top of page

Dolls of the World:
An embodied view of culture

A closer look at the role dolls play in society

Significance: Why dolls?

As we most commonly know them, dolls are small figures depicting a human being that are used by children (and, at times, adults) as play objects. They are given to children at a young age to entertain and keep them occupied. But dolls are not merely an object of entertainment. For centuries now, they have been used in most cultures around the world as educational tools to teach children about their religious traditions, cultural beliefs, and societal standards. Constructed by society, dolls serve as a direct window into a culture’s features, reflecting society's gender norms, prejudices, politics, religion, and expectations of their people. Dolls depict the societies they belong to through the way they are dressed, the way they look, how they are marketed, and the personalities that they are given. 


Dolls from Colombia

Photo: Creative common license

“Giving a child a doll is like giving a child a tool from which he can express himself and give himself full range of the many facets of adulthood that he can mimic and weave into his learning experience”- S. Disch, 2012


What can children learn from dolls?


Dolls are one of the first lessons that children receive on what is expected of them. Educators and parents have used dolls to develop children's motor skills, such as self care routines like grooming and hygiene. Through the use of dolls, children are also taught from a young age the gender roles present in their given society. They are taught what to wear and what customs they are expected to follow. They prepare children to become functioning members of the society they belong to and fulfill the roles they have been given. Although society greatly influences how children are affected by the dolls, it is important to note that the way the child and their parents interpret the dolls and how they should be used also affect what the child will learn from them.

Baby dolls

Photo: Creative common license

What are dolls made out of? 

The materials used to make a doll and its style varies between cultures. The resources available to them will determine how the dolls are made. Dolls can be made out of wood, plastic, clay, paper, porcelain rags… 

“Through engaging with dolls, children are imitating what they see or experience from the adult world; in other words practicing for their adult life to come.”- William Blatz


The Temple Anthropology Laboratory and Museum houses dolls from various cultures around the world. This exhibit highlights a few of those dolls.

Screen Shot 2020-12-15 at 9.18.59 AM.png
dolls from india

Dolls from India

Here are three dolls made in India that are currently housed at the Anthropology Museum at Temple University. Based on the doll's physical appearance, what are some aspects of Indian culture we can learn about? 


This doll is wearing a nose piercing and ear piercings as well as bracelets and necklaces. What is the cultural significance of jewelry in India? 

In India, jewelry holds plenty of symbolic meaning. Brides will cover themselves in jewelry representing the act of marriage. On other occasions, men and women will wear jewelry as a way to ask for protection from certain Gods and Goddesses. 

This red dot (it can also be black) is commonly known as a bindi. It is worn between the eyebrows because this is where the crown chakra, or the “third-eye” chakra, is located. The third chakra is believed to be the eye intuition, spirituality and inner wisdom. Therefore, the bindi is worn to enhance the power that the crown chakra provides. 

The traditional clothing garment for a woman is called the Sari. A Sari is a large piece of fabric that is wrapped around a woman’s body to make a dress. The way the fabric is wrapped depends on the region from which the woman is from. 

Female doll from India

Photo: Temple Anthropology Museum


 A dhoti is a loose skirt that is wrapped around the lower half of the body to resemble pants. They are commonly worn without a shirt (as seen in Figure 2) by men who live in rural areas and spend their day in the hot weather, in order to keep their body cool. There are also formal dhotis that may be worn in special occasions, like weddings.

Male doll from India

Photo: Temple Anthropology Museum

It is very common for men in India to wear turbans. Turbans are worn by individuals to help keep their heads cool and sheltered from hot dry weather. However, the significance and style of the turban varies among the different religious groups in India. Among the Rajasthani people, turbans are worn to indicate a person's status in society. In Sikh religion, turbans have spiritual significance. Based on the style of the turban that this doll is wearing, it seems like the turban is from the Sikh culture. 


This doll is holding a racket and what looks like a birdie, objects that are used to play badminton. Badminton, or Poona, originated in India and it is the second-most played sport in the country. 

Male doll from India

Photo: Temple Anthropology Museum

doll from russia

Dolls from Russia

What can these dolls from Russia tell us about Russian culture?


Matryoshka Dolls

Photo: Creative common license 

Matryoshka Russian nesting dolls represent motherhood and fertility by portraying the biggest doll as the mother and the smaller dolls inside her as her children. In fact, the name “matryoshka” comes from the word “mater,” which in Latin means “mother.” In Russia, it is common and highly valued to have a big family, therefore women, being the child bearers, are very important members of society. Essentially, the Matryoshka Russian nesting dolls are representative of a woman’s roles in society - to have children and create a family. 

“Each member of the family is believed to have their own unique role in the household, and it’s the mother who serves as the foundation of the home” - Mary Stillwell, 2019


It was common for women in Russia to wear some type of headdress to shield themselves from the cold and indicate their marital status.

