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The Dollhouse as a site of nostalgia, maximalism, and domestic romanticization
Who remembers Polly Pocket?
I grew up in the late 90s and while I didn’t own a Polly Pocket myself (I had Barbies but my heart pined after American Girl dolls), they evoke some hazy memories and associations. Pastel pink and robin egg blue. Puffy hearts. Plasticky clamshell lockets that opened up to reveal Polly’s whimsical home full of tiny furniture.
The toy was designed in 1983 by Chris Wiggs for his daughter Kate as a dollhouse inside a makeup powder case. Bluebird Toys licensed the concept and distributed Polly Pockets in 1989 before it was eventually bought out by toy giant Mattel in 1998. On the resale market, the original Bluebird designs are prized collectables that can go for hundreds to near a thousand dollars in the way of Beanie Babies.
As a child, the novelty of Polly Pocket was its squeal-worthy compactness: an intricate imaginary world inside a small case. The way Polly’s world is completely enclosed in clamshell hearts, stars, and flowers heightens your suspension of belief that dolls are sentient when no one is watching.
The fashion and design world is tapping into dolls, dollhouses, and Polly Pocket for inspiration. PollyPocketCore is my trend prediction for 2022.
Right now it’s most obvious in jewelry, but extends its reach into clothing and home decor. Think childlike pastel colors, emphasis on the miniature, warping proportions, irony through scale, doll imagery, the continued popularity of tiny ceramic and resin objects.
Sandy Liang, one of my all-time favorite designers, uses Polly Pocket as an influence in her jewelry collections. Chunky resin rings in “dental blue” and “polly pink” set with glittery zirconia gems look like an elevated version of kids’ costume jewelry. They are styled and shot inside actual Polly Pockets. I’m in love with the creative vision and want every piece.
The Polly influence is clear in these puffy round heart rings from Notte, an Instagram jewelry brand.
Kristen Bateman, a fashion and culture writer, recently launched her own jewelry line called Dollchunk. The ring is a giant baby doll head with eerie rhinestone eyes. From the website: “Welcome to a doll world, where we embrace all things chunky. To us, that means excess, opulence and decadence. Dollchunk celebrates the celestialness of being puffy, the bright supernal outlook of all things rotund and happy.”
So what is it about dolls? Why is Polly Pocket experiencing renewed cultural interest? Thoughts below…
Nostalgia & Whimsy
People rediscovered childhood toys and games as a form of escapism during quarantine last year, and it’s not slowing down. We are nostalgic for the analog experience. There are several examples of Y2k toys’ influence on fashion: Bratz dolls, Hello Kitty, and Spongebob.
I went down the rabbit hole of Polly Pocket collector accounts on Instagram, and they all tap into that element of connecting with your inner child. NYLON magazine did an interview with Julia Carusillo, a set designer who runs the collector account @polly_pick_pocket.
“There's obviously always the nostalgia factor for sure. When I have friends come over, they always want to check out the collection. They literally get lost in it. It's sweet. Guys and gals alike are just like, "They're so tiny. Oh my God. I remember blah, blah, blah." They're a very analog toy too, which is part of why I like them. Some of them have batteries and lights, but for the most part, you can stash them away for 30 years and they're still in the same condition.”
The tiny-ness of the dollhouse and furniture is central to Polly Pocket’s whimsy. Culturally we’re obsessed with the miniature: from micro-bags to decorative ceramic objects. There’s an architectural integrity to Polly Pockets - they are quite realistic as far as scale models go - that mirror the design principles of efficiency applied in modular housing and Tiny Homes.
“[…] nostalgia aside, there’s also something irresistibly satisfying about the size and efficient use of space—almost as if Polly Pockets were the original tiny house, where everything fits perfectly and has its own special spot.” - Architectural Digest
I think the obsession with miniatures also represents the shrinkage of what is materially attainable in TheseTimesTM. Perhaps you can’t buy your dream green velvet couch, but your doll can have the tiny version…so you have a slice of that dream by proxy.
It’s worth noting that Polly Pocket exists independent of a nuclear family structure or romantic interest (ex: Barbie and Ken). She lives alone and her storylines revolve around playing with friends in her cool house or going on vacations. A lady of leisure!
Shift Towards Maximalism
The bland, sterile aesthetic that characterized millennial minimalism has run its course. Maximalism and ornamentalism is gaining traction. There are many reasons why minimalism is dying that I won’t go into here because it’s too dense a topic for me to do justice, but I recommend watching art history critic Isabella Segalovich’s analysis on TikTok.
Polly Pocket is a clearly a maximalist. Her house has a lot of stuff. It’s colorful, funky, ornate. One could easily imagine how it all translates into actual interior decor trends - blob shaped candles, wavy mirrors, Murano mushroom lamps, Memphis Design furniture.
Another residual effect of quarantine and widespread remote work: we spend more time at home and actively practice homemaking. Along with the growth of domestic hobbies like gardening and baking, we’ve entered nesting mode. This has manifested in an interior decor boom as we collect and curate items in our (doll)houses. Our lives have gotten smaller, more contained. Surround yourself with creature comforts.
On social media, I’ve observed a rise in short form content (ex: TikTok, minivlogs) that romanticizes the domestic and mundane. They typically feature short clips of “small” spaces like nooks and corners set to soft instrumental music. The element of voyeurism is at play: in times of limited social contact, it’s thrilling to get a glimpse of someone’s private space. It’s a way to feel connected.
All the signs point to vintage Polly Pocket lockets becoming the next cool girl fashion accessory; I’d love to see them on the runway.
While writing this piece, I couldn’t get the image of the locket out of my head and feverishly scoured eBay at 6am. They are priced around ~$30-$60 right now. I ended up buying two: an orange daisy shaped flower and a pale pink star. I’m already imagining what outfits to style them with:
a) prairie dress + fuzzy cardigan + lug sole boots
b) chunky winter knit + satin midi skirt + socks + mary janes
c) sheer layering tee + black leather pants + high vamp ballet flats
d) all of the above
They just translate so well as a fashion accessory. Rachel Comey designed a hand sanitizer lanyard necklace so this concept of functional jewelry is not new. A Polly Pocket locket is wearable storage and innately practical. I would store loose hair ties in it, or a mini lip balm.