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Fashion icon makes an exhibition of herself

The educational benefits of a plastic doll with an hour-glass waist, a bust to rival Dolly Parton, and feet permanently set to totter are not immediately apparent.

But Sindy, the curvaceous plastic doll that has angered feminists and divided teachers and parents for four decades, is the subject of a new, historical exhibition at the Museum of Childhood, in Bethnal Green, east London.

The exhibition, which opens on Saturday, marks the 40th birthday of the controversial doll. A series of displays will highlight the development of Sindy from icon of the swinging Sixties to trendy teen of the noughties.

Launched in 1963, the original Sindy was dressed in jeans and a red, white and blue jumper. Following a high-profile advertising campaign, she went on to acquire a boyfriend, a wardrobe influenced by Sixties designer Mary Quant, and a range of accessories.

In the 1970s, Sindy developed a variety of interests, including partying and ballet dancing. In the Thatcherite Eighties, she gained a range of materialistic status symbols, such as flashy cars and increasingly large houses.

More recently, she has diversified into high-flying careers such as medicine and law. A pink-haired Pop Idol Sindy is able to seek superstardom in her own Mini Cooper.

Esther Jones, curator of modern dolls at the Museum of Childhood, believes that the exhibition highlights changes in the perception of women over the past 40 years. "In the beginning, the dolls were much larger and rounder," she said.

"It wasn't until 1971 when they started to get thinner. By the 1980s, they were more curvaceous, with a slimmer face and fuller body.

"Sindy keeps up with the times Through her changing styles, you can see how fashions have also changed."

The final doll in the exhibition will be a 40th anniversary version launched this year. For 2003, Sindy has lost most of her famous curves, becoming instead a trendy trainer-wearing teenager.

Feminist teachers may see little immediate appeal in the exhibition. But Susan Bassnett, feminist historian at Warwick University, believes that pupils should be encouraged to attend.

"You could argue that dolls which are mini-perfect women just commodify real women," she said.

"The doll as ideal of a woman's body still has a role of some importance.

"But examining the history of toys is an interesting way of looking back at another age, seeing what their fantasies were. Looking at how toys have changed actually highlights the continuity in children's culture."

But the subtler points of gender relations are not the key concern for six-year-old Karimah Oba, who was given a preview of the exhibition when she visited the museum with Windrush primary, in south London.

She said: "I don't play with Sindy dolls at home. But the dolls here are special, because they're from olden times.

"And Sindy here has silver spoons, and blue hair and fashion clothes. It would be fun to play with those."

Sindy's 40th birthday exhibition runs from December 6 to February 2005 at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, east London. Tel: 020 8980 2415

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