1950s Sex Symbols

Too Hot to Cut Out?
'50s Sex Symbols as Paper Dolls are not Child's Play
by David Wolfe

From Paper Doll Studio Magazine, Issue 99 (out of print)

'50s Sex SymbolsSexy screen sirens of the '50s seem strange paper doll subjects, unlike the sweet stars usually chosen to become cut-out playthings. Children certainly were more apt to enjoy the paper dolls that featured wholesome beauties such as Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds and June Allyson, each of whom were featured in several books during the '50s. However, some of the biggest stars of that decade were sex symbols with over-blown pneumatic figures and very adult allure. Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor were presented to the public as sultry vamps. And yet, they too became paper dolls. (Surprisingly, only publicity-mad Jayne Mansfield missed being immortalized then as a paper doll.) It is curious to think that parents of little girls would encourage them to idolize women whose image was often predicated on sexy screen roles and shocking private lives.

The Hollywood dream factory at that time had an assembly line mentality in place, an well-oiled system designed to build a solid fanbase for stars under contract to the studios. It was a system that had worked well in the past. Young women were signed to long term contracts (usually seven years). Then they were groomed and polished until a marketable, unique "image" emerged. That image was then presented for the public's approval in fan magazines and newspaper features. Many stars also became the subjects of paper doll books as part of that star build-up campaign.

Paper dolls of movie stars were favorite playthings and turned children into devoted fans who then became loyal life-long movie goers that could be counted on to boost the box office of stars like Claudette Colbert, Jeanette MacDonald, Greer Garson, Bette Davis, Alice Faye and Betty Grable. Of course, paper dolls of child stars such as bouncy little Shirley Temple, tearful Margaret O'Brien and eternally effervescent Jane Withers were obvious choices. However, it is doubtful that youngsters were even allowed to see adult-themed movies like The Outlaw with Jane Russell, Niagara with Marilyn Monroe or Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor. And yet, a very collectible combination paper doll and coloring book starring Jane Russell was published. Marilyn Monroe, too, appeared in print as a paper doll, first as herself and then in a reprint entitled "American Beauty." Kim Novak also became a paper doll. Elizabeth Taylor's transition from child star to blossoming teen to sensuous superstar was charted in several paper doll and coloring books during the '50s.

The '50s sex symbols as paper dolls became much more understandable in recent decades when the community of enthusiastic adult collectors inspired a renaissance of the paper playthings they had enjoyed as children themselves. Many of the top paper doll artists have turned their talents to creating new versions of bygone stars. One of Tom Tierney's earliest successes was his marvelous Marilyn Monroe book. Marilyn Henry's Marilyn Monroe, officially authorized by the star's estate, was republished by Paper Studio Press. The prolific Mr. Tierney has often portrayed '50s sex symbols including Jane Russell, Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak in his excellent multi-star compilation books. Several artists have self-published their own versions of these stars, too. Especially noteworthy is Gregg Nystrom whose work has included virtually all the sexy '50s stars including the very neglected Jayne Mansfield. I, myself, have been working on a Jayne Mansfield book for Paper Studio Press that is currently stalled in the licensing process, but a sneak preview of one of the dolls accompanies this article.

Whether regarded as "adults-only" collectibles or as a cultural curiosity from the mid-20th Century, paper dolls of '50s sex symbols are a reminder that they offer an accurate reflection of fashion, celebrity and changing times.