In a 1950s West German tabloid comic strip, there lived a buxom blonde character named ‘Lili’.
She was very popular in two dimensions, so it figured that three dimensions – especially given those hip/waist/chest measurements – would suit her as well.
Thus Lili stepped off the page and became a small doll, but with her heavy makeup and suggestive wardrobe, she wasn’t for kids.
Instead of toy stores, she lined the shelves at adult novelty shops and became a popular gag gift that men would give to each other at bachelor parties.
In the US, meanwhile, Ruth Handler (the co-founder, with her husband Elliott, of a fledgeling toy company called Mattel) watched her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls and baby dolls . . . and pondered.
What about a doll that served as more of a role model for a little girl? What about a doll that was built to look decidedly older than its owner – a change of pace from all the infants and young children who colonised doll world?
Borrowing from fraulein Lili’s physique, Ruth and Elliott turned Ruth’s ideas into a reality and introduced their brunette Barbie doll at New York’s Toy Fair in 1959. Her full name was “Barbie Millicent Roberts” by the way, and her first name honoured the Handlers’ daughter.
Barbie was billed as a teenage fashion model – she was dressed in a black and white one-piece bathing suit and pumps, her ponytail swirled, her eyes glanced sideways and her brows arched (pictured below). And her figure? Well, as the comic books would have said “va-va-voom!”.
But alas, reviews were mixed. Girls loved Barbie, but their concerned mothers, used to the sight of their daughters cradling little baby dolls and pushing them around in strollers, thought her much too sophisticated (read: she had big breasts).
So in response to this wringing of hands, Mattel promised in the savviest of advertising campaigns that owning a Barbie would help a girl mature into a well-adjusted, elegant young lady – that Barbie was the perfect paradigm for what little girls should want to grow up to be.
She had traffic-stopping looks, apparent wealth and she was always the centre of plenty of attention. A teensy superficial, you say? Oh, save the high-mindedness for Snakes and Ladders. This is Barbie we’re talking about, and it’s all in good doll fun.
Long-time Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson didn’t let Barbie stay in that black and white bathing suit for long, and the early 1960s found Our Bodacious Beloved in ensembles such as the ‘Gay Parisian’ and ‘Easter Parade’ – inspired by Paris runway couture.
A bit later, when Jackie Kennedy was exerting her sense of fashion class, Barbie’s wardrobe followed the First Lady’s lead. Her ponytail gave way to a chin-length Dutch-boy, and there was pink satin abound.
Her boyfriend Ken, who was named after the Handlers’ son, glided suavely onto the scene – a half-inch taller than his sweetie, and available with brown or blonde hair.
Soon, though, to take some of the wind out of those sex symbol allegations, Mattel introduced Midge, Barbie’s cherub-faced best friend (pictured at right), and Skipper, her wholesome little sister.
In 1964, Barbie’s eyes opened and closed for the first (and last) time, and in 1965, new Barbie dolls stood (and walked now!) on legs that bent.
She shimmied around in colourful mod outfits during the late 60s, wearing that British Invasion fashion influence on her sleeve and everywhere else.
Her newly made-over face looked more youthful, her hair longer, cosmetics softer and more natural, and her new Twist ‘N Turn torso finally allowed her to sit down and take a load off.
And boy, did she need to, because she spent many a night shaking her plastic thing out on the dance floor with her very first celebrity pal, a doll named Twiggy – based on the eponymous real-life model.
In 1968, the Talking Barbie hit the scene – girls just pulled the string at the back of Barb’s neck to hear six cheery Barbie phrases.
Through the 1970s, Barbie’s fashion scheme was a grab bag of trends – trends that could only be produced by a unique decade indeed. Inside that grab bag were disco glam, a ‘prairie’ look, a ‘granny’ dress and a beach bag full of sunny California casual-wear.
New inductees to the product line included Malibu Barbie and Growin’ Pretty Hair Barbie, which boasted a magic ponytail which an owner could pull out if long tresses were so desired.
