Wedding dolls play a unique role in Hong Kong wedding days and the tradition is special to the city’s many marrying couples.
A pair of dolls (usually the soft toys known as plushies) are dressed in wedding clothes, usually an elaborate bridal gown and a suit, and used to decorate the newlyweds’ wedding car or venue.
The plushies are chosen from a wide variety of dolls of different sizes and shapes and dressed distinctively to reflect the couple’s story of romance.
Irene Law Oi-ling, 65, has been tailoring wedding attire for these wedding dolls for the past 12 years and has heard thousands of eccentric requests from enamoured couples in Hong Kong.
“I often remind my clients that it is easiest if they could bring a pair of dolls that at least resemble human form,” she says. “Still, a lot of the time they don’t.
A pair of wedding dolls dressed by Irene Law. She has been making outfits for wedding dolls for the past 12 years. PHOTO: Irene Law Oi-ling
“One time, a client brought me a pair of seal plushies that they wanted me to dress in traditional Chinese wedding gowns.
“On another occasion, it was a pair of turtle plushies that the clients wanted me to dress up in a Western wedding gown and suit. Their one condition was that the turtle shells on their backs must be visible.”
Designing and making wedding attire for dolls makes her happy, Law says, because the clothes are made for exceptionally joyous occasions.
She appreciates that each pair of dolls – whatever form they take and however human-like they are – has such special meaning to her clients.
Another of Irene Law’s wedding doll pairs. She is proud of the fact that every time she makes a new wedding gown, the design is slightly different. PHOTO: Irene Law Oi-ling
“A lot of the couples buy the dolls from abroad when they travel together before they get married. Also, some dolls may have been used for proposals,” she says.
“However, trends do change over the years, whether it is the dolls people choose or the details of the wedding gowns and suits they want.”
The fashion trends in the world of wedding dolls are a direct reflection of the fast-changing tastes in wedding attire. Couples used to prefer their dolls dressed dramatically with many frills and details.
Recently, though, Law’s clients have been asking for simpler designs, with fewer ruffles and colours.
According to Law, there are particular trends based on which part of Hong Kong her clients are from as well.
For instance, when clients in Yuen Long in the New Territories order traditional Chinese-style wedding attire for their wedding dolls, they ask for many more flowers on the female doll’s headdress.
Couples sometimes present Law with dolls not in human form. In this case, they requested that their turtle plush dolls’ shells be kept visible on their backs. PHOTO: Irene Law Oi-ling
“This is because in Chinese operas, the main character usually has the most flowers on her headdress,” Law says.
She believes this particular request from her Yuen Long clientele is because more traditional people live in the area.
Law says the culture of wedding dolls probably stems from the Chinese tradition of decorating bridal carriages.
The modern take on this tradition – using opulently dressed wedding dolls to decorate wedding cars – has been in vogue for decades in Hong Kong.
According to Law’s sister, who has worked in the city’s wedding industry since 1997, the wedding dolls trend existed in the 1990s.
A selection of dolls Irene Law has dressed at her home in Yuen Long. PHOTO: Jonathan Wong
When Law joined the industry in 2008, it used to take her about a week to finish the wedding clothes for a pair of dolls, even though she already had extensive experience in the sewing business. (She used to work in a factory that specialised in making children’s and babies’ attire.)
Now, it only takes her one day per wedding dress or suit.
She is proud of the fact that every time she makes a new wedding gown, the design is slightly different.
“I get inspiration from visiting actual bridal shops, or watching the TV, cartoons, or reading magazines,” she says.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, there were times when she visited bridal shops frequently to take note of the fashionable new designs and how the dresses were made.
Shop assistants would sometimes scold her. “They were asking me ‘Why are you coming so often?’” Law recalls.
Wedding doll dress maker Irene Law at work. PHOTO: Jonathan Wong
Some of the wedding doll outfits Irene Law has made. PHOTO: Jonathan Wong
The pandemic has hit her business hard; few in the wedding industry have escaped the hardship of the Covid-19 social distancing measures that either prevent or restrict wedding banquets.
Law says there has never been a time her business has done this badly.
Still, she is optimistic the culture will continue in Hong Kong. “I think people will keep liking and wanting wedding dolls. At least in the coming 10 years, and hopefully even after that,” she says.
Law adds: “I feel like a child when I’m making wedding dolls, and I feel very happy looking at the finished result of dolls dressed in wedding garments. When I first started the business 12 years ago, I didn’t know anything about dolls. Now I feel like I know everything.”
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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.