Paper dolls and ready-to-wear brought flapper fashion to the masses

Paper dolls will be a part of Object Project and its exploration of ready-to-wear clothing. It opens July 2015.

Celebrities sit in the coveted front row at runway shows and their own styles send devoted fans hunting for bargain versions of stars' latest styles. But before Jay-Z's Rocawear and the Jessica Simpson collection brought celeb style to the masses, there was Clara Bow. 

Clara Bow photo

Photograph of Clara Bow from around 1927. Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, NPG.88.54.

The 1920s silent film actress caused a stir in both her movie roles and her real-life fashion choices. Bow drew massive amounts of fan mail, in part due to her beguiling looks as well as her turbulent personal life. Scandals surrounded her, and the constant discussion of them in the Hollywood press practically guaranteed that she would exert a huge influence on young women at the time—especially those of the working class. In fact, Bow's characters were usually working-class girls. In her most famous movie, It, she played a shopgirl romantically interested in her boss, using trickery to entice him.

Bow's legions of fans imitated her in every way. They replicated her makeup, copying her dark red Cupid's Bow lips and penciled-in eyebrows. When she wore long scarves around her neck or head, so did her fans. Her fans quickly followed suit when her personal hairdresser changed Bow's hair color from dark auburn to a flaming orange-red using a formula of bleach and henna. They imitated her clothing style, doing as she did in the movie It and taking scissors to their dresses to make them shorter or more revealing. Cloche hats (which could be ordered by mail) and loose-fitting, drop-waist dresses were in vogue after Bow wore them on film. Her sultry looks and body language were also imitated.

Ad for "It" girl hat

Newspaper ad for a Clara Bow-style hat. San Jose News, October 4, 1928. Via Google News Archive.

One of the big reasons that fans were actually able to copy Bow's style was the introduction of affordable "ready-to-wear" clothing, which is mass-produced and available for purchase in stores, rather than one-of-a-kind, tailored designs. First sold in department stores and mail-order catalogs in the 1890s, ready-to-wear offered both men and women affordable choices in standardized sizes and styles. This shift in availability meant that the working class could more readily emulate high fashion and their favorite celebrities' styles. We'll explore how these social changes and new technologies affected each other in our Object Project exhibition, which will tell the stories of everyday things that changed everything.

Paper dolls

Clara Bow paper dolls from the Grepke Collection at the museum's Archives Center. Collection ID: AC0752.

Another way in which Bow's styles were imitated was through paper dolls. Published in ladies' magazines like Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, paper dolls weren't just toys for children. Think of them as the Pinterest of the past. They provided style inspiration and a steady stream of celebrity-approved fashions, which sent young women to the department store to find less expensive, ready-to-wear versions of those styles (or at least window shop). Marketing clothes via paper dolls works so well, in fact, that Louis Vuitton offered printable paper dolls featuring their spring/summer 2013 ready-to-wear line via the designer's website.

paper doll outfits, one dress and one jacket

Clara Bow paper dolls from the Grepke Collection at the museum's Archives Center. Collection ID: AC0752.

A look at the Carolyn and Donald Grepke Paper Doll Collection in the museum's Archives Center reveals just how accessible expensive-looking fashions became in paper doll format. The collection includes several Bow likenesses, as well as television and film stars like Lucille Ball, Roy Rogers, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Rudolph Valentino, and, most popular of all, Shirley Temple.

The Grepke Paper Doll collection includes over 4,000 paper dolls along with their costumes and accessories, covering a period from 1880 through the end of the 20th century. The Grepkes were enthusiastic collectors of paper dolls for decades, acquiring their collection by shopping in antique stores, flea markets, and auctions. After Carolyn's death in 1995, Donald donated the collection to the Archives Center.

Clara Bow paper dolls from the Grepke Collection at the museum's Archives Center. Collection ID: AC0752.

Bow's films and her style, as preserved in her paper doll persona, shook up the Victorian mores of the 1920s. Her characters unapologetically smoked, drank, bobbed their hair, and dressed in the flapper fashion. F. Scott Fitzgerald said of her, "Clara Bow is the quintessence of what the term 'flapper' signifies … pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly-wise, briefly clad and 'hard berled' as possible. … There were hundreds of them, her prototypes. Now, completing the circle, there are thousands more patterning themselves after her."

Bow lost popularity with the advent of talking pictures. She found them limiting with, she felt, too much emphasis on the dialog and too little on the action. Her Brooklyn accent was also considered an impediment by the studios. She retired from movies in her 30s, but her influence on fashion lives on to this day, with many people still drawing inspiration from her style.

Cathy Keen is an associate curator in the museum's Archives Center. Look for future blogs on the Grepke Paper Doll Collection.