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Barbie was born on the March 9, 1959, the day she was officially launched at the American International Toy Fair. Created by businesswoman Ruth Handler to show little girls that they could be anything they wanted to be, that ‘a woman has choices’, Barbie quickly became a global icon. While she may not have visibly aged over the last five decades, Barbie has constantly reinvented herself, changing her clothes to keep up with the latest fashions and adapting her image in response to wider social and cultural change with varying degrees of success. Barbie’s evolution has been controversial at times, but before we get into her inspirational triumphs and contentious fails, we need to take a look back at her long and fascinating history.
Barbie was introduced to the world as a teenage fashion model, full name Barbara Millicent Roberts, from the town of Willows in Wisconsin. But Barbie’s predecessor, the Swiss Bild Lilli doll, had an image that wasn’t quite as clean cut. Unlike other dolls of the time made to resemble babies and infants, Bild Lilli was all woman with long legs, fashionable clothes and glamorous make-up. Based on a comic strip character, Lilli was a working girl, described as a ‘blonde bombshell’, and Lilli dolls were initially sold as an adult novelty.
Handler came across the doll while vacationing in Switzerland in 1956 and immediately recognized the potential market for a doll that could be dressed in the latest fashions and imagined fulfilling adult roles and careers. She brought three Lilli dolls back to the USA, and over the next few years worked with Mattel, the toy company co-founded by her husband Eliot, to design and create the first Barbie doll.
Influenced by the movie stars of the 1950s, the first Barbie doll was fully made up with red lips, black eyeliner and perfectly arched eyebrows. She wore a strapless zebra striped swimsuit and came with either blonde or brunette hair done up in a cute Audrey Hepburn ponytail. #1 Ponytail Barbie, as she was known, sold for $3 (the equivalent of $24.55 in 2016), and in the first year of production, over 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold.
A decade that opened with JFK in the White House and closed with Nixon, the ’60s were a period of major social and political transformation in America. Barbie evolved with the times, and by 1960, her fashion sense had moved away from the brittle and bouffant styling of the 50s, epitomized by First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and had begun to embrace the playful and colorful Mod era.
Barbie’s makeup became less severe and her hair became long and sleek. For the first time, Barbie became available with ‘Titian’ red hair, bendable legs and eyes that opened and closed. While Barbie’s physical transformation was striking, her lifestyle changes were no less distinct. In 1961, Barbie began going steady with boyfriend Ken, and in 1962, the pair moved into their very own dream house.
With a new home and a new man, Barbie also found herself inundated with new friends and family, including lifelong best friend Midge and little sister Skipper. In 1967, Mattel debuted ‘Colored Francie’ the first African-American doll to enter Barbie’s network of friends. Both Francie and Christie, who followed just a year later, were manufactured with dark skin, but designers used the same mold as that it used for ‘Caucasian Barbie’, meaning all of the dolls had the exact same facial features.
Barbie’s first major controversy came in 1963 with the introduction of ‘Barbie Baby-Sits’. Wearing a long pink-striped skirt with ‘babysitter’ emblazoned along the hem and thick-framed glasses, Barbie Baby-Sits came with a number of accessories, including a baby in a crib, a telephone, a few bottles of soda and a book. Unfortunately, the book was called How to Lose Weight and had only one page of advice, ‘Don’t Eat’. The backlash from this bizarre nod to extreme dieting wasn’t enough to deter Mattel from including the book in the accessories pack of another Barbie doll in 1965. ‘Slumber Party Barbie’ wore pink silk pajamas with a matching robe and came prepared for her sleepover with toiletries, a mirror, the same diet book and a set of scales permanently set at 110 pounds.
At first, Barbie embraced 70’s style, proclaiming her allegiance to an alternative lifestyle with long flowing skirts, tasseled jackets and long, flowing hair. But alternative ‘Live Action Barbie’ only lasted a year before being replaced. In 1971, with American society under strain due to violent anti-war protests, economic instability and ongoing civil rights battles, ‘Malibu Barbie’ was launched. With a new sculpted face that featured an open smile for the first time, sun-tanned, make-up free skin and sun-kissed hair, ‘Malibu Barbie’ was marketed as the ultimate surfer girl. The most significant change to Malibu Barbie’s appearance was the disappearance of Barbie’s coy, sideways glance and the introduction of forward-looking eyes, a development welcomed by feminists. Malibu Barbie projected an empowered and relaxed persona in a time when many American citizens felt anything but.
