Plastic fantastic – new acquisitions on show

What does Disney’s ‘Elsa’ fancy dress costume and an orange toadstool desk have in common?  Apart from an awful lot of plastic, they are two of the new acquisitions NOW on display at the V&A Museum of Childhood. Made from bright, durable, synthetic materials, these diverse items reflect the broad range of mass produced items which are marketed at and designed for children.[1]

The ‘Elsa’ dress with its colourful, shiny, layers, glittery cameo and flowing cape, is the latest fairy tale costume in the 300-year history of children’s fancy dress in Britain. [2] The dress, inspired by the Disney character, ‘Elsa’, the Snow Queen from the animated film ‘Frozen’, has been incredibly popular with children. Since its launch in 2013, Disney and its licensees have sold millions of ‘Elsa’ costumes worldwide and they are a now ubiquitous sight on supermarket shelves, at Halloween parties and in children’s playgrounds.[3] At Christmas in 2014 the limited supply versus high demand instigated bidding wars on online auctions sites with dresses being sold for almost 10 times their retail price.[4] More recently the dress has sparked debate about the gendered clothing[5], as well as the fire safety of children’s fancy dress costumes.[6]

The ‘Alfie Funghi’ children’s desk and stool set is bright, light, easy to clean and was designed specifically for children. Formed from a single piece of moulded, hallow, plastic, it has an organic shape, which as its name suggests is a fun interpretation of fungi. Like the ‘Elsa’ dress it’s made by ‘low-cost mass production’[7] methods, but buyers have the option to customise it, to create a totally bespoke piece. The set was developed in collaboration with the award-winning designer Philippe Starck and furniture maker, TOG™, whose remit is to provide “high quality and service – with the best of human craftsmanship that grants the uniqueness”.[8] Despite its modern materials and manufacture, direct parallels can be drawn between the design of this contemporary children’s desk and stool set and ones made over 100 years ago.[9]

Despite their different appearance, both can be seen as conduits for children’s creative play from dressing-up to imaginative writing and drawing.

[1] Martin, D. ‘The commodification of childhood: The children’s clothing industry and the rise of the child consumer’, (Durham : Duke University Press: 2004) pp. 1-5

[2] It can be argued that the history of fancy dress costume in Britain begins in 1711 with the introduction of masquerade balls inspired by Venetian carnivals by John James Heidegger at the King’s Theatre, London, V&A Search the Collections website: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O84862/a-masquerade-at-the-kings-painting-grisoni-giuseppi/, accessed on 1 December 2015

[3] Brooks, Barnes. New York Times website: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/05/business/media/frozen-princess-dresses-are-hot-sellers-disney-says.html?_r=0, accessed 1 December 2015

[4] Fenwick Elliott, Annabel. Daily Mail website: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2605253/1-000-KIDS-COSTUME-Disneys-sold-Elsa-dress-smash-hit-Frozen-sells-astronomical-prices-eBay.html, accessed on 2 December 2015

[5] Pitman, Taylor. Huffington Post website: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/disney-store-ditches-identifying-halloween-costumes-by-gender_55fb07bfe4b08820d917c9a1, accessed 2 December 2015

[6] Anon, Charted Trading Standard Institute website: http://www.tradingstandards.uk/policy/policy-pressitem.cfm/newsid/1672, accessed 3 December 2015

[7] Anon, Dezeen website: http://www.dezeen.com/2014/04/08/tog-customisable-furniture-no-more-trends-philippe-starck-milan-2014/accessed on 1 December 2015

[8] Anon, TOG™ website: http://www.togallcreatorstogether.com/whats-tog-2/, accessed on 1 December 2015

[9] Desk Unit, Museum No. MISC.537-1986, on V&A Search the Collections website: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O190401/desk-unit/ accessed on 1 December 2015.

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