Barbie also became the proud new owner of bendable wrists, elbows, and ankles – thank goodness, too, because Mattel launched a very aggressive Olympic Games tie-in campaign in 1975 and 1976, wherein the Gold Medal Dolls (a skier, a gymnast, a skater, etc.) paraded proudly onto toy shelves everywhere.
If you didn’t go in for jock types, there was also a collection of new career Barbies who punched that figurative toy clock as doctors, nurses, ballerinas and flight attendants – all appropriately outfitted and accessorised, of course! There were more developments in the facial feature department too.
Now her eyes looked straight ahead, instead of coyly off to one side, and the debut of 1977s Superstar Barbie showed a friendlier smile and brighter, more cheerfully painted eyes.
Ms Superstar had to look extra nice because when she pranced and twirled on that plastic catwalk (via her lucky owner’s remote control), jaws dropped to the floor in envy.
By the 1980s, those little girls who owned the very first Barbies were all grown up.
And as grown-ups, they had two things: disposable income and a longing to reconnect with the innocence and frill of their youths. Mattel brilliantly tapped into both, and in 1986, issued the Blue Rhapsody Barbie in all her porcelain glory.
At this point, collecting Barbies as a hobby (and sometimes, as an obsession) began in earnest.
The hardcore Barbie devotees had been hoarding the “play line” all along (that’s the technical name for all that the wondrous loot found in that wondrous pink packaging, by the way), but now, both these old-timers and the wave of new collectors had special edition dolls to get their hands on.
Two particularly impressive consumer flurries that were to sweep through doll shops and toy stores came in 1988, with the unpredictably successful Happy Holiday series, and later in 1994, when the first vintage reproduction Barbie and accompanying gift set made its debut on Miss Thing’s 35th Anniversary.
The Official Barbie Collector’s Club was founded in 1997, and there are websites galore – because amassing these little ladies is a serious business.
Though new trends in collecting were remarkable, we don’t want to lose sight of what was happening with the regular edition Barbies during the 80s (though special edition or not, as we all know, Barbie has never been ‘regular’).
Mattel introduced African-American and Hispanic dolls, and upon their success, issued an International Collection as well. Early on, this line contained just Italian, Parisian, and Royal UK lovelies, but more nationalities and infinitely more loveliness would arrive each passing year.
The early 80s also saw the first Barbie Convention; the brand new, boot-stomping Western Barbie and her high-steppin’ horse named Dallas; the ‘Paint the Town Red’ Barbie, whose crimson gown was based on the one worn by the new First Lady, Nancy Reagan. In 1984, over a thousand revellers gathered for Barbies 25th Anniversary bash in New York.
Andy Warhol was among the guests – his portrait of the doll icon, which would top the Barbie art exhibit that soon toured the nation, would be coming soon. And those of you who were gadget-minded and ga-ga over Barbie at the same time, know that she booted up her first computer in 1985.
In the late 80s and early 90s, nighttime soap operas were all the rage, and famous designers clamoured to dress the shows’ diva stars. In 1990, perhaps eager to outfit a lady who never complained and never gained weight, Bob Mackie designed his first Barbie gown, paving the sequined road for many more to follow: Yves St Laurent, Christian Dior, Valentino, Perry Ellis, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Anne Klein, Byron Lars, Vera Wang and Donna Karan among them.
Since Barbie’s best-selling years will often see the introduction of more than a hundred new outfits, the amount of cloth that Mattel tears through is no small thing. The company has actually become one of the largest makers of women’s clothes in the US – number crunchers don’t mind that the “women” happen to be synthetic.
Gorgeous lines like the Hollywood Legends Collection (Barbie as Scarlet O’Hara or the red-shoed Dorothy, for example) and the Children’s Collector Series (Barbie as fairy tale damsels like Rapunzel) came in the mid-90s.
In 1995, Mattel celebrated its 50th year in business. What had started as a cottage industry (though run out of a garage, not a cottage) had grown into a toy-making behemoth, thanks mostly to Barbie.
Mattel brought Barbie into the computer age in 1997 with ‘Talk With Me Barbie’, who came with a little computer and a CD-Rom that enabled the doll to talk.
That same year the company introduced Becky, Barbie’s disabled pal (who came with a pink and purple wheelchair!) and teamed up with Mastercard to release ‘Cool Shoppin’ Barbie’ who came complete with a tiny Mastercard and a credit card scanner . . .
Today, she’s the most collected doll in the world, but it’s not as if she’s just a collector’s item. Girls continue to adore her, and Mattel sells over a million new dolls a week.
All told, over the last forty years, they’ve managed to put their buxom ingénue in the hands of 90% of all American girls. Ninety per cent. Repeat that number to yourself a few times – because it’s indisputable proof that she’s nothing short of a cultural icon.
Barbie never married and never had kids (Skipper was Mattel’s concession to fans who wanted her to be a mother).
Because of the sprawling range of her vocations, her hobbies and sports interests, her nationalities, friends, accessories, connections to pop culture figures and celebrities from both the big and small screen, Barbie is literally impossible to pigeon-hole or grow bored with.
Mattel has made sure that there is always a new doll to admire on the shelves, always an outfit or a prop that you don’t yet own for your beloved, but that seem like must-haves. There are Barbie magazines, books and newsletters. There are public museums and legendary private collections. There is unadulterated devotion, from all around the world.
All of this – her role model concept, her physical re-inventions, the trail of fashion, the parent company’s savvy product development and advertising – all of this works together to make Barbie not only a phenomenally high-selling, decade-spanning toy success, but a permanent presence in our toy consciousness.
Practically every little boy out there has routinely kidnapped his sisters’ prized Barbie, and if he had possession long enough, might have cut her hair or stolen a quick peek at what was beneath her sweater, or most scandalous of all, played with the Barbie for a moment or two (if no one was else was looking, of course – that Barbie can be fun for boys too is a well-kept boy secret).
Girls, no matter their age, can still journey down the Barbie aisle in the toy store and get the chills. It’s the way the light dances off those shiny pink boxes! The temptation we had as kids to pick up the boxes and peer longingly inside – that’s still there.
And it’s hard not to twirl around once or twice in the aisle, as we try to take all that pink glory in – the recollection of all those hours we spent dressing and talking and moving for her – it can make us forget that we’re in public and that a grown woman isn’t really supposed to “twirl” anymore. Or are we?
The Barbie aisle goosebumps, the everything’s-right-with-the-world feeling that came with tearing a corner of the gift wrapping open and catching a flash of pink – how many other toys have that kind of visceral effect? Barbie bedazzles, every time.
So to all of you, to the young and old, to owners past and present, to the full-fledged collectors and the parents and the grown-up boy who remembers waving the doll just out of his sister’s desperate-to-have-her-back reach – let’s hear it for Barbie. Three cheers, a glass raised, wild applause or a quiet moment of thanks – whatever form your tribute takes, one phrase should be unanimous: All Hail The Plastic Queen.
Throughout her lifetime, Barbie has undergone many career moves. Her résumé reflects her many achievements (and lack of stable work record!);
1959: Fashion Model
1961: Ballerina, Registered Nurse, Airline Stewardess
1963: Graduate, Career Girl
1965: Astronaut, Fashion Editor, Student Teacher
1966: Airline Stewardess (again)
1975: Olympic Athlete (Downhill Skier, Figure Skater & Gymnast)
1984: Aerobics Instructor
1985: Business Executive, Dress Designer, TV News Reporter (shades of Bridget Jones), Veterinarian, Teacher
1986: Astronaut (again), Rock Star
1989: UNICEF Ambassador, Doctor (again/still?), Dancer on a TV show
1990: Pilot, Rock Star, Summit Diplomat, ‘Icecapades’ Star
1991: Music Video Star
1992: Rap Dancer