The cold perfection and the haunting gaze of the Viktor&Rolf dolls – recently on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto – embody what Freud has defined as uncanny –– that “intense feeling of strangeness that can occur when encountering something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, causing doubt as to whether or not the object is, in fact, alive”. On the three occasions I visited the ROM display during the Luminato Festival, I overheard visitors repeatedly use the word “creepy” to describe their reaction to the Viktor&Rolf dolls.
Fashion dolls are not a new phenomena in the museum. In 1945, the travelling exhibition of Parisian fashion dolls called Theatre de la Mode was conceived and presented in an effort to restore the haute couture industry after WWII. With outfits designed by Dior, Lucien Lelong, Piguet, Carven, Nina Ricci, Jean Patou, Schiaparelli and others, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture showcased the best of French fashion – in miniature. Milliners, shoemakers, glovemakers, and jewelers all contributed to the project.With blank faces, wire bodies and real hair, these small scale mannequins (27.5 inches in height) were clothed in miniature versions of the designer’s clothing and accessories. Everything was replicated with precision: pockets opened, buttons could be unbuttoned and handbags unclasped. The effect was surreal and the audience, who had “been starved for beauty, for glamour, for amusement after four years of occupation” streamed in. An estimated 100,000 visitors saw the exhibition in Paris before it travelled to cities like London, Barcelona and New York. The dolls were packed away in a basement in San Francisco for several years before being sent to the Maryhill Museum of Fine Art in Washington. They have been redisplayed on occasion including an exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratif in Paris in 1990 and at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991.
In 2008, the Viktor&Rolf retrospective at the Barican Gallery, the use of dolls as mannequins was a curatorial choice by Caroline Evans specifically designed to invoke a sense of Freud’s uncanny (Evans 19). These dolls were commissioned for the exhibit from a Belgian doll maker and combine a French bebe type doll from the 19th century by Maison Jurneau in Paris with a German fashion doll from 1860-1890. The wide eyed Viktor&Rolf dolls have bisque porcelain faces with pouty lips and full cheeks. The real human hair is styled to match the runway model, and the paper-mache bodies feature small waists and articulated joints.There were two sizes of dolls used in the exhibition at the Barbican: 70 cm (27.6 inches) tall dolls dressed in miniature versions of the designer’s collections as well as life-size dolls dressed in the actual garments. The shift in scale created a surreal Alice in Wonderland illusion, which has haunted me since I saw the exhibit at the Barbican in 2008.
For the 2013 exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, only the smaller 70 cm size dolls were on display. Thirty dolls were presented as if in motion along a specially designed runway in the Thorsell Spirit House Gallery. Each doll was exquisitely dressed in a scaled-down version of the runway outfit made in the Viktor&Rolf atelier and was accessorized with hair, makeup and shoes. This display was not meant to be a didactic presentation of the designer’s work since there was an absence of labels or explanatory information, and this seemed to confound and confuse many visitors (who frequently asked the security attendants for information). The lack of text was consistent with the presentation of the dolls as conceptual art pieces, and the sole exhibition label revealed that: “Dolls are conceptual art objects of strange beauty and desire”.
In an essay in the Summer 2013 ROM Magazine, Dr. Alexandra Palmer described this project as one that “shifts the conventional archiving of designers’s oeuvres from static outdated representations of past work. Instead, by recreating modern, abstracted forms of their designs, Viktor&Rolf ensure its creations survive into the future as precious objects to be admired. The clothes, the model doll, and indeed the Viktor&Rolf collection become fashion specimens as if under a bell jar” (8).
References and Additional Reading:
Evans, Caroline and Frankel, Susannah. The House of Viktor and Rolf. London: Merrell. 2008.
Fox, Carl. The Doll. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1972.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books, 2005.
Mac Neil, Sylvia. The Paris Collection. Grantsville, Md.: Hobby House Press, 1992.
Palmer, Alexandra. “Luminato at the ROM: Viktor&Rolf Dolls”. ROM Magazine, Summer 2013.
Théâtre De La Mode. Ed. Eugene Clarence Braun-Munk, Edmonde Charles-Roux, and Susan Train. New York: Rizzoli in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991.
Photo credits: Ingrid Mida, copyright 2013
Author’s note: Parts of this essay originally appeared on the blog Fashion is my Muse!