Tom Tierney: the paper doll legend

Anyone who has ever played with dolls, has come across paper dolls: figures cut out of paper or thin card, with separate clothes, also made of paper, that are usually held onto the dolls by folding tabs. They have been around as long as paper has: the Japanese folded origami into kimono shapes as far back as 600 AD. I first came across them as a young boy around 10 or 11 years old, in the teen-girl magazines my cousins used to buy. Soon I was buying them too: not only to collect any Olivia Newton-John photo I could lay my hands on, but also to cut out and play with my first fashion models. In no time, I had started to design clothes for them, then made my own dolls too. It wasn't until my late teens that I discovered the king of paper dolls: Tom Tierney.

Tierney was born at Beaumont, Texas, on October 8th, 1928 and his formal art instruction began at the age of six with a private instructor, Juanita Brown. He began studying life drawing and landscape painting at the age of twelve under Coleman Cohen and still-life painting under Mrs. Joe Price. On graduating from high school in l945, he received the Nancy Beeman Strong Art Scholarship award and the Veesy Rainwater Painting Scholarship award. He attended Lamar Junior College from 1945 to 1946 and in 1947 entered the University of Texas College of Fine Arts, graduating in 1949, magna cum laude, with a B.F.A., majoring in painting and minoring in sculpture. 

While attending the University of Texas he worked as a student assistant in the art history, sculpture, and graphic arts departments. In 1948, while still attending the University of Texas, he won the Texas Fellowship Painting Award and spent a semester studying in Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (University of Colorado). He also worked on stage sets with the Hanya Holm modern dance group. He was an accomplished artist and professional illustrator long before he started making his paper dolls.

Tom began freelance fashion illustration while in high school for local department stores in his home town and continued doing freelance fashion illustration in Austin, while attending the University of Texas. Upon graduation he became a fashion illustrator for Scarborough's Department Store specializing in women's wear. Tierney then moved to Houston, and became a layout artist for Foley's department store. From Foley's he was then hired from The Fashion woman's specialty store as a fashion illustrator: while he was working there, it was purchased by Nieman Marcus, becoming Nieman's of Houston. In 1954, he moved to New York and attended Pratt Institute (1954-55); while being there, Tom began free-lancing for J. C. Penney. His association with the firm lasted for over fourteen years. At the same time he did freelance art for Harper's Bazaar, Sports Illustrated Magazine, and many other brands and stores.

In 1975 Tom was looking 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 20th century, he decided to make her some paper dolls of the 30s movie stars who had been her favourites. Pleased with the dolls (Garbo, Harlow and Gable), his mother showed them to a number of friends, one of whom was a literary agent. The agent in turn convinced Tom that it was possible to get them published, and as a result, his first book, "Thirty from the `30s", came out by Prentice-Hall in 1976.

Tom Tierney's first paper doll book, cover image from The Judy Garland Database

In 1978, Dover Publications Inc. contacted Tom and proposed that he do some paper doll books for them. During the '80s Tom and Joyce McClelland published a series of paper doll folios under the imprimatur of "Fine Arts Limited Editions". These folios included a series of famous stage and screen personalities as well a several folios on famous women authors. In 1994 he began an association with B. Shackman Inc. Publications in addition to his affiliation with Dover.

The New York Times reviewed Tom Tierney's work thrice: he is the only paper doll artist to have a review in their Literary Section. He appeared on several TV programs and featured in a number of major newspaper's articles, all about paper dolls.

In an interview published on the website of Dover Publications, he said about them: " 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. Sometimes I receive very touching letters, especially from students. Recently, I heard from a young man who said that he wanted to thank me for his career. It seems his sister had given him one of my books when he was a child, and he was so taken with my art that he studied and imitated my style. He ended up going to art school, getting a degree, and finding a job as a corporate artist—and he gave me credit for guiding him toward what turned out to be a very rewarding choice of professions. I must say, it's been a satisfying career for me, so if I can help influence young artists, then my work is all the more worthwhile. They started out as a lark, but when the jobs for fashion illustrators began to decline, the paper dolls stepped in and gave me a full-time living. As in any profession, you have to keep ahead of the crowd and learn how to adapt to changing times. I produce one Dover book every month, on the average. It's a lot of work—but I enjoy it, so my work is my pleasure."

Tierney published around 400 paper doll books, most of them with Dover Publications, and sold more than four million copies. Adults, even more than children, became his fans and started collecting the perfectly drawn and fastidiously detailed creations. He's the one credited with resuscitating the art of the paper doll: breathing new life into it, he pushed it into the modern era and inspired many younger designers who keep on the flame. He was not afraid to push the boundaries of his metier, publishing in the late 70s a book with gay paper dolls called Attitude; years later he did one with cross dressers and drag queens like Ru Paul. He died on July 12th, 2014, 85 years old. He will be sorely missed.

Biography data from Tom Tierney Paper Dolls