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.

Black Velvet and Chartreuse Gown with Spiderweb Lace

A black ballgown with a flared, full skirt and long sleeves. The skirt is made of black velvet, with triangular cutouts that start near the waist which reveal a underskirt made of swirled green and chartreuse fabric and covered with lace that looks like spiderwebs. There are two flies trapped in the webs. There's a wide V-shaped copper belt at the waist, set with orange, green and yellow jewels. The bodice is made of black velvet and has a feathery pattern near the top. There are more copper accents near the shoulders, and the green sleeves are straight, fall to the wrist, and are overlaid with more spiderweb lace.Click for larger version (PNG); click for PDF version. Click here for the list of dolls.

It’s almost Halloween, the paperdoll-friendly holiday, and I’ve been thinking about what would make a dress scary. The things that scare me don’t generally translate well to dresses, though, since they are too intangible. But there’s a couple of fears that aren’t…

My pride causes me to say I’m not scared of spiders, I just don’t like looking at them. If I put it that way, it’s perfectly reasonable to do things like cover up a picture of a spider when I’m reading a book, or avoid the tarantula exhibit at the zoo.

But it’s never reasonable, really, to wake up my husband at 4 AM when there’s a spider in the bathroom. It’s not reasonable that I have to use paper or my phone to cover up a spider picture in a book, and not my hand. And it’s not really reasonable to move as quickly as I do when there’s one close to me. Before I know it I’m halfway across the room, denying that anything’s wrong at all, I’m just fine, it’s not like I’m scared of such a little spider, because that would be ridiculous. (It’s gone now, right?)

When I was a little kid, I was scared of black holes, and I feel like I’ve gone down in the world since I stopped fearing the random indifference of the universe and picked up such a pathetically obvious, stupid, gendered weakness. I know perfectly well they’re more afraid of me than I am of them. I know they eat lots of annoying bugs and that they’ve only got two more legs than ants (which I don’t mind at all). I know I can kill them perfectly well myself, and I do, if there’s no other option. I put on my heaviest shoes and make a lot of noise, cursing each stupid spider leg and shouting warnings to all the other spiders that they’d better stay well out of my sight, or they’re gonna get it too. I calm myself down by calling up my husband and telling him “I killed a spider!” just like a normal person might say “I got a promotion!” or “I won a new car!” Kind man that he is, he indulges me.

If you were to stalk me over my various online activities, you’d notice I almost never mention this fear, because I’m just paranoid enough to consider how people could use it against me. There’s no real reason to share with the world how to yank this particular chain. But oh well — it’s Halloween, and while I amuse myself with ghosts, vampires and sorceresses, I don’t believe in the supernatural. I’m mostly just frightened of the quirks and instability of the human mind… and spiders.

What do spiders have to do with this gown, do you wonder? Well, there’s the spiderweb lace, and a couple of twitchy, fat flies caught in it. There must be a spider around somewhere, don’t you think? Ah, yes. A gigantic one, four feet long, with spindly long legs and a full set of eyes.

It’s on the petticoat.

Does that make the whole dress different for you? It does for me. I’ve drawn nothing, but all the same it’s still there, just like those spiders that disappear behind furniture while I’m still dithering about looking for my shoes. Now, is it merely embroidered or painted on? Or does it cling to the thin lace on the petticoat, waiting for its host to lure some prey away from the party and into the shadows? Dance with the lady in black and green at the Halloween ball this year, if you like, but I hope you will have the sense to leave that particular mystery well alone.

I’m never going to talk about spiders on this blog again, so let’s have a poll…

November Birthday Gown with Chrysanthemums and Topazes in Orange and White, and an announcement

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

If I get distracted and don’t update, eventually people start to worry if I’m ever coming back. This makes me smile. I call drawing paper dolls a “hobby,” but it seems to have more in common with a curse. When I’m on my deathbed, I’ll probably be drawing the outfit I’ll be buried in — or maybe the one I wish I was being buried in, which will have 90% more pearls.

