Hilda Westervelt could be called Barbie’s personal couture designer. An avid sewer since childhood Hilda creates one-of-a-kind Barbie outfits for her customers who collect Silkstone Barbie, a version of the doll made from a hard plastic that looks like porcelain.
Hilda has a Ph.D from Harvard in Classical Archaeology and until recently she taught Greek Art. Now she’s a fulltime doll couturier, attending conventions and keeping a blog.
I met Hilda through a mutual friend (thanks, Suzette!) and asked if she would mind having a little e-mail chat with Over Dressed for Life.
I have been sewing in 1/6 scale (Barbie size) since early 2007. I have always loved anything in miniature and I have always loved dolls. My great-grandmother actually made exquisite dolls, real works of art, and I am lucky enough to have some of them.
I lived in New York City when I was in my twenties, before going to graduate school. Every day on my way to work I walked past Vera Wang’s bridal showroom. Along the side of the building was a row of small windows and in these windows were displayed perfect replicas of wedding gowns in ¼ scale. I was completely charmed by this, and one of the first things I did when I started getting interested in sewing for dolls, was to replicate people’s wedding gowns in ¼ scale.
I just love the fashion from that era and I would wear it myself if I could get away with it. I admit, I live vicariously through these dolls, as do many adult collectors of Barbie. Most collectors begin their collection by hunting for their childhood dolls and the outfits that they had. When Barbie was first introduced in 1959, a girl would usually get one doll and then would buy outfits for her doll. Now, there are so many dolls, and very few outfits available from Mattel. I think adult collectors respond so well to my work because I am re-creating that time when Mattel offered beautifully made fashions available separately.
I think, by the same token, that we could argue that fashion is not a particularly positive role model for girls. Models are unnaturally tall and stick thin. They don’t even look like real people. At least Barbie has curves and a wholesome disposition! Didn’t we play with dolls as an escape from reality? Do we really want fashion dolls that are pudgy, have acne, and bad hair? Seriously, though. Mattel has worked hard to bring Barbie into the 21st century and really tries to keep up with the issues of the day. If you look at Barbie over the years, she was ahead of her time. She has been an astronaut, a veterinarian, a pediatrician, and even the President of the United States. I think that is actually a pretty impressive role model for kids. And she happens to look smashing while doing it.
Who are your customers?
At the moment, selling my fashions is my primary source of income and I am so grateful that I have something to fall back on in this tough economy. My customers are adult collectors, both male and female, usually over 30, who love vintage fashion.
I get most of my inspiration from fabrics. I sew almost exclusively with silk in various forms and I also love to work with good quality cotton. When I am ready to sew, I sit down with my fabrics and start pulling out pieces and seeing how everything looks together. The process of choosing the fabric and cutting out the pieces is one of my favorite parts of the design. Then I assemble the pieces using my sewing machine. After the machine sewing is done, there is quite a lot of hand finishing. I usually sew a few things on the machine at a time, then sit down in the evening with the TV or radio and do the handwork. This is another fun, creative time, when I decide what details I want to give the outfits, like beading, buttons, bows, brooches, sashes and hats.
What’s your next big project?
For the next few months I will be living and breathing the National Barbie Doll Collector’s Convention, which is held every summer. This year the convention is in Garden Grove, CA and the theme is the Grand Tour. I have plans for themed gift-sets for four of the major cities on the Grand Tour: Paris, London, Rome and St Petersburg.
While getting ready for the convention, I will be holding some online events on my blog. I started doing these in the fall of 2011 and they have been very successful and a lot of fun. I design a collection around a theme and debut it on my blog.
Thanks so much, Hilda. Your designs are fabulous … my only wish is that I could wear them!
Readers, take a peek at Hilda’s blog: