Inventing Barbie

"New for '59, the BARBIE doll: A shapely teenage fashion Model! Retail price $3.00..."

Barbie was introduced at the American Toy Fair in New York City in February of 1959 by Ruth and Elliot Handler, founders of Mattel Toys. Ruth originally thought of the idea while her daughter, Barbara, was playing with paper dolls. She realized that as her daughter grew older and began to imitate adult conversations and the world around her, she needed a three-dimensional representation of it as well. She shared her idea of a doll with a woman's figure with her husband and the all-male executive team at Mattel, but they refused saying that it would be too expensive to produce and the retail price would have to be higher than the consumer would pay. She again approached them with the idea after returning from a trip to Europe with a Lilli doll, a German doll produced in the mid- fifties. Lilli, however, was modeled after a sultry, almost pornographic caricature in a German comic strip; she was a far cry from the innocent, all-American image Ruth wanted to capture, and it was Mattel's job to change that. Several trips to and from Japan finally ended with a deal that changed the pursed lips, widow's peak, and heavy make-up of Lilli into an embodiment of the quintessential American teenager, created to "project every little girl's dream of the future"(Billy Boy 22).

Barbie appeared at a time when the term "teenager" was a "new and rather sexy one"(Wolff 24). The country had been through two world wars and a depression, and the fifties presented a time for young adults to come into the limelight. But it was questionable whether or not the American public was ready for a doll with a woman's figure. At her debut she received mixed reviews. Some condemned Barbie and her black- and-white swimsuit for being too "scary, sleazy, and spellbinding"(; the facial paint on the earliest dolls was very heavy, and her almond-shaped, sharp, sideglances that were not suitable to join the cute, baby-faced Ginny dolls or appropriate alongside the fragile, refined Madame Alexander doll market. Others, however, saw her as "sunshine, Tomorrowland, the future made plastic"(Lord 43) with a fresh face and fashions to fit every girl's daydreams. Over the next few years, these healthy fantasies would prove to be increasingly attractive to parents.

Her earliest fashions adhered to the philosophy "the doll sells the clothes and the clothes sell the doll"(West 26). When Ruth first met with Charlotte Johnson, the designer who would create Barbie's ensembles for the next twenty years, she explicitly wanted a "bridal gown, tennis dress, ballerina outfit, and something for a football game"(Westenhouser 12), but those were only the basics. Along with these appeared sleepwear for slumber parties, which were favorites of young girls, as well as homemaking and hygiene-influenced designs. These provided the "pleasant and cheerful experience" of "Barbie-Q" to which Charlotte soon added the "elegance and style" of "Gay Parisienne"(Billy Boy 25). Johnson was a stickler for details, and because the dolls were not mass-produced the early outfits readily included every minute zipper, silk lining, hand-sewn label, and pearl choker that had graced the romantic French "haute couture" styles they emulated. She found her designs everywhere from the "fashion houses of Europe to the Sears Roebuck catalogue"(Westenhouser 60; social lines could be crossed. Handler wanted to create a stunning wardrobe from which each child could choose an outfit to create her own personality for Barbie; therefore she had to develop fashions to coordinate with society's expectations and aspirations.

These earliest fashions were indicative of the values and beliefs of the Barbie doll's initial target market, middle-class America. For the mothers who saw Barbie as too sexy, the Handler's advertising ideas revolved around convincing them that Barbie would make each owner "a poised little lady"(Lord 40). Thus, for Barbie's first advertising agency, she ceased to be a doll and became a living teenager that young girls would want to imitate. They invented a life for her that "was as glamorous and American as Lilli's had been tawdry and foreign"(41); hence the creation of the French designs. The Handler's hoped that American mothers would see the tennis dress and ballerina outfit as stable, safe representations of fun and frolic for teenagers, and the football game outfit and wedding dress as wholesome and pure dreams for the future of their daughters. The traditional homemaker designs appealed to those who were Donna Reed fans and showed the importance of a healthy, balanced lifestyle; however, Barbie added a vogue look to that traditional role as well.

