The “Elusive Icons Black Fashion Dolls 1968-2013” are on show at the Brockton Collective on Dufferin Street in Toronto February 6- 28th, 2014. The word elusive seemed strange to me as I consider the name of the exhibition. Then it clicked, the word elusive has many synonyms, but the one which best describes the black fashion dolls in this exhibition for me is “skillful at eluding capture.” Yes that is how I personally would describe a Black Fashion doll in my life. During my childhood I never had the pleasure of seeing, owning or lusting after a black fashion doll. Seeing all of those dolls perfectly lined up on their own constructed runways at the Elusive Icon Black exhibition, offered me some perspective to reflect on my beauty, colour and identity. The exhibition was a catalyst for collating fragmented memories in my mind of sewing clothing for my big white doll, trying to become a model, watching Julia on TV and coming of age as a Black woman.
Flashback to Manchester, England 1966, where my whole doll history consisted of one doll. I mean sure I would have taken a fashion Barbie if offered, but when I was 6 years old I shared a big white doll with my sister. The doll whose name I cannot remember, but it might have been Gracie, endured and suffered many indignities I inflicted upon her. She was often left her naked on the doorstep, I am pretty sure I wrote on her leg with a blue ball point pen and most certainly I cut her hair off until there was none. I often cried in regret and chastised myself in front of the doll. I never really gave much thought to the doll’s skin colour, she served my purposes. My sister and I were much more interested in dressing her up and posing her for tea parties. My mother was a seamstress by occupation. She designed and created clothing for us. She designed a yellow lace princess dress and tiara for me. I was the pretty and beautiful “coloured girl” when I won the “All Saint’s Eve” costume contest in my dress. Our mother taught us to layout the pattern on newspaper and make dresses for our doll. Looking back in retrospect, my mother being very practical and utilitarian had purchased the big doll to use as a mannikin while teaching us how to sew. Barbie had nice clothes and accessories, but really it would have been tricky for us tto make a dress to fit that little body and skinny waist.
The first black fashion doll “Francie” appeared in America in 1967 and I feel pretty confident Mattel did not export her into Canada. I could be wrong and would appreciate a correction if one is necessary. In 1968, our family was one of two black families in Elliot Lake.The big white doll from England came with me. Here I received my first exposure to racial prejudice I quickly came to the realization that the colour of our skin did matter. You see the white people in that town would bring fabric to our house and my mother would design and sew whatever they wanted. Those same people would not allow her buy real estate downtown to expand her business.The experience through my mother eyes was just the beginning.
That spring as a bewildered 8 year old, I watched the assassination of Martin Luther King on the black and white TV. We moved to Toronto in 1968 and shopped at Honest Ed’s. Ed had quite the toy section, but I never saw a black fashion doll there. No Black history month or African anything education going on in the Canadian school system. I looked forward to watching Julia. on TV. As an 8 year old I was peripherally aware of civil rights movement in America, but I had no idea that Black was the new colour in media, music, fashion and visual arts.
British fashion photographer Patrick Litchfield photographed Marsha Hunt naked, beautiful and black with a Afro hairstyle for the 1969 issue of Vogue. Marvin Gaye was at the top of the charts with “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”. James Brown recorded” “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Textile artist Jae Jarell, a member of Afri-Cobra made “The Revolutionary Suit.” Model Naomi Sims was the first African American model to grace the cover of a magazine, Life Magazine in fact. On television, a widowed African American nurse was raising her son by herself on the weekly sitcom Julia. Mattel manufactured the Nurse Julia black fashion doll. Nurse Julia she was the first uniquely black head sculpt and all the Barbie’s clothes fit her. Prior to Julia, Francie, was just a black version of a white doll. Although Francie had the right tone, Julia carried the black facial features.
The observation and investigation into black fashion dolls has lead me to reflect upon my own perspectives of race, beauty and identity. In 1977, I was 17. My sense of fashion was strong and my self confidence high. This self awareness accelerated my determined career chasing and propelled me to dream about becoming a model. I mean there was a black woman with her own TV show right? I worked to get a portfolio together and I entered contests. I always came away feeling that I was not beautiful enough to win. Only the white girls, I would never make the cut. Was it the freckles? I began to question my beauty and my colour. If I had seen a black fashion doll in the 70’s, she would have given me hope that I could have made it the fashion world.
My internal metamorphosis and solidification of my colour and personal beauty took hold when I started going to Jamaica with my girlfriend’s in the 80’s. I could see my beauty in the black people I was surrounded by. Jamaica has all kinds of mix-up business going on down there. Chinese mixed with Black mixed with Indian mixed with White, all colours and shades. My great grandparents on my father’s side came from India to Jamaica in the 1800’s and my mother was the descendant of West African slaves and Scotsmen. I blame Scotsmen for the freckles. I could turn heads, Jamaican men and women called me “Browning” in a sexy come hither kinda way. I am always surprised when white people say “Your not really Black are you?” Let’s just say if you had to colour me in with crayons from the Crayola pack, you would choose beige with brown polka dots. My features and colour do not define me as a Black woman. I am a Black woman because of my heritage and my life experiences
Harris’s fashion doll collection represents women inclusive of all the colours of “black” on the spectrum. The exhibition catalogue depicts lavish scenarios where Harris has posed his handcrafted black fashion doll to accentuate her voluptuous Venus body.Frantz has taking the time to eliminate joints and has sculpted her 16 inch pliable silicon curvaceous body with very complex internal rod, spring and wire skeleton. He has created her smooth skin black as night and light as day. He has designed fetish heels, sewed wicked fancy pants and glamorous dresses in fine fabrics and coiffed her hair perfectly. Frantz has created an evolution in his black fashion collectible doll and I think they are underpriced. Observing the dolls reflected a visual representation of the various fashion stages of my life. The princess gown, big afro, the braids, the blond low afro, the hot pants, the maxi coat and the mini skirt. I did not need a black fashion doll, I am the black fashion doll in my life. The elusive icon is not so elusive after all, Harris has managed to capture her quite skillfully.
On a side note. I recommended that you take in Jamie Fox’s short film “And She Was My Eve. The film was created as part of the the Canon Imagination Project. Fox’s film is a great fantastical sci-fi extension and pairing for this exhibition.