panniers or a bum roll to support the trailing overdress? While the mannequin isn’t helping matters, it’s the pleated trimming at the bust, redone sleeves, back-closure, and waistline that are 100% 19th century.

AugustaAuctions18th19thbodice

AugustaAuctions18th19thback

The biggest giveaway that this dress is a remodel is the bodice. Indeed, it seams as though the Victorian seamstress might have turned the bodice backward! Everything about it screams late 1830s/early 1840s– from the wide, shallow neckline to the back closure (only children’s gowns in the 18th century closed in the back. Women’s 18th century gowns closed in front). It’s hard to tell what the original gown my have looked like, but while it looks closer to a Robe à l’Anglaise now, judging by the large amount of fabric that went into the remodel, it’s possible it was a Robe à la Polonaise with the overskirt let down.

Robe à l’Anglaise with Train, circa 1784-87

Robe à la Polonaise, circa 1780

The sheer amount of fabric that went into the remodel could also mean it was a Robe à la Française, but I’ve never seen a Robe à la Française made of muslin. In addition, if the 1795 date is indeed the originating date of the dress, the française-style back was pretty much out of fashion. My bet is that Grandmother wore a lovely trained Anglaise to her wedding in the 1780s-90s and her granddaughter wanted to wear it to her own wedding (remember, this dress was only about 50 years old when it was remade, the modern equivalent of remodeling a 1960s dress). Whatever its original form, this dress underwent a massive remodel sometime between 1838 and 1842. I have an 1840s fashion plate that’s a little later in date than this remodel appears to be, but it’s nonetheless similar. It shows the same style of bodice, and conveniently located next to it is another ball gown with an overskirt:

You’ll notice that the necklines in the fashion plate are much lower than on the Augusta Auction gown. The lady who remodeled the dress likely did so for her own nuptials since a low neckline would be considered very  immodest for a church wedding. The sleeves of the dress and likely much of the fabric used to raise the neckline and make the pleated trim came from the petticoat. That would also explain the excessive staining on the overskirt of the dress. Luxurious trains never go out of style, so once the fullness of the petticoat had been lessened and rounded out, the overskirt was re-fashioned into an opulent bridal train.

There are other dresses like this one that were made of 18th century fabric in the mid-19th century. Even Elizabethan and Stuart-era garments were not immune to the Victorians’ romantic obsession with ancestral fashion.  It was a common practice, much like wearing vintage or sewing with antique textiles today. Every generation looks back and laughs at how ridiculous their parents and grandparents dress, but they also admire them as well. 19th century fashion writers are constantly complaining about the poor quality of their current fabric selection compared to the rich, sturdy fabrics of their predecessors  (Doesn’t that sound familiar?). Just as costumers and vintage-wearers today turn to antique collars, yardage, and trims to get the look just right, so did our ancestors.

For some, it’s a crime to destroy rare and precious garments in this way because it means there will be fewer preserved for future generations. Others believe that garments are made to be used and enjoyed. Others, like myself, sit in the middle ground. There is a time to trash, a time to transform, and a time to treasure and it’s highly subjective. While it’s sad that we will never know what the 18th century incarnation of this gown looked like, it has a fascinating history that makes it unique among dresses. There are quite a few well-preserved 18th and 19th century dresses in museum collections around the world, but pieces like this are much more unusual!