Listen to this episode of Decoder Ring in the audio player below:
Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every month, host Willa Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speaks with experts, historians, and obsessives to figure out where it comes from, what it means, and why it matters.
Today: Producer Benjamin Frisch co-hosts the show to explore how paper dolls were a ubiquitous part of children’s lives for decades, and then mostly disappeared. David Wolfe was a boy growing up in the 1950s, with paper dolls as his primary means of accessing a world of glamour and beauty he didn’t see at home in Ohio. He’d go on to a career in fashion, guided by his paper dolls, just as paper dolls were falling out of fashion, to be replaced by Barbies and other plastic dolls.
This episode is about paper dolls, their surprising connections to fashion, nostalgia, queerness, and David’s extraordinary career.
Links and further reading on some of the things we discussed on the show:
- David Wolfe’s website Paperdollywood
- Wolfe’s paper doll books Hollywood Gets Undressed and The Queen Paper Dolls: 4 Dolls & 8 Decades of Royal Fashions
- A selection of David Wolfe’s fashion illustrations
- The first-ever commercial for Barbie
- A scene from David’s favorite MGM musical, Zeigfeld Girl
- The Mills Brothers’ smash hit “Paper Doll”
- A short essay about San Francisco’s Paper Doll nightclub
Decoder Ring is produced and edited by Benjamin Frisch.