That said, trying to post something almost every day has obviously come to be untenable. If I’m just coming up with an outfit, it takes from five minutes to an hour to decide what I want to draw and what it will look like, and if I’m researching something like a particular year’s fashions, it might take an hour or two to get a sense of what the styles were like, then that five minutes to an hour again to come up with an original drawing. The time I spend drawing has increased over the years, easily hitting three hours for something with a lot of detail, and then there’s the time involved in scanning, cleaning up and writing a post – an hour, maybe two depending on the post. My job is part-time and the hours vary wildly, so sometimes it’s actually not all that unreasonable for me to take that kind of time working on something, and then just as often I get scheduled for a lot of hours and feel busy again.

Besides the actual work involved, a lot of other factors come into play: do I have a great idea or am I feeling really uninspired? Is there something else I’m really involved in at the moment? Have I put off drawing until it’s fairly late? Would the thing I want to draw take a long time to research? If, after work and chores, I only have time for one interesting activity, do I really want it to be paperdolls? Are my Prismacolors organized, or are all my blues rolling around my desk drawer because I stole one of my plastic bags I use to sort them for a trip through airline security? Do I much feel like sharing myself with the world today, or am I content with keeping to myself, hermit-like? Do I have time to write a good blog post, as well, or will it just be a couple of sentences I pad out so that it doesn’t look so unbalanced next to the dress? What about all those things I said I’d do and didn’t? (If I never heard the phrase “twelve dancing princesses” again it would be way too soon.)

In short, I expect too much from myself, I don’t prepare myself well, then I psych myself out and end up using my time elsewhere or really phoning it in. It’s frustrating and unfulfilling, so I’m going to try a different tack. Here are my main goals:
1) To draw three days a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday)
2) To write blog posts that aren’t just afterthoughts
3) To integrate my drawing hobby with my interest in Japanese

The first two are pretty self-explanatory; the third one is something I’ve been thinking of for quite some time, and I think I’ve come up with some good ways to do it.

Well, we’ll see how I do. Wish me luck! And thank you, as always, for your patience. Sometimes I wonder if I unconsciously sabotage myself with unreliable behavior so that I can deflect notice, hoping to drive people away so I don’t have to add their expectations to the already ridiculous weight of my own. Whether it’s that or just plain old laziness, either way you all are much better readers than I deserve.

Today, a November birthday dress with chrysanthemums and topaz accents. How many more of these do I have to do? I know I’ve skipped rather a few…

Halloween ’10 Day 8: Dragon Masquerade Gown in Green and Gold

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

As I said before, this week we join the mythical ball! At this time of year, not only does my traffic increase dramatically, but my masquerade gowns get quite popular, so I thought I would like to add to my stock. As far as the design goes, this dragon-themed masquerade gown was the low-hanging fruit of the five ball gowns I have planned, and I was able to sketch it out fairly easily and plan the colors without any problems… but in execution, oh, my aching hand! So that’s why it is a day late — it was just too good to rush. The others may suffer a similar fate, so do be patient with me.

I do love designing and drawing masquerade gowns! I like anything I don’t have to do a lot of research for, and by design masquerade gowns can be exquisitely beautiful, wild and creative, or both. If all goes well this week, you’ll see some fun ones…

Prismacolors used:Black, Poppy Red, Sunburst Yellow, Dark Umber, Cool Grey 50%, Pale Sage, Tuscan Red, Dark Green, Peach Beige, Grass Green, French Grey 30%, Black Grape, Lilac, Pumpkin Orange, Spring Green, Indigo Blue, Powder Blue, Sky Blue Light, Cool Grey 70%, Light Umber, Goldenrod, Yellowed Orange, Chartreuse, Yellow Chartreuse, Peacock Blue, Cream; Verithin Ultramarine, Orange, Crimson Red, Peacock Blue, Violet, Dark Brown, Grass Green, Cool Grey 70%; Sakura Soufflé White