The King of Paper Dolls is dead. Long live the art of Tom Tierney!
August 8, 2014 6:32 PM   Subscribe

On a visit to Smithville, Texas, in 2012, the blogger behind My Big Gay Ears found himself talking with a local artist about paper dolls. The artist turned out to be Tom Tierney, a major force in reviving the tradition of drawing famous people in their skivvies (or swimsuits) and providing them with a 2-D wardrobe. He died last month at his home in Smithville (NYT obituary), leaving behind a memorable and varied body of work.

From an NPR interview, 2010:
SIMON: Well, can you - forgive for my imperfect understanding of paper doll law. But can you make anybody you want into a paper doll?

Mr. TIERNEY: Oh, there are interesting laws like presidents, church leaders, anyone who's been in a jail for a year, are public figures, and so they're fair game. And for a while, some of the stars like Elvis Presley, their heirs or whatever had their names trademarked. So you couldnt use their name because you were infringing on a trademark.

But actually I've never really had to worry about it because a lot of people find it an honor to be a Tom Tierney paper doll.
Tierney works from an extensive library of fashions, collecting his ideas in a scrapbook. He lays out the 16-page book on tracing paper, transferring drawings to illustration board via a light box. He uses watercolor to render the subjects - including former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and singer George Strait - in underwear and swimsuits, with a wardrobe of relevant clothing.

Tierney said his editor has always been receptive to his pitches, even when he suggested a book on Pope John Paul II.

"One caveat," his editor said. "You cannot have the pope in his underwear."
From The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History:
Most know Tom Tierney as the artist responsible for all those paper dolls books that helped define the family for ages of schoolchildren, but fewer know about Attitude / New Attitude, the amazing collection of queer paper dolls from 1979.
From the biography on his website:
In 1975 Tom was casting about for a unique Christmas present for his mother. Remembering that she had saved her paper doll collection from when she was a girl in the early 1900s (Lettie Lane, G.G. Drayton, and assorted movie star paper dolls) he decided to make her some paper dolls of the 1930s movie stars who had been her favorites.

Pleased with the dolls, Garbo, Harlow, and Gable, his mother showed them to a number of friends, one of who turned out to be a literary agent. The agent convinced Tom that a book was possible, and as a result, his first book, "Thirty from the `30s", was born. It was published by Prentice-Hall in 1976. After "Thirty" had a successful run it was retired.

In 1978 Dover Publications, Inc. contacted Tom and proposed that he do some paper doll books for them. It has been a happy and continuing relationship. [List of his Dover books here.]
Finally, from an interview posted by Dover Publications:
Q: You regard paper dolls as an art form, don't you?

Tom: I don't mean to boast, but I'm rather proud of having made them into something more than just kids' stuff. My books can be a way to discover things that you weren't taught in school. And I like to think that they bring their subjects to life for readers, just the way they do for me when I work on them.
posted by MonkeyToes (20 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

I LOVED my Tierney paper dolls.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:34 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have stacks of books. Scanned many of them! Play with them in photoshop.

:-( RIP
posted by bjgeiger at 6:49 PM on August 8, 2014

Oh I am bummed! I have so many of his books.
posted by Calzephyr at 6:52 PM on August 8, 2014

I loved paper dolls when I was a kid and had several of these (in the American Family series, it looks like)--and never knew anything about them or their creator. I'm sorry to only learn about Tierney now.
posted by leesh at 6:55 PM on August 8, 2014

His books were a huge influence on my drawing style, and I especially loved the movie star ones -- so glamorous. Thanks for this great post.

posted by shirobara at 7:13 PM on August 8, 2014

Thank you so much for this. I'll never forget the first time I saw one of his books; it was the Martin Luther King one, and my roommates and I were flabbergasted to see MLK in boxers, Coretta in a slip and the girls in their skivvies as the default templates. Fucking crazy. We loved it, and started looking for more. And I would have guessed he was queer, but that 1979 Attitude book looks like a hilarious/offensive period piece - a must-have for any collection of gltb kitsch.

