Barbiecore was well on its way to a comeback years ago, paving the way for Greta Gerwig’s much-anticipated Barbie movie, which opens this weekend. Valentino debuted an almost entirely fuchsia — soon to be known as “Valentino Pink” — collection as early as fall 2021.
But really, Barbie’s presence is always there as Barbie (“real” name: Barbara Millicent Roberts) is no ordinary doll. Introduced March 9, 1959, at the American International Toy Fair by its creator, Mattel’s Ruth Handler, the curvy ponytailed blonde semi-bombshell (with a modicum of innocence) was originally inspired by a German doll named Bild Lilli that Handler spotted in 1956 — a call girl doll sold in Berlin adult novelty shops. That’s right, Barbie was based on a hooker — if you’re looking for a good cocktail party anecdote.
Barbie’s “mother” Ruth Handler also observed young girls obsessing on paper dolls. Obviously her instincts were spot on: In its first year, Mattel sold 350,000 Barbie dolls. “By Barbie’s 50th birthday in 2009, over one billion Barbies had been sold. Now it’s one every three seconds,” says author Karan Feder, whose new book, Barbie Takes the Catwalk: An Icon’s Fashionable History, will be released in October by Weldon Owen/Simon & Schuster. “The awareness percentage of Barbie on the whole planet is actually 98 percent,” she adds.
Feder, a museum curator and fashion historian, penned this book specifically about the history of Barbie’s interaction with fashion designers, after seeing a friend’s expansive (and expensive) collection of Barbie dolls going back to 1959. “I decided to develop a fashion exhibition of Barbie clothes,” Feder explains. “I wanted to pair life size outfits with her real looks, to see if Mattel’s Barbie clothes designers were looking at the catwalk — at culture at large. Did they take real clothes and take them to scale? Turns out — they did! Barbie is a true representation of American design through over 60 years.”
After Mattel agreed to a license the exhibit, Feder realized: “There’s a book in this!” The exhibit was mounted in Vegas (in a high-end shopping center), then ran a year-and-a-half. Now it’s going out on the road.
Feder first thought tracing Barbie’s high fashion looks back 60 years would be easy. “I thought I’d have access to a Mattel archives: notes from designers, small mood boards. But there really wasn’t anything there. No one realized these outfits or records would become valuable. I had to reference the date on an outfit’s box — then trace backwards. I also looked at runway photos, relied on Getty and Shutterstock — there’s not a lot of runway shots going that far back. It was a very time-consuming project.”
Likewise, a Barbie look would take a year to develop as Handler would hire a lingerie designer to sketch and source fabrics.
Feder seems to have hit the zeitgeist jackpot with this book, but piggybacking on Gerwig’s movie was never the intention. “I started this when the pandemic hit in 2020,” says Feder. “There was no Barbie movie planned I knew about. One thing I’ve learned: there are hardcore Barbie collectors out there. They spend all their money on Barbie collections.”
As it turns out, many major fashion designers have collaborated with, or been commissioned by, Mattel to design Barbie’s clothes: From YSL to Oscar de la Renta; Dior, Balmain, Rodarte, Moschino; designers as famed as Diane von Furstenburg, Vera Wang and Karl Lagerfeld; and retail giants like The Gap.
“These clothes were beautifully detailed,” says Feder. “The little zippers are magical. It’s magical that they fit, stay on. The miniature couture jackets are actually lined! Little pockets on them are functional. One outfit had thirteen parts – a little compact with a tiny puff, a little pink comb. For collectors, some these parts go from a hundred dollars now, all the way up to $8,000. They’re extremely rare.”
Why did — and does — Barbie have so many outfits? “Mattel realized girls only needed so many dolls,” Feder explains. “But they wanted her to have all the experiences girls dream of having. The outfits wound up making more money than the dolls.”
And why was Barbie created rather like Brigitte Bardot, bombshell busty with a tiny waist? t was a body few real women could relate to. “The behind-the-scenes artisans weren’t interested in that,” counters Feder. “To get a Balenciaga style dress to stay on her, they had to make the waistbands thicker to stay up. So her waist had to be smaller. Mattel never really explained it well.”
Now at age 64, Barbie has certainly maintained her shape. She doesn’t look a day over … indeterminable. But then again, she’s had some work done.