Regardless of whether Barbie was cooking or socializing, she was acting a part little girls began to notice; she was teaching women what was expected of them by society. For these first-generation Barbie owners, she "taught independence...[she was] her own woman and [could] invent herself with a costume change"(Lord 9). She had already earned herself a high degree of respectability and became a figure girls wanted to emulate; she was not only a fashion model, she could be a sophisticate or a homemaker. Soon it was evident that despite Ruth's original desire to have each child create a personality for the doll, Barbie began to have an identity of her own.

Over the next two years suggestions to remold Barbie surfaced; however, the Handlers insisted on a strict adherence to the original mold to ensure familiarity among consumers. Although very little changed in Barbie's physique, her face underwent plastic surgery after the turn of the decade. The sophisticated look of her introduction gave way to a more natural image in 1961. Designers created a less constrained visage with bright blue irises and curved eyebrows. These replaced the hard, almost aloof look produced by Barbie's heavy black eyeliner and pointed eyebrows which were complaints at her introduction. Barbie emerged with a softer skin tone and a different hairstyle, a bubble- cut, becoming even more realistic for her audience

That was not enough though; the public wanted more. Against Mattel's wishes but by popular demand, they introduced Barbie's "handsome steady" Ken in 1961. They had coordinating outfits for fraternity parties, lawn picnics, drive-ins, and the beach. Magazines began to run comic-book like stories about the couple, a series of books were published by Random House, and Barbie sang about her new boyfriend Ken on a record. These inventions helped kids to understand relationships and manners . With the couple Mattel had developed the "quintessence of wholesome activity blended with elegant and youthful physiques and high fashion style"(Billy Boy 56). The couple was enjoying realistic adventures while children fantasized about adult life. Their seemingly perfect life did not survive without criticism; many saw Barbie as antifeminist who was a victim of a man-oriented society. They saw the introduction of Ken as an indication that women could not stand on their own and had to be constantly supported by men.

Ken was an important addition to Barbie's world as a reflection of the majority of society's attitudes. Mattel was against the introduction of Ken because male dolls had not historically fared well in the market, but requests for a boyfriend for Barbie were endless. Criticism of the couple was bound to arise, but Ken's role involved much more than Barbie needing a date for Friday night. Granted, Barbie may not have been a women's rights activist in 1961, but she was a reflection of women's roles in society at the time. These roles were often defined by the men in women's lives; they were happy with raising families and being housewives, nurses, and hostesses. The couple's relationship exemplified the contemporary attitudes of teens who were celebrating peace and prosperity. Moreover, critics should have realized that her boyfriend was still only a mere accessory.

Barbie and Ken's ensembles were named for recreational activities and for the outfits themselves because the American mindset was not about men and women competing for careers in the job market; it was a time for sock-hops and drive-ins. It would have been outlandish for Barbie to have outfits named for her many careers because most women were not concentrating on a career other than raising a family. Barbie portrayed an alternative, a life before marriage, without discarding the traditional values that accompanied this lifestyle; she transformed poised and proper behavior and made it glamorous. Inevitably, these roles would soon change, and Mattel would refashion Barbie to conform to these standards.

To help counter some criticism of Barbie as sex symbol, Mattel introduced Midge, Barbie's best friend, in 1963 and Skipper, Barbie's little sister, in 1964. Midge's fuller, freckled face was less intimidating and sensual and gave a less sexual connotation. Skipper was the answer to the request for Barbie to have kids; instead of marrying, Barbie and Skipper would babysit. A pregnant Barbie would tarnish her "perfect" figure and make her slightly too domestic. She must remain youthful, almost invincible. Children would age Barbie; she was still "a teenage fashion model, and the world was her runway"(Lord 41). One can surmise that even that was not enough to hold Barbie-fanatics' or the Barbie-haters' attention for long. As the first "season" of designs came to a close, one can see the imminent evolution of Barbie's wardrobe, personality, and image as a social revolution appeared on the horizon.

  • Introduction
  • Barbie in the Sixties
  • Barbie in the Seventies and Eighties
  • Barbie in the Nineties
  • Bibliography
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