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Never a dull moment with doll collector

05 August 2020

By Laura Gatmaitan Perez

Long before Covid-19 placed us under house arrest at risk of arrested development, an artist found a way of keeping boredom at bay. She immersed herself in a hobby that kept her going throughout the lockdown.
“I started sewing when I was five years old,” says Sheila Ella Gatchalian, a 37-year-old Bulakeña. “Since my parents were afraid I might hurt myself with my grandmother’s sewing machine, they told me to just hand-sew dresses for my doll.
“When I went to school, my parents discouraged me from making frivolous doll dresses, saying it would get me nowhere. They told me to focus on becoming a teacher. But I was obsessed with dolls, you see.
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Dolls are reportedly some of the oldest toys that children have ever played with. Their earliest use was traced in Greece around 100 AD. There must be a reason why they have been a top favorite through human history. Apparently, children see themselves in dolls and help them decide what to be in adulthood.

“I had a cheap plastic doll when I was young,” Sheila narrates. “An uncle gave me an original Barbie for my birthday but its head fell off when my sister forced an ill-fitting blouse through its fragile neck. Every time my parents took me to the mall, I would beg for a Barbie but they did not buy me one. I told myself I would study hard so that I could work and buy as many Barbies as possible.”
Today, Sheila has a collection of over 300 dolls, some bought online as preloved toys. That’s a lot to design costumes for.

This collection probably feeds her Peter Pan or Wendy complex but in the real world, she is a consummate dressmaker and costume designer.

You can’t help but wax lyrical upon seeing the exquisite beauty of Sheila’s creations. You get drawn to her elegant period pieces and enthralled by the sheer craftsmanship behind them. No expense is spared to jazz them up and all you can do is swoon.

“I was a sickly child and had to stay home most of the time with my mother who loved watching old Filipino movies starring Paraluman and Gloria Romero. I took a fancy to their elegant clothes. I imagined myself in glamorous gowns, darting across time and space.

“In high school, we read Noli Me Tangere, and it later inspired me to depict this period in my cultural exhibits. Not only did I sew Filipiniana costumes, I also created props like Spanish colonial houses, bahay-kubo, jeepneys, calesas, some animals and other details that would recreate the 19th century ambiance. I researched on ancestral houses and even went to the actual spots where they stood. I visited museums to see particular artifacts.

“I created everything in my educational exhibits, occasionally held in schools and different municipalities. Although I have a limited income, I made sure that the materials were of high quality and which I could be proud of. I used bamboo, recycled paper, plastic, shells, wood, and other locally available materials for my props.”

Sheila’s followers make sure they get hold of the vintage costumes worn by her Barbie dolls. They come with earrings, necklaces, brooches, head decorations, shoes, fans, umbrellas and sometimes even with Ken in equally dazzling Barong Tagalog. Prices of Filipiniana doll gowns range from Php2,500 to Php8,000 depending on the fabric used, how long and how hard it takes to finish them.
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“I used to cry when my parents could not buy me Barbie dolls. I could not even touch the ones I saw in stores for fear of breaking them. Now I have my own dolls that are dressed to the teeth. The ones I have in my collection are not for sale but I gladly sell many that you see on my Bratinella website. Most clients want me to sew customized clothes for their dolls.”
The regal Maria Clara dress, for instance, is like a time capsule, a reminder of what Filipinos once were. Overseas Filipinos proudly show it off to their grandchildren to educate them on their ancestry. Patriotic doll
collectors display it in their living room as a great conversation starter.

Others go a step further and ask that Sheila make them gowns exactly like the ones worn by her dolls, and there are many styles to choose from. Having taken a course in dressmaking, she is up for such a request.
“I have long been making gowns and costumes for friends, not just for my dolls. Usually, clients show me a picture of the outfit they want me to sew for them, not necessarily Filipiniana.”

There is more to wearing certain clothes, according to psychologists. What you wear – whether it’s a fancy dress or sweatpants – can put you in a certain mindset.

Denise Green, a fashion anthropologist at Cornell University, claims that clothing can change your mood, that it can have a dramatic psychological impact.

Some say that gorgeous clothes can improve your self-image. They claim that when you copy the dress code of smart and powerful people, you feel infused with these qualities as well.

So, go ahead and put on a stylish dress if it makes you feel good. And your doll can have a makeover too.
These days, Sheila takes care of her mother who recently suffered a stroke. This does not prevent her from pursuing her passion, however, as she is bent on stitching dreams that may well come true.
For inquiries, contact Sheila Ella Gatchalian (Bratinella) on Facebook or email her:
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