Blue and Gold Princess Gown with White Tulle, plus Thoughts on Princess Culture

A royal blue satin ballgown draped in the front to show the light blue reverse side of the fabric and the full layered tulle underskirt. The gown is off-the-shoulders with long fitted sleeves, and there's a wide gold band at the collar with a scroll and heart pattern decorated with small red, green and blue gems. It has a V waist decorated with a gold band and gems, and the overskirt is edged with a gold band with a scroll and heart pattern  and gems. The skirt is bell shaped and very wide, and the underskirt has several tiers of white tulle edged with flower lace. There's also a golden circlet decorated with red, green and blue gems.I’ve had princesses on my mind lately. The popularity of princesses (particularly the Disney Princess line) is often viewed, especially from a feminist perspective, as a rather embarrassing phase for parents to suffer through, but I’m as feminist as they come, and I think there’s more to it. Why are stories about princesses so compelling to such a wide audience, and why is princess culture so pervasive? I believe it’s because stories about princesses reflect the struggles of the readers, because princesses are unabashedly feminine icons in a society that often disparages women, and because princesses as a character archetype have a surprising amount of flexibility and interest.

The word “princess” comes loaded with significance. (Just come up with a good noun and slap “The Princess And The” in front of it: there’s your story title!) We’re all aware of the historical concept of a princess, and readers know in reality that being a princess probably wasn’t such a great gig. After all, a princess’ marriage was likely decided by political factors, her power often depended on the favor of other people, and she wasn’t likely to have much personal freedom. Still, she probably had some influence and resources that weren’t available to an average woman (and to be sure, her dresses were better).

We readers know these things before we even start reading, so when we encounter a princess in a story we immediately understand she has certain pressures and obligations, as well as some degree of power and privilege. Her position in life makes the stakes higher than they would be for a regular person, which adds tension and drama to the story, but at the same time we understand her problems and relate to them. After all, a princess in a story is likely to worry about things like pleasing her family, living within certain restrictions, finding love and making a place for herself in her world — all things that we readers understand just as well. The limitations and expectations each princess has to cope with and the way she finds her power reflect the conflict between the reader’s desires and our obligations and duties.

In other words, a modern story about a princess is likely to be a story about a woman finding her source of power and taking control of her life. There will probably be some existing limitations, because a princess with no problems or obligations whatsoever may seem unrealistic, but there also have to be opportunities for her to try to get what she wants, because a character that is too bound by outside forces to do anything is problematic both from a storytelling perspective and from a feminist one. So for the story to be compelling, a princess character with limitations in one area has to have some degree of freedom in other ways.

How this plays out is different for each story, and depends on the setting and the characters. A character with little agency like Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones who finds herself trapped among hostile people and has to develop alliances and soft power skills to survive is at one end of the power scale; on the other end are characters like Merida from Brave, who’s an excellent archer and is able to just leave the castle on horseback and go climbing mountains on her own, but still has to deal with being betrothed and comes to learn the value of her mother’s way of doing things.

One major source of power for most princesses is that they tend to embody a lot of what our culture considers feminine virtues, and I think that the celebration of these virtues is something else that causes them to be compelling, particularly to young girls. Modern princesses might even throw a mean punch and be clumsy, like Anna, or have magical powers and a repressed desire to wear a slinky dress like Elsa, but they’re fundamentally admirable people. We all respond positively to beauty, open and loving natures, concern for others and so on, and as we all believe we’re the hero of our own story, it’s easy to identify with these figures, particularly young girls who are just starting the process of figuring out this “being female” business.

In this sense, being a princess has nothing to do with birth and is entirely a matter of one’s state of mind — Cinderella was as much a princess in her ragged clothing as she was in her ball gown — and for that reason a princess can be both inspiring and an accessible role model. This is, of course, the whole point of the novel A Little Princess, whose heroine, who was merely rich, not technically a princess, strove to be an admirable, princess-like person even when impoverished and humiliated.

The flip side of this is that we too soon learn that, in our culture, all these virtues come with serious downsides. Being entirely free to express or not express femininity as you please is tricky, because if you’re perceived as overdoing or underdoing it relative to the situation you may get harassed or not taken seriously; the way that you personally want to present yourself is often a secondary consideration to how your appearance will be viewed by others, and not getting it right can lead to social punishment. What should be fun is actually complex and demanding in ways that are hard to see. As for those virtues, innocence, friendliness and generosity often get taken advantage of, and being modest, self-sacrificing and willing to take care of others generally doesn’t lead to financial security and respect in our capitalist society. The image of being “too good” or “too feminine” is one that women sometimes feel they explicitly have to move away from to be taken seriously. Princesses seem to escape all of this: their virtues are precisely what gain them power and respect, they get to wear the pretty dress and sing to wildlife without anyone thinking less of them and they don’t have to compromise what they like and what’s important to them to be taken seriously.