(I note without comment the MLK book is not currently listed for sale at the Dover site when you search for Tom Tierney.)
posted by mediareport at 7:44 PM on August 8, 2014

I got Tom Tierney paper doll books as gifts on two different birthdays. The first time, when I was about ten, I received the Three Little Kittens book. They were lovely but really complex to cut out! Later, in my twenties, I got the George W. Bush paper doll book, which cracked me up because, come on, Dubya in tighty-whites. I was much better at cutting things out and had some magnets, so for a few years the Bushes lived on my fridge and had dress-up adventures.

posted by Metroid Baby at 8:19 PM on August 8, 2014

I still have my copy of Attitude that I found set carefully next to the dumpster behind my old apartment building, propped up on a small stack of assorted pornography. At the time, I only knew Tierney for his more G rated dolls of presidents and what not, so this was an interesting discovery. I treasure it.

posted by louche mustachio at 8:46 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by Scott H at 9:31 PM on August 8, 2014

posted by The Ardship of Cambry at 9:36 PM on August 8, 2014

I only had one or two of his paper doll books, but I used to sit in the bookstore and pore over all the ones I couldn't afford for what seemed like hours. Then I'd go home and try to recreate the costumes for my cheaper or homemade dolls. He did great work, and brought a lot of happiness to at least one peson.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:14 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Holy cow, I still have somewhere a little box of the cast of his Opera Stars of the Golden Age, meticulously cut out and reinforced with card, from a slightly eccentric period of my youth. Rest In Peace and a life well-lived.
posted by Erasmouse at 1:09 AM on August 9, 2014

Works especially well for comics.
posted by belarius at 2:17 AM on August 9, 2014

Man, whenever we went to a museum or anywhere that had Tom Tierney paper dolls, I would beg to get a book or two.

But what I mostly remember is the Supergirl: The Movie Paper Dolls. Which we must have picked up at Pic'N'Save or something, because it wasn't like we cared all that much about Supergirl.

I remember how confused we were about the fact that Jimmy Olson had his thumb in the waistband of his underwear.

My brother and I once had an entire storyline that focused on how Jimmy had some sort of major jock itch problem, and Linda/Supergirl told him about some powder he could use to make everything better.
posted by Katemonkey at 2:37 AM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, I'd completely forgotten until this post that I had his Vivien Leigh book and (I think) one other, when I was about twelve. I loved them. The art supply store we used to go into, mostly just to look at all the wonderful pencils and paint colours, had a whole range of his books, but it never occurred to me to wonder about the person who'd drawn them. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
posted by daisyk at 3:13 AM on August 9, 2014

Oh man. When I first started dating Mr Bookish he gave me Tom Tierney's Judy Garland paper doll book as a gift and I knew from that moment Mr Bookish was perfect for me.

. (and thank you, Tom Tierney).
posted by kariebookish at 4:42 AM on August 9, 2014

mediareport, Tierney also created "Life's a Drag." "Featured artists include comedic drag performers — Jerry Lewis, Milton Berle, Tyler Perry, and RuPaul — as well as actors such as Barbra Streisand in Yentl, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. Mature content."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:26 AM on August 9, 2014

I'm not sure I ever actually owned one of those paper doll books, but I must have looked through thousands of them in the gift shops of various museums and historical sites. They're completely, immediately recognizable and have such a distinctive style, but it never occurred to me that a single person was responsible for them. I think if you'd asked, I would have pictured an army of workers in a Dover warehouse somewhere, contemplating Woodrow Wilson and his family's underwear.

Anyway, here's a . for Tom Tierney, who sounds like a character in the best way.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:46 AM on August 9, 2014

I still have the Henry the Eighth and His Wives set given to me when I was an adult, colored in but never cut-out.

I'm only sorry he did not start his career until I had already graduated from High School. In my childhood I actually played with paper dolls-- as we did back then. My favorite set was Girl Scouts from around the World with all the different uniforms. What fun it was to imagine myself as a Girl Guide in Switzerland or Argentina.

I doubt many children play with paper dolls anymore, but it was so much fun to color them in and cut them out and mix and match the clothes in a way that was totally different from playing with regular dolls-- more creative I suppose. And if you were especially creative you could incorporate scraps of material and sequins and beads. Nowadays kids can just do all that on the computer.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:38 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

So this is interesting.
posted by pxe2000 at 10:41 AM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

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