I first became acquainted with the contemporary Dolling scene when I started to see images and art of bald naked genderless humans crop up while *patrolling* through DeviantArt. These depictions stuck out for several reasons. For one, they were done by many different artists in as many different styles. Second, they were almost always referred to as “Bases.” And third, they were often imprinted with a specific set of directions for use (genderbending OK, link back, no frankendolling, show me, etc.) even sometimes coming in utilitarian packaged zip files called “Base Packs”.
Some bases by Pinkland.net:
Zobeida base by Maudee
Bases are often affiliated with DeviantArt groups like BasesRUs, Bases-For-You, BetterBases, Original Bases Only etc. with members churning out hundreds of these images. ”Frankenbasing” “Pillowshading” “Tooled Dolls” are some of the many unfamiliar terms I came across on these group’s pages.
Bases, I soon found out, are templates for Dollers to work with. A “Base” is a digital mannequin, and a Doller (or “Base User”) collects Bases and ‘dolls’ them up; adding their own hair, makeup, clothing and accessories. Literally, it is a digital version of playing with dolls and this digital subculture has carried this much older tradition into the 21st century for about 20+ years now.
In some cases, artists supply the Base packages with props, accessories and skin tones for the Base User to play around with, but more often than not, Dollers paint their own additions with Photoshop, MSPaint, Paintshop Pro or GIMP. This simple premise leaves a lot of room for a wide variety of different kinds of participants: on one end, there are the casual users who like to just collect bases and dolls and accessories to mix and match. There are online drag-n-drop games made for this kind of user. And on the other end, there are the serious Dollers, who insist on creating original, sometimes painstakingly detailed art pixel by pixel.
Some classic Doll examples:
The current Dolling scene on DeviantArt has it’s earliest roots in a Japanese program from 1991, the Kisekae Set System (KISS) , a digitization of the the paper doll tradition dating back hundreds of years. In this program, the user is given a model with a set of accessories which they could mix and match:
Screenshot of KISS:
However, Dolling’s closest and more relevant ancestors are the “Dollz”, a late 90s-early 2000s “Internet fad” which were “small pixelated digital images, generally consisting of illustrations of people with clothes and accessories”.
Dollz were created by people who frequented an early chat program called The Palace, which allowed users flexibility with their avatars (think Second Life meets AOL in 1995).
Screenshot of the Palace post-Dollz invasion:
Although the history of Dollz is somewhat murky and hard to pin down (it being essentially a folk art), a popular story is that Melicia Greenwood created the first Doll in 1995. A ‘goth’:
i made her goth, cuz i’m goth… i didn’t want to keep making a new prop in Palace each time, so i started using Photoshop layers for some of my editing. for example i made a leather jacket and jeans in Photoshop as a layer, by drawing them on *top* of the Barbie body. then i copied them into my prop bag and “dressed” the doll. at first i kept getting it wrong but using the arrow keys i finally got her outfit to fit right. and i started giving her away so people could make their own outfits. here’s a pic of her in a top, skirt, and stockings:
the first “doll” …the little goth Barbie that started it all …i drew this in December 1995.
then people asked for a “Ken” … by this time, people were making her some outfits of their own, but she needed a man! i can’t stand Ken dolls, so i made him as a cartoon goth guy standing there in big black pants that were getting in style then, and i was too lazy to draw hands so i put his hands in his pockets, and i was too lazy to draw much of a face so i gave him long hair in the front. again, i gave him away, and a lot of people edited him. so basically, the first skater/sk8r doll was this scribbled dude right here:
The story goes that from these early templates, others began modifying and creating their own avatars using Melicia’s creations as a base. At first they were called Little People, but soon this expanded to include a whole range of groups like Sk8ers, Bratz, Preps, Weirdos, Silents, Wonderkins, Divas, Raverz, Momz, etc. Many teenagers adopted dollz avatars as a sign of rebellion against older Palace users. This led to a period where anyone wearing a dollz avatar could be kicked or banned from certain Palace servers, where it was assumed such an avatar implied an ill-intentioned teen user.
Eventually Dollz became popular outside of the Palace scene, with personal websites devoted to the art form.
