History of Dress-A-Doll Contests : Sewing for Prizes

Contests for girls and women in which prizes are offered for “dressing a doll” have been around for years, as early as the 1800’s Victorian era. These competitions were normally done for charity, to benefit hospitals or children in poverty who couldn’t afford the cost of buying a doll. And, yes, in past times these contests were open to girls or women only, young ladies and housewives could show off their prowess with the sewing needle and win prizes to boot!

A Dolls Fair, 19th Century Best Dressed Doll Competition

A Doll’s Fair, 1876 newspaper story

In 1876 in Jersey City, New Jersey, a Doll’s Fair was held. Described as the “latest novelty, and a decided one at that”, this was a competition open to young girls between the ages of nine and fifteen offering prizes according to merit for the Best Dressed Doll. The girls were asked to dress a doll in any costuming they pleased – dollies not sold at the Fair would then be given away to children in hospitals and charitable institutions in the city. Okay, cool idea.






Progressing into the 20th century, in 1912 in Cincinnati, Ohio, $240 in cash prizes was being awarded to girls who can dress the best doll!

Yesteryear Circa 1912 Doll Exhibition Prize Contest for Girls

Say, girls, can you dress a doll? This 1912 contest offered girls ages 15 and under cash prizes for their creativity!



These contests continued to be held as we progress through the years and can be seen written about in archived newspapers from around the country as recently as the 1990s. As it happens, and this is what made me think of this topic, my own family participated in a few of these competitions. First, in 1966, the company where my dad worked at the time held a “Dress-the-Doll” contest near Christmas and received around 250 entries! My mom sewed a lavish velvet and feathered period dress with matching hat to dress up a Barbie doll and won First Prize in the Period Costume category! There’s even a photo out of a company newsletter I still have – my dad is posing with the doll since he was the employee there, but my mom definitely sewed the costume and I still remember it, though it was nearly fifty years ago and the contest dolls were donated to a local hospital after the competition and display party were over.

Dress a doll contest circa year 1996 featuring doll in handmade period costume

Here’s my dad in 1966, posing with the contest doll in his company newsletter. My mom sewed the costume and won first prize in the period category!




Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *