Living doll

Anniversary - Rachel Cooke on Sindy's make-overs as she celebrates her 40th birthday

In the late 1970s, my parents, who had already been divorced for several years, decided to fight a custody battle over me and my younger brother. This was a protracted, unpleasant affair, and my own role in it troubles me still. First, because I sparked the whole thing off by hinting to my father that I would like to live with him (this was a lie, a damned lie but, in my defence, I was only nine years old). Second, because once the troops were massed (solicitors, social workers, anxious grandparents), I basically milked every skirmish for all it was worth. And this, I'm afraid, was how I came into possession of my first - and, alas, only - Sindy doll.

Sindy Active, the most popular Sindy doll ever made, was a Catherine Zeta-Jones-alike (mine had dark brown hair) with enormous breasts and the most fabulous flexible joints. She wore white tights, a white leotard and a bouncy pale-purple tutu. Best of all, however, were her pink ballet shoes, which were made of plastic right down to the "ribbons" that wound around her delicate ankles. I cannot remember ever having wanted anything in the world so much as a Sindy (I actually used to ache with desire whenever we walked past Redgates, our city's biggest toyshop) but my mother had always been determined to resist her siren call. Only on the eve of my big decision - Daddy or Mummy? - did she finally give in and buy me one.

At first, I was so ecstatically blissed out, I could barely take her out of her box. Then, slowly, I began to play with her. She would stand on pointe at the barre (the top of a dusty skirting board), lustrous hair in a bow, swan-like neck as straight as my Shatterproof ruler. After a few weeks, I allowed her to try on her only other outfit: a girl-about-town culottes and jacket combo in brown corduroy with matching knee-length boots (you had to put talcum powder inside them if you were to stand any chance at all of wiggling them over Sindy's shapely calves). Finally, three months in, I let loose her mane, so I could give it a good brush. Sindy, I recall, was prone to Bad Hair Days. Let up the grooming regime for even a minute and, the next time you looked at her, she'd be one big blur of nylon and static.

I remember all of these details with such dizzying clarity that it comes as something of a surprise to discover that Sindy has just celebrated her 40th birthday, an anniversary that is being marked with a pint-sized exhibition at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.

Happily, however, one glass case turns out to be enough in this instance, for the few meagre items on display are to girlish nostalgia what treacle tart is to a sugar craving: one bite and you are sated, transported straight back to a world untouched by equal opportunities legislation or even, for that matter, by Juicy Couture tracksuits. Goodness, she was high maintenance, that Sindy. Just check out those eyelashes.

The first Sindy, dressed in a "Weekender" outfit of blue jeans, matelot sweater, tennis shoes and wide hairband, arrived in September 1963 and was deliberately designed by its British manufacturer, Pedigree, as a rival to Barbie, which was produced by Mattel and which had been available since 1959. Sindy was younger and prettier than Barbie, and a good deal less tarty, and she was an instant hit: 200,000 of the dolls were sold in the first three months. Her heyday, in which she was periodically reinvented as a nurse, an air hostess, an ice star, a show jumper and, of course, as a ballerina, lasted until 1986 when Hasbro bought the rights to the doll and gave her a make-over. Suddenly, the English rose disappeared; in her stead was a perilously skinny broad in sequins and too much lip gloss.

In 1989, Mattel accused Hasbro of making Sindy look too much like her old adversary, Barbie, and a legal battle was launched. In 1992 Hasbro lost its case and was forced to remodel the doll yet again, only to stop production once and for all four years later. Since then, two companies have owned the rights to Sindy: Vivid Imaginations and New Moons Ltd, its current manufacturer. How does the old girl look these days? Not great, if you ask me. For one thing, she is tiny - hardly bigger than the palm of your hand. For another, she bears a sinister resemblance to the members of a trashy girl band. The hair is in high bunches, the weedy frame encased in powder-blue velour. Sindy used to be "the doll you love to dress". This time around, she looks more like the doll that's guaranteed to depress.

The exhibition that honours this long and once illustrious history features, among other things, the fabulously plastic Sindy house, an item I would gladly have swapped my brother for (I only managed to get my hands on a white and gold Sindy wardrobe, complete with rubbish shoe rack and a distinctly non-reflective mirror), and various fashions from the Sindy Boutique, including one of the flouncy evening gowns designed for her in the 1980s by Elizabeth Emmanuel. It also includes Sindy's "rascal" sister, Patch, and her nerdy boyfriend, Paul. What it lacks, however, is any kind of analysis or context. What role did this strangely elegant doll play in the lives of the girls who owned her? Was she a good thing, or a bad?

Personally, I think there was a kind of innocence - a glamorous naivety - about dear old Sindy, and I still have no idea why my leftist parents and those of many of my friends were so opposed to her. Not that their sneers did any good - then or in the long term. After I left the museum, I logged on to the internet, where I found a myriad of Sindy sites, most of them run by grown women who, even after all these years, are unable to repudiate their love for her (they collect, they photograph, they annotate). Sindy, you see, was the silent repository of their girlish ambitions - go-getting dreams that, in adulthood, may have proved illusive. Hiding her in a box in a dusty attic would be too poignant for words, like shutting the door on hope.

It's easy to laugh at her now: the snubby nose, the pert bosoms, especially the Margot Leadbetter-style party dresses. But the sorry truth is that, trapped in our suffocating provincial bedrooms and with no exciting female role models to speak of, Sindy was our main woman. She was beautiful and she could cook and clean and, um, barbecue. But she was clever, too. You see that in her cold, blue eyes. She could do anything you required of her. Take those dainty, manicured hands. Sure, they looked wonderful with a little velvet evening bag swinging from them. But, round my way at least, they could also make light of a little brain surgery.

"Sindy's 40th Birthday" is at the Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 (020 8980 2415)

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