In the mid-70s, Mattel suffered some severe internal difficulties and almost went bankrupt in 1974, perhaps offering an explanation for the error of judgement that must have occurred for ‘Growing Up Skipper’ to ever make it into toy stores. In 1975, Mattel launched a version of Barbie’s little sister named Growing Up Skipper that was supposed to represent the physical change from girl to woman. By rotating Growing Up Skipper’s arm, children could watch her torso lengthen and her breasts protrude, thus, increasing her bra size. The public was aghast, and Growing Up Skipper was promptly discontinued.
Despite this embarrassment, Barbie saw the 70s out in style. In 1975, Barbie won gold at the Winter Olympics in swimming, skating and skiing categories, a remarkable feat, and in 1976, she and Ken were included in the 1976 America’s Time Capsule, cementing her status as a true American icon.
In the 1980s, American politics experienced a dramatic swing to the right under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was the era of the ‘yuppie’ – the new young urban professional who lived in the city, worked a high-powered job and put consumption at the forefront of daily life. During this period, more women entered the workforce than ever before, the result of both a liberal economic policy that rewarded those who worked and decades of fighting for equal rights.
Barbie was no longer restricted to the role of housewife or eternal surfer girl, as the 80s saw the introduction of ‘Dr. Barbie’, ‘Astronaut Barbie’ and ‘Pilot Barbie’. ‘Day to Night Barbie’, launched in 1985, could have reasonably been described as ‘yuppie’ Barbie and came complete with office accessories and an evening gown so Barbie could go straight from the office to a swanky city party.
In 80’s fashion, big was beautiful and shoulder pads, corkscrew perms, scrunchies and chunky jewelry epitomized the era. Barbie was perfectly primed to ride the wave of the new teen culture, brought screaming into American homes with the launch of MTV, and in 1986, Barbie fronted her own band, wearing leggings, a hairpiece and lots of neon.
Barbie even infiltrated the art world. In the mid-80s, a New York jewelry designer named BillyBoy* was one of the world’s foremost Barbie doll collectors and had worked with Mattel to design two new dolls. When Andy Warhol, BillyBoy’s friend, begged to paint his portrait, he responded that Warhol should paint Barbie instead because ‘Barbie, c’est moi.’
America prospered in the 90s – the economy grew, the Soviet Empire collapsed and the digital age was born – yet the 90s could reasonably be described as Barbie’s most contentious decade.
It started well enough. Known as the ‘Year of Women’ in American politics, 1992 saw Barbie head her first presidential campaign with the launch of ‘Barbie for President’. Despite her admirable bid for the presidency, Barbie found herself in the headlines accused of propagating sexism through the mouthpiece of ‘Teen Talk Barbie’. In July 1992, Mattel released a Barbie doll that could finally talk back to the millions of young girls who had talked to her for the last four decades. Unfortunately, Teen Talk Barbie’s 270 programmable phrases included such enlightened statements as ‘I love shopping!’ and ‘Math class is tough!’ Public criticism from the American Association of University Women convinced Mattel to remove the offending phrases from Teen Talk Barbie’s repertoire.
In 1997, Mattel launched the misconceived ‘Oreo Fun Barbie’. Oreo Fun Barbie was the product of a partnership with Nabisco, the producers of Oreo cookies, and intended to be a playmate for young girls to share ‘America’s favorite cookie’ with. Both a white and black version of Oreo Fun Barbie was launched, causing outcry in African-American communities who recognized ‘Oreo’ as a derogatory term. The doll was quickly recalled and is now one of the most sought-after Barbie collector’s items.
Soon after the Oreo debacle, Mattel found themselves under fire again following the release of ‘Share a Smile Becky’, a doll who used a pink wheelchair. Unfortunately, Share a Smile Becky endured some of the same accessibility issues people in wheelchairs face in everyday life – Becky’s wheelchair could not navigate Barbie’s Dream House, did not fit into the elevator and could not be put inside any of Barbie’s vehicles. Becky’s long hair also had a habit of getting caught up in the wheels of her wheelchair. A new version of ‘Share a Smile Becky’ was launched with shorter hair, but despite her initial success, she was soon discontinued.
