A long, long time ago, I wasn’t allowed to have Barbie dolls. They probably cost too much. I loved dolls, and fashion, and not being able to have the most sophisticated doll with the most awe-inspiring wardrobe on the planet left deep and permanent scars, which remained unhealed until my partner indulged my inner child with a gift of reproduction 50s and 60s Barbies.
Anybody thinking “slippery slope/everlasting bonfire” here is absolutely right. But if ever I need an excuse for my inner seven-year-old’s fashion doll playtime, I have one: it’s RESEARCH. And it covers two of my favourite topics: the history of dress, and anime.
The grown-up love of little-girl playthings has led toymakers to recreate fashion dolls in historical dress, national costumes of the world and the outstanding creations of great fashion designers. One of my favourite Barbies is stunningly dressed in a reproduction of the classic Christian Dior ‘Bar’ suit, as modelled by Dovima. Another wears an evening gown by the divine Hubert de Givenchy. There’s even a Barbie styled by Japanese popstar Yuming, and a Hello Kitty Barbie. The history of 20th-century Western dress is encapsulated in Barbie’s wardrobe, which also throws some fascinating sidelights on America’s changing views of other nations and the worldwide spread of Japanese popular culture. (That’s my excuse for my Barbie collection, and I’m sticking to it.)
Japan, of course, has its own fashion dolls. (I use the same excuse for collecting them – just swap the country’s name.) Barbie’s clothing was originally designed and made in Japan, and the Takara toy company, now Takara Tomy, licensed her name to create a more Japan-friendly version of the adventurous, voluptuous American teen. From 1981 to 1986 Takara Barbie sold well, and when their license expired they kept on selling the doll under the new name of Jenny (or JeNny, as the box typography still has it.)
But even Jenny was a little too old for the younger end of the playground, her world too far removed from the everyday life of elementary schoolgirls. Luckily Takara already had a fashion doll for that market. Licca-chan made her debut on 4th July 1967. She was designed by Miyako Maki, a girls’ manga artist who later became the wife of renowned manga and anime creator Leiji Matsumoto.
Licca-chan’s life story is a fascinating amalgam of reality and wish fulfilment. A “typical Japanese girl” despite having a French mother, Licca Kayama has an extended family of parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and pets, and endless supplies of beautiful clothes, accessories and furniture, enabling her small owners to indulge their dreams in a secure, unthreatening fantasy world.
JeNny and Licca both have anime incarnations. Kawaii! JeNny is a Toho TV show from 2007, screened in a late-night slot that indicates how JeNny’s audiences have grown beyond childhood. It uses the dolls in a superhero scenario with nods to Sailor Moon, The Powerpuff Girls and Ultraman. The formula, as proclaimed on the show’s website, is “Dolls + Diorama + Drama” and the FX range from man-in-rubber-suit to CGI.
For many girls, seeing their favourite fashion doll live onscreen fighting evil and saving the world was a new experience. Before this the toys that saved the world had been aimed at boys – with one exception. In a classic life-imitates-art scenario, Super Doll Licca-chan got there first, almost a decade earlier, with her own anime TV series.
Made by Madhouse for TV Tokyo, and helmed by Gisaburo Sugii, the show ran for a very respectable 52 episodes from October 1998, and had its own tie-in toyline running alongside the Licca-chan merchandising behemoth. In a nod to the doll’s manga-artist origins, Kodansha also published a comic based on the show by Mia Ikumi, who went on to co-create Tokyo Mew Mew. It appeared in Nakayoshi magazine and was collected into two volumes.
Traditional Japanese dolls have cropped up in a number of anime, often with horrific connotations – for example, the human dolls and doll-companion in Vampire Princess Miyu and the sinister attack dolls in 3×3 Eyes. But these two shows aren’t interested in subtext: they wear their sweet little-girl hearts on their miniature sleeves. Kawaii! JeNny and Super Doll Licca-chan are all about the joy of play and the endless possibilities of childhood. They remind us that acting out doesn’t have to be a bad thing and that a secret passion for 1/6 scale shoes and handbags can be a useful aid in the process and processing of reality.