Humble and diminutive, paper dolls have long been inexpensive playthings with punchy expressive potential limited only by imagination—and of course, socio-economic material constraints. But as far as fashion is concerned, I’ll risk the generalization that real-deal wearable garments cost more than their miniaturized counterparts. After all, paper dolls historically “democratized” dress-up by extending doll play from elite classes to lower-income families, becoming especially popular during wartime shortages of materials.1
Two artists with a penchant for using cheap, cast-off materials happen to have sets of works that remind me of paper dolls: Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt (b. 1948) and Mandy Cano Villalobos (b. 1978). The former created his Twinky as… series upon moving to New York City as a teenager in the late 1960s. Collaging self-portraits onto linoleum tiles from his tenement apartment, these knickknacks were materializations of Lanigan-Schmidt’s fantasy of “marrying [his] high school boyfriend”:
We would have this little house, little knicknacks that were going to be made by me. They were all about celebrating me in drag, and then these gay magazines.2
Each portrait includes collaged text further highlighting the importance of the garments depicted, like “Twinky is a prima ballerina in a tulle tutu trimmed with sequin stars, a green satin leotard, net tights, satin ballet slippers and a pouf for the top of her head,” or “Twinky is a royal princess in a puff-sleeved princess-style dress that is encrusted with jewels.” Lanigan-Schmidt speaks of these portraits as representative of gay street life, gender fluidity, and the affirmative, expressive potential of self-fashioning. His exploration of evocative, vibrant, and shimmering dress through tiny garments continues through the present day.
Cano Villalobos shares with Lanigan-Schmidt an interest in reusing found materials, describing her practice as “cultural scrapping” of “discarded, ‘rewanted’ objects.” In her Aphid series, Cano Villalobos confers painstaking care unto her miniature assemblages, crafting small dresses from beads, wire, rhinestones, thread, lace, candy wrappers, aluminum and more. Meanwhile, her Barbie series involves tiny, repeated acts of burning holes into paper Barbie doll clothes. In 2022, Cano Villalobos shared via a post on her Instagram:
Yes, I've moved on to burning Barbie clothes. Trying to address my i-hate-you-but-i-want-to-be-you syndrome. In the 80s my single mom used to buy hair soap to make us blonder. I went to an almost all Mexican school in El Paso where the teachers' favorite was the token blonde girl. Obviously, early childhood left an impression.
This statement echoes Lanigan-Schmidt’s stories describing his childhood as a queer kid growing up in Catholic school in small-town New Jersey. Both artists take to the paper-doll form as a way of mediating identities construed as non-normative or fringe, in spite of their omnipresence—meditating on the fact that these norms are also constructions of heteronormative and Eurocentric regimes.
Both Lanigan-Schmidt and Cano Villalobos use the miniature paper-doll form to construct fantasies, desires, and visions of the self unbound. Lanigan-Schmidt’s celebration of gay sensibility and history through materiality and process dovetails with Cano Villalobos’s emphasis on time, touch, and quiet persistence and ritualistic, repetitive enactment of domestic work. Elevating trash to opulent, sacred matter with what Cano Villalobos calls “a splash of Baroque absurdity,” each artist uses the lens of fashion and dress to attend to the trivial and castoff as something divine, beautiful, and generative.