Female doll from Russia 

Photo: Temple Anthropology Museum 

How can children or individuals who are not familiar with Russian culture learn from these dolls?

Giving a child a matryoshka doll, specifically a girl, introduces them to the importance of maternity and family in Russia. It encourages them to focus on the ideals of family and eventually become the foundation of their own home. The second doll can be used as reference for young girls to learn what type of outfits they may be expected to wear. 

dolls from china

Dolls from China

What can these dolls from China tell us about Chinese culture?

In ancient China, married women were expected to wear their hair up, believing that it was unnecessary for them to show their hair to strangers. It was common for them to pin it up into a bun and, depending on the social status, decorate their hair with ribbons or accessories. Unmarried women would wear their hair down and keep the length of it very long, for it was frowned upon to cut it.


Pale skin was a quality that was admired in ancient Chinese women since the Shang Dynasty. Many women would color their face white because it was believed to make them more beautiful and delicate. This was also a way for women belonging to the upper-class and royal family to distinguish themselves from the lower class. Having tanned skin was associated with the lower class who would spend most of their days under the sun farming. Covering their face with white powder was a way for women to make themselves more attractive and indicate their social status. 

Along with the white powder, wearing red lipstick was a common practice in ancient Chinese makeup traditions. The vibrant color of the lipstick was believed to make women look more youthful and energetic. When applying the lipstick, women would outline their lips smaller than they actual were. The style in which they would paint their lips varied with each dynasty, but across all dynasties it was believed that smaller lips were most attractive, as well as thin black eyebrows, as depicted in the doll.

 Loose fitting tunics characterize clothing from ancient China.

Women would usually wear tunics that reached their feet.

Check out this video of cosmetician Li Zi doing a traditional ancient Chinese makeup look.

Just as it was frowned upon for women to cut their hair, the same was true for men as well. Hair was highly valued and it was 

believed that long hair made men more valiant. Men would pin up their hair in a bun and at times, just like the doll, wear a hat.

The traditional clothing for men in ancient China were loose fitted tunics that reached their knees.


How can children or individuals who are not familiar with ancient Chinese culture learn from these dolls?

The female doll portrays what a married upper-class woman would have been expected to look like. Her white painted face, small red lips, and thin black eyebrows are all characteristics of how a woman belonging to the upper-class would have done her makeup and her pinned-up hair suggests that she was married. The intricate details and designs of her tunic further support the idea that this doll represents a woman from the upper-class. The male doll represents what a man may have looked like in ancient China. He is wearing a black tunic that reaches his knees and his hair pinned up under his hat. Children could have been gifted these dolls and through them learn what they were expected to wear and what their physical appearance symbolized. 

dolls from scandinavia

Dolls from Scandinavia

Based on the doll's physical appearance, what are some aspects of the culture from the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Denmark, and Norway) that we can learn about? 


When wearing a traditional folklore outfit, it was common for women to wear some type of headdress to indicate their marital status. Married women would wear a headpiece, young girls would wear small caps, and unmarried girls would wear a scarf-like headdress such as the one worn by this doll. 

This doll is wearing a traditional dress typical of the Scandinavian countries. It is worn by women for special occasions such as baptisms and confirmations but they are most commonly worn for festivals. In Norway, these types of dresses are known as a “bunad,” a folklore costume. The design of the bunader varies based on the region but they are usually made out of colorful wool or silk and adorned with buttons or jewelry. People wear the bunader to pay homage to Norway and honor their homeland. 

Female doll from Scandinavia 

Photo: Temple Anthropology Museum

Screen Shot 2020-12-15 at 8.23.06 AM.png

Woman wearing traditional dress

Photo: Erling Syringen, creative common license


Three Norwegian girls wearing traditional dresses and caps.

Photo: Knudsens Fotosenter, creative common license

How can children or individuals who are not familiar with the culture of Scandinavian countries learn from this doll?

Although traditional Scandinavian dresses are made in various colors and styles, and the dress that the doll is wearing above only represents one of them, a child who is gifted this doll can use it as reference to learn what to wear to celebrations and what their outfit symbolizes.

dolls of the united states

Dolls of the United States

Although there are no dolls from the United States at the museum, it is worth taking a look at our own society and asking: what role do dolls play in our society?

Since their invention, the United States has often separated toys based on gender, deeming certain toys appropriate for girls, such as dolls, and others for boys, such as trucks. Because of this separation and the design of the toys themselves, toys have depicted gender stereotypes, roles, and behavior. 

Although dolls have been used (and are used) both by boys and girls, throughout history they have been widely marketed for girls. Dolls, specifically baby dolls, are usually targeted at young girls, encouraging them to become young mothers to their dolls. Societal standards and constructs are reflected in the toys that are made for children, teaching them at a young age how they are supposed to dress and behave. "Boy” toys encourage young boys to work with their hands, be strong and play rough. “Girl” toys, like dolls, encourage young girls to be maternal, delicate, and caring. 