In 2003, Salon.com featured an article about the Dollz scene, tracing it’s history with interviews by some prominent Dollers. At the time of it’s writing, Dolling was still spelled ‘Dollz’ and the influx of Japanese cultural influence had just started to seep in. ”The gothic Lolita, the most popular new doll type, is rooted in Tokyo street-culture and is notable for its bloody nurses and leather-clad, bandaged goth girls who, presumably, listen to Bauhaus.”
In 2007, DeviantArt created a digital doll section on their site and Dollz became what it is today. The introduction of DeviantArt brought a larger audience and influx of different styles. During this time, as a way to distinguish from the earlier generation, the Z was dropped. Dollz pre-DeviantArt were merely a half inch to four inches tall, giving the artist an incredibly small amount of space to work, Dolls now can be done at any size, and in almost any style (anime, chibi, pixel, cartoon, realistic etc.):
We Danced Anyways Base + Dolls by 1995Runaway
Hold base by SceneFag.
And some Dolls made from the Hold base:
As the Salon article pointed out: “Like Photoshopping or game mods…dolling responds with lightning speed to trends in popular culture. It is more than an opening into an alternate dollhouse universe; it’s yet another window into the zeitgeist.” DeviantArt has only exaggerated this aspect. In the same way that the earlier Dollz reflected various real life subcultures like Goths and Ravers, it is not uncommon to see Dolls today in Burning Man/Suicide Girls/Steampunk scenes like these:
Some chibi-style dolls:
An example of a Collab:
Whereas earlier Dollz fit into specific categories that were the same across all sites, in the digital Dolling world post-DeviantArt the sky is the limit. Take, for example, this bizarre “Pregnant Mafia” set:
Although the Dolls scene still generally fosters an inclusive, friendly, opensource environment (as did the earlier Palace Dollz) there are certain rules that must be followed, and it bare’s similarities to other more conventional artistic endeavours in the sense that originality, skill and most importantly knowledge of these rules be highly valued. One of the worst things a Doller can do is to “Frankendoll” or “Frankenbase”, which is to use bits and pieces of other people’s work to create their own. In DeviantArt, offenders are ostracized from the community with users posting ‘proofs’ like this (click to enlarge):
“You are indeed a disgusting person for pulling such underhanded shit and really should be ashamed of yourself, you are worse than the tracers.“
There is no monetary gain in Dolling (unless you count Gaia Gold and DA points as currency). Digital Dolls are made strictly for the praise and credit of a job well done. A lot of Dollers bring their Dolls to online ‘pageants’.
The Alternamodel Pageant 2012 is a beauty ‘pageant’ for dolls featuring alternative styles, as the rules state: they must be “alternative” based. This means goth, punk, pin-up, emo, scene, retro, vintage, etc. No preps. No thugs. No gangsta’s. Nothing “main stream”.
On Dollers personal site’s, news about what contests they’re participating in and awards posted of past contests that they’ve won:
A Best Shading Award from 2008, a Base of the Month award from 2005, and a Steampunk Pageant Award from 2011:
Digital Dolls is interesting not only because of the way it has upgraded and kept a much older analogue tradition alive, but also in the way that it has naturally coalesced into a self-organized, self-“policed” sub-art culture. As Melicia Greenwood stated in 2011:
“I have always felt very strongly that art is for the people so I would drop my Palace avatars, prop by prop, onto other users (or into “drop rooms” )as fast as I could make them. It was great to watch 10 or 20 iterations of the same avatar appear within mere minutes!….The Palace pioneered a creative and competitive atmosphere where internet chatters first broke free of the constraints of static icons and text-based emoticons into a dynamic, ever-changing visual representation of the self that the user could change in an instant. Because of the large number of separate, highly-populated Palace servers open in the mid-90s, and the creative, at times chaotic atmosphere of “editing contests,” it was possible to have several people creating similar images on separate servers without either seeing the other’s work. When “dolling” web sites began, it was much easier to keep track of new developments and to merge all of these designs together into coherent histories. I know that many people feel a part of the creation of the original Palace dollz in many ways; the advent of dynamic graphical chat was a very exciting time in internet history and I’m glad I’m still around to report on it.”
JULIA ROB3RTS 2012
A full Dolling 101 with ‘netiquette’ can be read here: