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Barbie – A Miniature Protagonist of Fashion History

Barbie – A Miniature Protagonist of Fashion History

Barbie Fashion History - How Barbie Reflects Fashion Trends

Barbie is more than just a doll – she has her own universe with her friends, houses, trailers, shops. But even outside of her little world, Barbie is an icon. The success of the “diva en miniature” (Tosa 1997, p. 60), the “miniature diva”, is inextricably linked with her fashion sense: She reflects fashion trends and her small dresses guide us through (fashion) history. If something is en vogue, Barbie will wear it. Nevertheless, she is not a trendsetter herself, she is a fast follower experimenting with fashion. Her clothes are of very high quality and reflect technical tailoring skills of her makers. Carol Spencer, one of Barbie’s lead designers, explained in her book “Dressing Barbie” that the design team always thought of Barbie as a real person: a stylish, career girl leading an amazing life in her own fantasy world. Her clothes reflect contemporary trends without being too “grown-up”, because in the end, small children should be able to play with her and dress/undress her. Furthermore, every Barbie comes with a backstory, or “purpose” – a special event, a certain type of sports, a particular career. (1)

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Barbie and Her Fashion Beginnings

In 1959, Barbie started out with a wardrobe of 22 outfits created by Mattel’s head designer Charlotte Johnson. At this time, fashion was still very much influenced by Christian Dior’s “New Look” and represented the abundance created by the economic miracle. (2)

Dior had opened his atelier in 1947, confirming Paris as the epicenter of fashion and dictating a silhouette of tight tops and bell-shaped skirts which became longer again and ended about 30 cm above the ground. In 1949, Dior opened a branch in New York and took the country by storm. Everyone wanted to be dressed according to the New Look and emulate the famous clients such as the Duchess of Windsor or Evita Perrón. So did Barbie. Nevertheless, Barbie is American and her style was very much influenced by the country and its movie stars and tabloids. From a fashion-perspective, it is interesting that until the mid-1960s, Barbie’s wardrobe oriented itself on the past. This stems from a view of the American upper class which had been around since the 19th century: dressing according to the newest trend was considered vulgar. (3)

“Suburban Shopper” Barbie (1959-64) reflects how Barbie’s fashion beginnings were oriented towards the past.

Moreover, this philosophy also reflected the social class which Barbie represented at the time. Her outfits were appropriate for all kinds of events in which a girl/young woman from an upper-class American family participated – tried and tested elegance and every outfit was complemented with the matching accessories. Examples of Barbie from that time are “Sweater Girl” (1959-62) which very much reminds of Doris Day or “Suburban Shopper” (1959-64). The latter wears a day dress made from cotton in pale blue and white in the typical New Look-silhouette but which also hints at Grace Kelly in “High Society” in 1956. (4)

“Roman Holiday” Barbie was based on the film with the same name starring Audrey Hepburn.

Europe – especially France and Italy – played a big role for Barbie at the time. “Roman Holiday” is a rare Barbie model in signature red and white stripes; just like Audrey Hepburn in the movie. It was the time of the Cinecittà, the movie industry in Rome, and many directors knew how to use movie stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner to export Italian fashion to America. Giovan Battista Giorgini organized a runway show in Florence in 1951 with the goal of drawing attention to Italy’s Alta Moda, which had long been in the shadows of the French Haute Couture. (5)

“Gay Parisienne” Barbie (1959)

Barbie also travelled to Paris as “Gay Parisienne” (1959) in a short evening dress with a balloon skirt in blue with tiny white polka dots. The top is tightly cut and  paired with a rabbit-stole and a headpiece made from tulle with a veil. The balloon silhouette references designs by its inventor Hubert de Givenchy. Another designer serving as inspiration for Barbie was Cristobal Balenciaga: “Easter Parade” (1959) is a dress-coat-ensemble. Especially the coat is a clear reference of Balenciaga: it is cut widely, almost bell-shaped. To close the circle of French designers, Barbie also wore ensembles inspired by Chanel who had just reopened her atelier in Paris in 1954. Women started to move away from displaying extravagant luxury and Chanel’s simple cuts and elegance hit the right note. The French maison was the inspiration for Barbie’s “Commuter Set” (1959-60) – a navy blue suit in the signature Chanel-style and two body-blouses (one for daytime, one for the evening). (6)

All of Barbie’s outfits were of a quality as if they were made at an atelier of a master-tailor. Right from the beginning, Mattel used labels, mostly at the same spot, with “Barbie ® © by Mattel” to not only as protection against counterfeits but also to add a chic touch. Every single production step came up to the highest quality standards and linings, seams, zippers and buttons were sewn into the garments by hand. (7)

The 1960s – Why Barbie Did Not Experience the Roaring Sixties from the Start

In the 1960s, fashion reflected new moral values and aesthetic tendencies. The economic miracle made financial security possible for many and happiness did not equal consumption anymore. Young people rebelled against their parents’ generations – whether it was against the still prevailing Nazi values amongst the older generation in Germany and Austria, or the peace movement in America. Furthermore, the visibility of hunger like in Biafra and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy showed that the world was changing and that rules became irrelevant. Fashion tried to hold up its rules but it was not the elites or nobility who dictated trends – fashion was now made by young people. Pop-Art merged art and commercialism. Furthermore, in the Fifties, the beauty ideal for women with voluptuous bodies reflected abundance. All of this changed in the 1960s – women were supposed to look androgynous and slim and wear colourful garments made from different materials ranging from plastic to metals. (8)

Many women tried to copy the icon of the early 1960s – Jacqueline Kennedy and her coats paired with pillbox hats desigend by the likes of Chanel and Balenciaga. (9)

Barbie Fashion History - Red Flare Barbie Balenciaga Jackie Kennedy Bubblecut Pillbox Hat
Red Flare Barbie (1962-65) was based on Balenciaga’s and Chanel’s designs for Jackie Kennedy (Picture courtesy of Liz Steiger, taken at the “Barbie – The Icon”-Exhibition at the Mudec Milan in 2015)

“Red Flare Barbie (1962-65) with a bright red A-line coat and flat bows and a pillbox hat, is clearly based on Jacqueline Kennedy and the designs by Balenciaga and Chanel. Barbie also has a trendy bubblecut hairstyle. These models still hold on to Barbie’s more conservative wardrobe in the 1960s. In 1963, Carol Spencer joined Charlotte Johnson’s team at Mattel and would influence Barbie’s style for more than three decades. Her first designs were based on Kennedy, but Spencer and her fellow designers also based them on their own style, wardrobes and the fashion around them. (10)

The Sixties were a period of substantial change not only in society but also in fashion. Courrèges started what was later called “Space Fashion” with geometric lines, cuts and materials inspired by Science Fiction. The mini skirt, a symbol of freedom for women, was invented (fashion historians are still conflicted whether it was Courrèges or Mary Quant). Quant represented the “mod” fashion movement, which started in England and involved the Beatles and the lifestyle of “Swinging London”. Similarly, Emmanuel Ungaro also introduced short dresses, Yves Saint Laurent opened his atelier in Paris in 1962. He was inspired by artists and created his infamous Mondrian-Dress in 1965. In the Eighties, the French couturier confessed to Mattel’s Johnson and Spencer that he was a secret admirer of Barbie’s fashion. Pop-Art influenced fashion and Emilio Pucci turned tunics into a commercial phenomenon. Valentino became the most famous Italian couturier by dressing Farah Diba and Jacqueline Kennedy. (11)

All of these trends were also reflected in Barbie herself and her wardrobe, she finally took up contemporary trends. Carol Spencer cited Mary Quant as a major influence on one of her Barbie designs. Furthermore, Mattel copied a real person for the first time: Twiggy became a Barbie doll. Mattel used colourful plastic, vinyl, jersey with fantastical motives, lamé and cotton or nylon with different patterns. One of the iconic designs from the perid was the “Wild ‘N Wonderful” Barbie with a minidress with a colourful print and a pair of cutout boots based on a pair Spencer owned herself. Spencer regularly shopped at local boutiques in Los Angeles to get inspiration for Barbie’s designs. In her book she said that, obviously, she was mostly on trend or even ahead of the curve for Barbie, as her designs took 18 months from sketching to being sold in stores. (12)

Hollywood Glam Continues

Even though fashion became simpler in a way, Hollywood still influenced Barbie and her appetite for glamour. “Solo in the Spotlight” (1960-64) reflects the amalgamation of European style and Hollywood’s glamour – this Barbie takes us to the infamous nightclubs, where a blonde siren sings on a smoky stage. The dress may have been inspired by an Oleg Cassini gown for Marilyn Monroe in red velvet and a design by Balenciaga in 1951. Again, it did not reflect the reality of contemporary fashion. Similarly, the romantic “Enchanted Evening” Barbie (1960-63) feels as if it was made for the Oscars. It could have been worn by Grace Kelly in the 1950s. During the press tour for the Barbie Movie in 2023, Margot Robbie, who played Barbie in the Barbie movie, wore contemporary interpretations of these two Barbie gowns. (You can read more about her outfits for the press tour here.) (13)

In 1968, Barbie was a guest on Dean Martin’s TV show and wore a more modern outfit which would become an iconic one for the doll: “Jump Into Lace” was a white lace jumpsuit with fuchsia taffeta lining. A similar look was “Lemon Kick” which was based on Barbra Streisand’s 1969 outfit for the Academy Awards. She wore an ensemble resembling pajamas featuring sequins by Arnold Scaasi. Until today, this is one of the most controversial looks ever worn at the Oscars. In 1969, it was even more controversial as trousers still had not been considered appropriate for women, especially for evening galas. (14)

This also shows Barbie’s development towards an independent and empowered woman: the design team still loved the romantic skirts and dress. Nevertheless, the world was changing and pants became a symbol for the empowered woman. Similarly, Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator, started wearing pantsuits to work, thereby breaking up the style rules for women which had still been dictated by men. (15)

The 1970s

Many women started into the new decade with a feeling of empowerment and the urge for independence. The first three months of 1970 were dominated by the economic crisis in America. At the time, young people wore jeans or trumpet trousers, paired with items in psychedelic colours and fringes. “Live Action” Barbie from 1971 probably reflects these trends best. According to Carol Spencer, the designers made clothes for Barbie which reflected their own wardrobe – long skirts, peasant-dresses, ponchos. Not only Barbie’s wardrobe changed but also Barbie herself – she did not glance to the side like the first models anymore. Since then, Barbie looks us directly in the face. (16)

For Barbie’s 10th anniversary, Mattel paid tribute to their home California with “Sunset Malibu” Barbie. From then on, Barbie’s tanned skin allowed the designers to work with a brighter and more intense colour palette for the garments. Furthermore, prints were customized for Barbie to fit to her size. For Mattel, 1970 was a tough year – after closing down their Japanese division, there was a fire in one of their factories in Mexico. The designs were dictated by saving materials and reusing fabric which had already been in America, as there were substantial supply chain problems. Moreover, the the variety of accessories, especially shoes, had to be reduced to save cost. Nevertheless, the design team was on a mission that girls should not be able to tell the difference between Barbie’s outftis before and after the crisis. (17)

The 1980s

In the 1980s, the Barbie designers experimented a lot, even though Mattel became more corporate after Ruth and Elliot Handler left the company and more structures were put in place. After 1975, the overall economic mood in America and Europe was more positive. Carol Spencer created “Astro Fashion” for Barbie and there was also a collection by Oscar de la Renta. Unlike the later collaborations of Mattel with designers, this series was not created by de la Renta himself. Instead, the Mattel team presented options from which the designer could choose. Barbie was finally acknowledged by the fashion world when French stylist Billy Boy collaborated with Mattel on “The New Theater of Fashion” – an advertising campaign for the stylist using Barbie as his mannequin. (18)

Mattel also knew that girls loved to style Barbie’s hair and, consequently, launched “Twirly Curls” Barbie in 1982. She wore a bright pink swimsuit and a ruffled wrap skirt. Spencer drew inspiration from Halston for this outfit. (19)

As more and more women had started to enter the workforce since the 1970s, Barbie also addressed these working women. Already in the 1970s, Spencer designed the uniform for Barbie flight attendants, one of the most glamorous professions of the time, and soon after an outfit for Barbie surgeons. In 1985, Mattel introduced “Day to Night” Barbie who stood for women breaking the “plastic ceiling”. Barbie could change her smart suit into a cute evening outfit by turning the skirt inside out. This was in line with Ruth Handler’s philosophy about women – they should be empowered and have their careers but also have fun. The “Day to Night” Barbie was also part of the press tour mentioned above. (20)

“Golden Dream” Barbie (1980) represents the Eighties more than any other model – with her lush blond locks she looks like actress Farah Fawcett in Charlie’s Angels and reflects a major hair and fashion trend of the period. A bit later, Barbie discovers her love for rock – “Barbie and the Rockers” was launched in 1986. (21)

In the 1980s, Barbie also ventured out into other countries. Even though she already had her debut in Europe in 1961, the demand for more localized designs only came in the 1980s, while at the same time always keeping in mind that the looks had to work for the American market as well. With the “Dolls of the World”-collection, Barbie started to wear whimsical outfits from different countries while respectfully representing them. The Mexico Barbie was based on traditional dance costumes owned by one of Spencer’s friends who was Mexican-born and collected these garments. Spencer turned the costume into a floral dress representing the colours of the Mexican flag. (22)

The eighties were also the period of fitness – Jane Fonda’s workout video came out and also Barbie was part of the hype. “Great Shape” Barbie (1983) wore a trendy turquoise leotard with headband and leg warmers. (23)

The 1990s – Barbie Pink and Collectors

Barbie Fashion History - Totally Hair Barbie 1991
Totally Hair Barbie 1991 (Picture courtesy of Liz Steiger, taken at the “Barbie – The Icon”-Exhibition at the Mudec Milan in 2015)

In 1991, Mattel launched “Totally Hair” Barbie (another model which was picked up for the Barbie Movie press tour). Spencer wanted an outfit which was as fun as Barbie’s new crimped locks and based it on the infamous Pucci print scaled down to Barbie’s size in a bright pink colour palette. By the early Nineties, Barbie’s fan club had grown substantially and by 1994, almost one billion Barbie dolls had been sold. In addition to young girls, there were many serious collectors of the doll. Spencer realized the potential and importance of this target group and pushed Mattel to launch special collector’s editions. The first collections were the Great Eras and Hollywood Legends. The latter involved Scarlett O’Hara and Eliza Doolittle. (24)

Barbie Fashion History - Scarlett OHara green dress straw hat
Great Eras Collection – Barbie as Scarlett O’Hara(Picture courtesy of Liz Steiger, taken at the “Barbie – The Icon”-Exhibition at the Mudec Milan in 2015)

Early 2000s until today

Since their launch, the collector’s editions ventured out into many topics. In terms of fashion, current dolls still keep reflecting contemporary trends. However, the collaborations of Barbie with many fashion houses and designers are a bit more interested. From Dior, to Armani, to Calvin Klein, to Donna Karan and Versace – many famous brands have dressed the doll. They not only created looks for Barbie, they also brought her style into the real world. Moschino dedicated the 2015 ready-to-wear collection to the Barbie theme. And who does not remember the “Real Life Barbies” from the early 2000s – Paris Hilton and her friends? (25)

Since her birth in 1959 Barbie has had a close relationship with music, the arts and films, especially those from Hollywood. She has worked in hundreds of careers and is an all-round talent with many interests – one of her biggest passions will always be the fashion of this “miniature diva”. 


Sources

Books

Marco Tosa, Barbie: tausend Gesichter einer Kultfigur, München 1997.

Mudec Milano, Barbie – The Icon, Exhibition Catalogue, Milan 2015.

Carol Spencer, Dressing Barbie, New York 2019. (Kindle Version)

Robin Gerber: Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her, New York 2009.

Barbie Sammlerkatalog

Websites

Carol Spencer’s Barbie Treasures Site

Love Bella Vida – List of Designer Barbie Dolls

Barbie List Holland – Well-Known Designers of the Barbie Dolls

My Vintage Barbies

Picture Source Title Image

Elisabeth Steiger, taken at the “Barbie – The Icon”-exhibition in Milan, 2105.


Footnotes

(1) Mudec Milano 2015, p. 97 and 103-109, Spencer 2019, 18%, Tosa 1997, p. 50-55 and 60

(2,3,4) Mudec Milano 2015, p. 97-109, Tosa 1997, p. 55-59; 71 and 95

(5) Mudec Milano 2015, p. 97-98 and 103-109, Tosa 1997, p. 59-62

(6) Mudec Milano 2015, p. 97-98, 103-109 and 134, Tosa 1997, p. 59-62

(7) Mudec Milano 2015, p. 97-98 and 103-109, Tosa 1997, p. 72-75

(8) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109 and 154-159, Tosa 1997, p. 75-82 and 98-99

(9, 10) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109, Spencer 2019, 19%, Tosa 1997, p. 59-62 and 75-82

See Also
Christmas Milan Duomo

(11) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109 and 154-159, Spencer 2019, 58%, Tosa 1997, p. 82-88

(12) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109 and 154-159, Spencer 2019, 30-32%, Tosa 1997, p. 99-104

(13) Mudec Milano 2015, p. 97-109 and 124, Tosa 1997, p. 89-93

(14, 15) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109, Spencer 2019, 29-40%

(16, 17) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109 and 154-163, Spencer 2019, 33-35% and 40-41%, Tosa 1997, p. 104-107

(18) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109 and 178-183, Tosa 1997, p. 107-110

(19, 20) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109 and 178-183, Spencer 2019, 38-42%

(21, 22, 23) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109 and 178-183, Spencer 2019, 38-65%

(24) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-109, Spencer 66-75%

(25) Mudec Milano 2015, 103-123, Spencer 38-42%


Disclaimer

This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above. 


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