Baby dolls

Photo: Creative common license


"By the 1920s, nearly all American doll manufacturers were marketing their dolls ‘to emphasize domesticity, maternity, and femininity’"- Formanek-Brunell, 1993

“…Dolls were implicated in the indoctrination of girls 'to become caring, maternal, and passive'"- A. Wagner-Ott, 2002 

Baby playing with doll

Photo: Creative common license

Gender stereotypes are not the only aspect of American society that influenced the production of dolls. The presence of racism and prejudices in America have been reflected in dolls throughout history, mainly depicting dolls that are white, blue eyed, skinny, and blonde. 

Generational changes


As society evolves so do the values and ideals of each generation and those changes are reflected in the dolls. With feminist ideals and the fight for social justice becoming more prominent in both academia and our everyday life, the role of dolls within our society are being more critically studied and analyzed. 

What once were predominantly white dolls in pink dresses are now dolls of various races, body types, job occupations or hobbies. 

Screen Shot 2020-12-14 at 2.51.20 PM.png
Screen Shot 2020-12-14 at 2.52.26 PM.png
Barbie dolls
Photo: Barbie doll website 

Barbie dolls

Photo: Creative common license

Screen Shot 2020-12-14 at 1.51.30 PM.png

American Girl dolls

Photo: American Girl dolls website 

For certain American Girl dolls, teams of historians have been asked to help create the stories for the dolls to ensure that they are as accurate as possible. This was done with the doll Melody, a young African American girl from the 60's. 





Hodgins, B. Denise. “Playing With Dolls: (Re)Storying Gendered Caring Pedagogies.” International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, vol. 5, no. 4.2, 2014, pp. 782–807., doi:10.18357/ijcyfs.hodginsbd.5422014. 

Forman-Brunell, Miriam. “Interrogating the Meanings of Dolls.” Berghahn Journals, Berghahn Journals, 1 June 2012, 

Blatz, W. E., Millichamp, D., & Fletcher, M. (1935). Nursery education, theory and

practice. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Disch, S. (2012, September 6). The importance of dolls in early childhood. 



Briseno, Terri. “How Indian Traditions Work.” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 25 July 2011, 

Jah, Shuvi. “The Purpose of the Bindi.” Hindu American Foundation, 21 Sept. 2020, 

Mehta, Shivam. “Meaning of Turban in Indian Culture.” Sanskriti, 4 July 2015, 

“Women and Jewelry: The Tradition of Wearing Jewelries in Hindu Culture.” The NYU Dispatch, 10 June 2018, 

Nag, Utathya. “India in Badminton History: A Starring Role in a Meteoric Rise.” History of Badminton in India: The Complete Guide, Olympic Channel, 23 Nov. 2020, 


Kotar, Nicholas. “5 Kinds of Folk Hats Russian Women Wore.” Nicholas Kotar, 15 Oct. 2020, 

Stillwell, Mary. “The Meaning and Symbolism of the Matryoshka Nesting Dolls.” Nesting Dolls, 


“Ancient Chinese Hairstyles Through the Years.” Bringing You Truth, Inspiration, Hope., 1 Apr. 2020, 

“What Is Traditional Chinese Makeup? (1) - 2020.” 2020 Chinese Tradition Clothing, Hanfu Dress, Qipao Cheongsam, 15 Nov. 2020, 

Zhan, Jade. “Traditional Asian Hairstyles - Haute Coiffure from Ancient China - Shen Yun Performing Arts.” Traditional Asian Hairstyles - Haute Coiffure from Ancient China (English) | Shen Yun Performing Arts, 


Lie Stein, Linda. “The Norwegian Bunad - A Modern Tradition in Norway.” Life in Norway, 12 Oct. 2019, 

“Bunad Information & Traditions.” Bunad Traditions - Daughters of Norway, 

LaFleur, Robbie. “See My Hat? It's All About Status.” Robbie LaFleur, 14 Oct. 2011, 


Hodgins, B. Denise. “Playing With Dolls: (Re)Storying Gendered Caring Pedagogies.” International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, vol. 5, no. 4.2, 2014, pp. 782–807., doi:10.18357/ijcyfs.hodginsbd.5422014. 

Vaughan, Kelly M., "America rough Rose-Colored Glasses: How American Girl Dolls Shape American Girlhood and Identity". Senior eses, Trinity College, Hartford, CT 2017.


Wagner-Ott, A. (2002). Analysis of gender identity through doll and action figure politics in art education. Studies in Art Education, 43(3), 246–263.

Formanek-Brunell, M. (1993). Made to play house: Dolls and the commercialization of American girlhood, 1830-1930. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

bottom of page