Despite all of these controversies, Barbie still remained on top of the toy store bestseller lists in the 90s, perhaps as a result of there being so many choices on offer. ‘Totally Hair Barbie’ with hair twice as long as her dress, ‘Gymnast Barbie’, ‘Mermaid Barbie’ and, who can forget, ‘Generation Girl Barbie’ were all incredibly popular.
In the year 2000, the launch of ‘Jewel Girl Barbie’ saw Barbie looking younger and more fashionable than ever before, and in 2004, Barbie jumped on the celebrity bandwagon of the very public breakup, officially ending her relationship with Ken mere weeks after Britney and Justin ended ties.
Newly single and now 50 years old, Barbie went for a major image change in 2008 when ‘Black Canary Barbie’ hit toy stores. Modeled on a DC comic character, this Barbie wore black patent leather shorts and jacket with fishnet stockings, an outfit that moved a number of Christian groups to protest against what they deemed to be Mattel’s overt sexualization of Barbie. One year later, Barbie got her first tattoo with the launch of ‘Totally Stylin’ Tattoos Barbie’, which featured a lower back tattoo spelling out K-E-N. Customer complaints led some stores to remove the doll from shelves, but in 2011, a Barbie featuring even more elaborate tattoos across her neck, chest, arms and shoulders was launched in partnership with L.A. fashion company tokidoki.
The year 2014 was Barbie’s year as she became ‘Entrepreneur Barbie’, backed by ten real-life entrepreneurs including Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, and Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss of Rent the Runway. In the same year, Barbie landed the cover of Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, wearing a version of her original zebra swimsuit and featuring the tagline ‘the doll who started it all’.
Using similar technology to Apple’s Siri, Mattel launched ‘Hello Barbie’ in 2015, a technologically advanced version of Teen Talk Barbie that has the capacity for two-way conversation. Hello Barbie has a microphone and a modicum of artificial intelligence that means the more she is spoken to, the more appropriate her responses are. However, an internet security firm expressed concern over the potential for Hello Barbie’s servers to be hacked, meaning hackers could take over the home’s wifi network and access other devices as well as potentially eavesdropping through Barbie’s microphone. Mattel responded to these concerns swiftly, but the publicity surrounding Hello Barbie’s security issues damaged the doll’s popularity.
Off the back of these technological teething problems, Mattel moved its concern away from the internet and back towards Barbie herself, launching two new lines representing different ethnicities and body shapes.
The Fashionista range of Barbie dolls offers seven different skin tones, representing African-American, Asian and mixed race features, 14 different hairstyles and, incredibly, with a range of shoe choices. For the very first time, Barbie has been blessed with bendable ankles so she can finally wear flats.
Another new range of Barbie dolls, launched with the hashtag #thedollevolves, is attempting to debunk Barbie’s image as an unrealistic portrayal of the female form. Three new body shapes – petite, tall and curvy – are now available, which can be mixed and matched with a number of skin tones, eye colors and hair styles, including afro and curly red hair.
How the toys children play with inform their body image is firmly on the children’s health agenda, and the reaction to Mattel’s attempt to better represent the bodies of real women has largely been met with praise in the mainstream press and on social media. Barbie is still under fire for her unrealistic proportions though, with the BBC publishing an article that shows that even the new curvy Barbie would have a waist equivalent to a UK size 6-8 if she were scaled up to full size. Sarah Allen, Mattel UK’s representative responded stating, ‘Barbie is a doll. She is not meant to reflect a real woman’s body.’
Barbie never has, and likely never will, reflect a real woman’s body, something digital artist Nikolay Lamm tackled with the launch of his Lammily doll in 2014. Lammily’s proportions are based on the measurements of the average 19-year-old American woman and comes with the tagline ‘average is beautiful’. Haneefah Adam too, a master’s graduate from Nigeria, has taken Barbie’s attempts to diversify to another level by introducing the Hijarbie, a doll with the mission of incorporating fashion with faith. An Instagram account created in December 2015 featuring a doll wearing the Islamic veil attracted tens of thousands of followers in a matter of months.
For over half a decade, Barbie has negotiated the fickle world of fashion, staying in the best-seller section of the toy store as other toys have come and gone. No stranger to controversy, Barbie has sought to innovate and stay up to date with technological advances with mixed results. Whatever her triumphs or fails, Barbie is a global icon, the original and the best fashion doll in the world.
By Toni Marie Ford