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Why Is Everyone Suddenly Dressing Like the Dollz?


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There's a new wind blowing in fashion, and reader, I'm confused. Style is often cyclical, drawing inspirations from eras past, then finding new ways to make them feel fresh. But while the '70s, '80s, and '90s have all made their mark on current trends, I've begun to notice an aesthetic that derives from a more recent period. Specifically, a moment from internet culture so deeply associated with a span of say, three or so years that the websites devoted to it have been all but forgotten, frozen in the aesthetic hellscape that was pre–social media internet.

I'm referring, of course, to the Dollz.

Photo: Jono Bernstein

The Dollz, or Dollz Icons, or Cartoon Dollz, as they've been called, appeared to have sprung from nowhere, but were immediately everywhere. In reality, the first Doll was created as an character for an early graphic chat room called Palace Chat in 1995 by web artist Melicia Greenwood, who explained their origin in a (highly riveting, for those interested) blog post in 2003.

Very little has been written about them since then, but for many who used them, they're known simply as those highly pixelated, baby-faced avatars in bashful stances that were, at least for for a few years, ubiquitous on our MySpace pages and AIM Buddy Profiles.

Their peak occurred in early-to-mid aughts, when people now in their twenties were squarely in the throes of middle school. Other things that happened during this period: Von Dutch hats, the reality television show Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, and velour tracksuits.

Photo: Jono Bernstein

It's from this particularly unfortunate pop cultural underbelly that the Dollz drew their aesthetic. Dollz could be dressed in everything from schoolgirl skirts to low-rise distressed flare jeans, to cleavage-baring crop tops; they could be preppy, they could be punky, princessy, or emo, as long as they looked like a sexy babyThus, no matter what stereotype you aligned yourself with as a tween, there was a perfect Doll, just waiting to be added to your AIM Buddy profile, adjacent to a Something Corporate lyric.

Then, as seemingly mysteriously as they came at first, the Dollz were gone, preserved only in niche sites like Dollzmania and Secret Dollz, sites I would bet one thousand dollars have not had more than 100 visitors since the year 2006, a solid percentage of them being me, for the sole purpose of researching this article.

Photo: Jono Bernstein

But lately, all of a sudden, the Dollz have come out from under their internet obscurity and into certain cavities of the vast, nebulous entity known as "street style." Not the kind of street style associated with events like Paris Fashion Week, but on the more accessible, pedestrian level — think Bushwick in the summer or Austin during South by Southwest.

It's the fashion from the latter that sold me on the conclusion that attractive cool people are now dressing like the Dollz. Tie-up shirts, chokers, thigh-high stiletto sandals, low-rise miniskirts, and bandeaus as shirts are everywhere in these pockets of hipsterdom, together creating a look that I will now refer to as The Uncanny Valley of the Dollz.

Because much like the traditional uncanny valley, or the phenomenon of a computer-animated figure trying to look charmingly humanlike and ending up horrifying, I am both attracted to and repulsed by this trend. The people who emulate The Uncanny Valley of the Dollz are often young (but certainly old enough to have known the Dollz), hot, and maintain the kind of lifestyle in which a bandeau is a sensible choice for a shirt — the kinds of impossibly cool people the Dollz have always been modeled after.

Photo: Jono Bernstein

But what's oddly repulsive about their uncanny resemblance to these pixelated Barbie dolls we played with as tweens is precisely that: It's like middle school all over again.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this style — after all, nostalgia has always been a part of fashion — however off-putting it may be to the culottes–wearing, expensive blowout–purchasing denizens of the fashion establishment. In fact, when I attend Governors' Ball later this year, I fully plan on dressing the part, and leaping gleefully into the uncanny valley with total abandon. In fact, maybe I'll go back onto my old favorite Dollz maker website for some inspiration.