So I see the popularity of the Disney Princess line among adults and children (mostly women and girls, but there are men and boys who love them too) as a way of showing appreciation for the positive aspects of values such as kindness, friendliness and gentleness, as well as for the more theatrical aspects of femininity such as an interest in beauty and clothes for their own enjoyment, not for attracting men or projecting an image. I think we appreciate these things because they’re fun and they make the world a better place, but also because we know that they’re fragile and often not treated with justice in a society that is too often unkind to women and places impossible demands on them.

As the roles of women have been evolving, so too have the roles princesses play in stories, and I think that today there’s a lot of room for interesting stories about princesses. Of course, I’d like just as well to see plenty of interesting stories about girls and women without noble titles, and I worry that the focus on princesses is too limiting — sure, if I was in charge of counting the money the Disney Princess line brings in, I’d probably want all of our protagonists to be princesses forever and ever too, but there are so many other stories to be told. (I get a lot of stories about non-princess women from webcomics these days — Nimona, Namesake, Ava’s Demon. I have to mention Blindsprings, too, even though it’s about a princess.) Still, as I touched on before, princesses come with a history, and skillful, unexpected use of this history can make them relatable and fresh-feeling characters — that’s an attractive thing for a writer. Modern audiences already know the standard princess stories and tropes; as the success of Frozen shows, we’re now interested in seeing them toyed with and used in surprising ways. Princesses have the potential to surprise now more than ever.

I am going to shoot for doing a new doll next week, but it’s just as likely I won’t be able to finish in time, in which case I don’t know what I’ll be doing! Don’t forget that you can now download combined color and black and white PDFs of all of my 2014 dolls and outfits for free! Also follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest for sneak previews, paperdoll thoughts and lots of fashion plates. If you enjoy my work, I’d also appreciate your support through Patreon.


Introducing Leyla!

An adult female paper doll in a white and purple gown. She has dark brown skin and black hair arranged in several small box braids that curve gently around her face and fall past her shoulders. Her eyes are brown with tiny gold flecks, and she has sparkly gold eyeshadow. Her lips are full and deep  red, and she is wearing pearl earrings. She is wearing a sleeveless dress with a scoop neck, slightly gathered at the shoulders. The top is white satin, decorated with a pattern of light grey spirals. Around her hips is a belt made of gold, with a sunburst pattern in the middle. Set in the middle of the belt is a brilliant topaz rounded with pearls. The skirt is long and trumpet shaped, flaring out at the calves, and is light magenta at the top and deep purple at the base. It is covered all over with sequins. She also wears a gold circlet decorated with pearls and a second topaz.Please welcome my second paper doll in the new series, Leyla! Her name was chosen from a set of six names I picked out, and as with Mia’s name it was close for a while there but Leyla was the winner. I hope you like her! I’m very happy with her, I had a good time drawing her hair.

With my previous sets of dolls I’ve only made two for each set, but my intention is to keep going and do a new one every month until I have enough dolls to put together a soccer team. Since Leyla has been released on time, I feel very confident that I will be able to pull that off. Their outfits aren’t going to get any more varied, I’m afraid, because the dolls themselves are rather a lot of work. I’m happy with the series dress theme, though. In my imagination, Mia, Leyla and the dolls to come after are the new goddesses of my paperdollverse, and so I thought to myself, what would this little pantheon like to wear? The answer, apparently, is “lots of sparkles.”

Speaking of goddesses, the contest on Twitter is over, and the winner is Karen Martin! (Her favorite Greek goddess, by the way, is Athena.) You will see how she chose to color an ancient Greek outfit next Friday. As I mentioned before, I’m going to start doing the contests on the blog after this, so if you would like to take part next time, just keep reading!

The Oscars are on March 2nd, and that means Oscar dresses! Twice before, I’ve “livedolled” the Oscars – that is, drawn some dresses straight from the red carpet. I did this in 2009, drawing three gowns, and in 2011, drawing an amazing four gowns. I’m ready to do it again this year, but with a twist. I’ll sketch the gowns I like on my iPad and post them here as I draw them. At the end, I’ll put up a poll for which one you all like best, then I’ll make the winner into a proper dress. Also, there’ll be a special Oscars contest! The red carpet starts at 7 PM EST, 4 PM Pacific. Join me and we’ll enjoy all those great gowns together!

As always, you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for update notifications, links to things I find interesting and many, many fashion plates. If you enjoy my work, I’d also appreciate your support through Patreon.

In preparation for our Academy Awards party, let’s have a poll…


Introducing Mia!

An adult female doll in a long, flowing gown. She has olive skin and shiny brown hair arranged in large curls that extends past her shoulders. Her expression is serene and she has hazel eyes, subdued purple eyeshadow and natural pink lipstick. She has pearl earrings and pink fingernails. She is wearing a one-shoulder gown with a white satin bodice patterned with thin, light grey scrolls. The skirt of the gown is yellow near the waist, then gradually turns to orange, then to red near the hem, and is sparkling all over. A gold belt separates the two parts of the gown, and has a large amethyst circled by a ring of pearls. She is wearing a gold circlet decorated with pearls and three smaller amethysts.Meet Mia, my first digitally-colored doll! I hope you all like her, as I’ve worked very hard to prepare a doll that I was happy with. I also intend to release other dolls to go with her, hopefully once a month. Mia’s name was partially chosen by people on the mailing list and people who follow me on Facebook and Twitter: I chose five names I liked, then made a poll. Right up to the very end, Mia and Amethyst were tied, but Mia pulled forward at the very end. I enjoyed the poll and will probably do it for future dolls!

The site is also shiny and new, thanks to my husband Brian Kerr of Different Chairs. Brian happens to do this sort of thing for a living, and he worked with me to create a fabulous showcase for my art and make the site faster, easier to read and tablet and mobile phone-friendly. The results are amazing, and I feel very lucky that I can put my new, more detailed digital coloring work on such a simple, but sophisticated site. It’s even got its own domain name! (Took me long enough.)

You’ll notice some changes. First, if you want to print out the dolls and dresses, you’ll want to use the PDFs; the other graphics no longer have tabs. This is so that you can enjoy the detail without the tabs to distract you, and also so that the pages print out consistently.

There is also a black-and-white version that you can print out, too! When I was drawing paper dolls that had black outlines, I used to make black-and-white versions of the dresses, but when I stopped outlining the drawings, that was the end of versions that you could color yourself. Now, because of the way I transfer my drawings to digital versions, it’s simple to make black-and-white versions of the dresses. If you color them yourself, I’d love to see the results!

I’ve made it easier to follow me on social media: I post site updates and my thoughts about paperdolling on Twitter @lianapaperdolls, site updates, things I’ve been working on and fun links on my Facebook fan page, and a steady stream of ballgowns, saris and Art Nouveau jewelry on my Pinterest boards. You can also sign up for my mailing list, the form is on the top right-hand side of the page. I’d love if you’d follow me on whichever of these fine platforms best suits you, or just come back to the page every Friday!

I finished my Paperdoll Retrospective from the other day by saying that the best days of this blog are still to come. I hope you’ll agree that Mia is a good start!

Come back next Friday for a medieval gown fit for a queen. The subject was chosen by my Facebook fans, and the coloring will be decided by Nikki Paulsen, who won my contest.

Edit (Feb. 2, 2014): I’ve edited the PDFs so that the dolls and dresses are slightly smaller, so that more elaborate gowns will be able to fit into the printable area on the page. If you’ve already downloaded the old PDFs, please delete them and download the new ones!


Halloween ’10 Day 5: Queen of the Seas

Click for larger version (PNG); click for PDF version. Click here for the list of dolls.

As you know I generally have a soft spot for anything flowing and cool-colored, so I wanted to do a generic Queen of the Seas costume this month. If you were wearing this to a party with no particularly picky mythology or history geeks in attendance, you could perhaps call yourself the Queen of Atlantis, but I can’t just go blithely saying something like that somehow.

Lindsey commented on my blue and gold princess gown and said that she’d seen a similar one on Zwinky, but I can’t check it out because I use a Mac; can someone take a screenshot of it and send it to me, please?

The verdict is still out on the Good Queen…

Prismacolors used: Cool Grey 30%, 70%, 90%, Black, White, Indigo Blue, Denim Blue, Light Cerulean Blue, Sky Blue Light, Marine Green, Jade Green, Tuscan Red, Poppy Red, Pale Vermillion; Verithin Black and Cool Grey 70%; Sakura Soufflé White.