Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why I Dream in Sixth Scale

The year is 1961, and the first Barbie doll that comes into my home belongs to my mother. It is a blonde ponytail, and Mama has dressed her in Sheath Sensation, that terrific red cotton dress with the gold buttons, white straw hat, white wrist gloves, and black open-toe heels. The doll stood on her dresser in front of a tray of fragrance bottles, looking like she’d stepped out of VOGUE. I stared at it every day.

Another year or two of my childhood has passed, and I now have my own brunette bubble cut Barbie doll. In a witty twist, my mother has given me the brunette doll, and my raven-haired sister the blonde version. I’m hard at work making clothes (or is it ‘hard at play’? With dolls it’s the same thing). At first my skills are a little shaky, but with practice the whole thing starts to feel somehow right.

Those early Barbie doll Made in Japan outfits blew me away with their dressmaker detailing. I’m not the first to say this, but these were not doll clothes: they were miniature couture. It set the standard in my imagination, a benchmark. Every time a new pattern came out to make my own fashions, I was thrilled. As a ten year old on a toy sewing machine I couldn’t approach that level of quality and detail, but I certainly tried.

One of my favorite recurring childhood dreams was of finding amazing doll clothes. I still have such dreams. In the most recent of these, about a month ago, I dreamt some unnamed person willed a remote country house to me, and in the supposedly empty house I found fabulous displays of the most amazing doll fashions in clear boxes. By this time, I’d figured out it was a dream, and was excitedly committing what I was seeing to memory so I could record it in my journal when I woke up.

From the very start, it always felt like the perfect size for me. My sister and I could spread out in the living room and create entire rooms: shoe box beds, cardboard art galleries with magazine cutouts or our own artwork, beauty salons with egg carton cups as hood hair dryers, fashion shows on makeshift runways. I could make a dress on the barest scrap of leftover fabric.

With this scale, you could hold the doll in your hand, a precious object, and it was yours.

Later I would learn to create my own designs, and this was a tremendous thrill. After decades of this, I think I can draft a Barbie size pattern freehand in my sleep. I liked—and still like—that a complete pattern for this doll can be drafted on a sheet of typing paper, even on a tiny airline table.

A row of sixth scale girls looks unobtrusive, and at home, on a bookshelf. One of them can travel with me with ease for unique photo-ops.

Years later, there is yet another dimension to my appreciation. At this scale, a doll lover can reasonably have dozens, or hundreds, in their collection. Like countless other enthusiasts, I have a closet full, some just waiting for outfits and transformations, and others waiting for their turn to be on display.

Because they are not large, I feel a bit freer with them: a haircut here, a crazy outfit there.

Of course the sixth-scale (playscale) shoes aren’t nearly as cool and detailed as those of the big gals. Sleeves are harder to set in. Fabric scale is more of an issue. Linings can add too much thickness. All but the tiniest beads and buttons look wrong. Sometimes when I see those big, gorgeous dolls, I do have a wave of interest, but in the end my heart goes back to a foot-tall icon in a red sheath, and the countless other chic and glamorous vixens who have followed in her tiny footsteps.

Maybe it’s as much nostalgia as aesthetics, but when sixth scale is done right, for me there is nothing quite as magical.

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