With this post, Ingrid Fetell joins the DG team. A designer and brand consultant, Ingrid is writing a book (and Pratt master's thesis) on the aesthetics of joy, a topic she blogs on here. We're delighted she's willing to make the occasional detour from joy to glamour.—VP
Barbie was already tacky by the time I got to know her. It was the mid-80s and she was rocking out as a doctor with a magenta stethoscope and peep-toe mules that even my mother, who could jog in Manolos, found intimidating.
She teased her bleached blond hair (that is, before I gave her a spiky crewcut) and had vanity plates on her pink corvette. Mattel thought of her as a California babe, but looking back it’s obvious she was a Jersey girl, even if they hadn’t yet figured out how to put acrylic tips on those perfect, tiny nails.
The Barbie of my youth was perma-tanned, wide-eyed, and flirty — equal parts empty-headed and full-breasted. She was as fun and unabashedly feminine as she’s always been. But you’d hardly call her glamorous. And yet glamour was Barbie’s defining feature from her launch through the first half of her existence. Barbie was invented to give girls a taste of life as a teenager and an adult woman, and in 1959, that meant a glamorous world of fashion, suitors, and parties. Everything about Barbie, from her backstory to her diminutive strands of pearls, was designed to support this ideal.
Central to Barbie’s glamour was a sense of aspiration. The doll was invented by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, who got the idea when she noticed her daughter (Barbara) and a friend acting out elaborate scenarios of adult life with paper dolls. Handler theorized that this kind of play was a way of working through the desires and fantasies of adolescence. Recognizing that the only real dolls available to girls were baby dolls, she saw an opportunity to “three-dimensionalize” the paper doll experience with a plastic fashion model doll. So from the very beginning, Barbie was conceived as a kind of idealized future self for girls.
Establishing this aspirational quality was a mix of narrative and aesthetics. Like the most captivating movie stars of her day, Barbie’s backstory was light on details, but it was always rooted in the realm of the plausible. She was billed as a teenage fashion model and designer, and as time went on she took on other careers: flight attendant, office worker, astronaut, veterinarian, and eventually some 100+ other occupations. The vagueness of the narrative allowed Barbie to embody seemingly contradictory roles, a flexibility epitomized by the original tagline, “We girls can be anything!” Just like a Hollywood actress, Barbie could be anything. In fact, she could be everything all at once.
The aesthetics of the doll reinforced her story of adult sophistication and elegance. A critical element was a look of maturity in the design of the face and the body. Handler is famous for having said, “Girls need to play with a doll with breasts,” and hence Barbie’s most controversial feature was also her most essential. Breasts marked the distance between the girl and the doll, the gap of adolescence. With breasts, Barbie could never be an equal, an ordinary playmate. She was always a vehicle for future projection. Barbie’s body proportions, which would soon be vilified, were also critical to this fantasy. In reality her extreme shape came not from an anorexic ideal of beauty, but from the difficulties of making high fashion look elegant at 1/6th scale. Because fashion was the cornerstone of Barbie’s aspirational world, the necessary proportions took precedence over any awkwardness in the naked body.
The tiny clothes were glamorous in their own right, modeled on the real-life wardrobes of icons like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Jackie Kennedy. It helped that they were designed by a fashion designer and hand-sewn by Japanese home-workers under her supervision. Paris’s haute couture was the inspiration through the early 60s, with designs modeled after those by Hubert Givenchy, Coco Chanel, and Cristobal Balenciaga. Paris was supplanted by London mod later that decade, and the Twiggy look was a natural fit for Barbie. She had more casual outfits as well, but they were tailored and adult, never too girlish.
This aspirational adulthood at the core of Barbie’s glamour started to fade in the 1970s, a direct result of evolution in the design of the doll and her accessories. Barbie started going in for regular plastic surgery as early as 1961, and the result was that she got younger and younger looking over time. Looking back, Barbie #1 was probably too old (“the face of a 40 year-old woman whose seen a lot of action” in the words of one collector), but as they say, cosmetic procedures can be addictive, and by now Barbie has had so many that she looks barely 15. Likewise, her fashion sense has gotten more casual, more girly, and less couture over time. No doubt this movement reflected trends in real-world fashion, but it made Barbie less of an elegant model. Mattel amped up the youthful girlishness with the introduction of liberal doses of pink, which though now ubiquitous was never a major influence until the 70s.
This younger, brasher form of femininity made Barbie more relatable but less aspirational, and her audience has steadily down-aged with her. Ruth Handler originally intended the doll for girls aged 8-13, but for a 13 year-old, there’s nothing glamorous about a doll that’s pretty much just like your older sister. Now girls are done with Barbie by age 6.
The other essential aspect of Barbie’s glamour was a certain aura of mystery that allowed you to fill in the details of her life in whatever wonderful ways you pleased. But Barbie got a little less mysterious in 1972, when designers traded her classic downward gaze for a direct stare. This made her more open and less enigmatic, and I think that had to change the relationship girls had with her. Now Barbie engaged with you; she was a friend and a playmate, like your favorite babysitter rather than an icon from the movies or TV.
Lately, Mattel has taken Barbie into uncharted territory — the realm of pure fantasy — which crosses the line from aspirational into imaginary. With dolls like Barbie Fairytopia and Mermaidia (complete with mermaid tail), they contradict her original purpose of working through real-life desires by projection, and offer something more akin to fairy tales. Other Barbies, such as Birthday Barbie, seem to have absorbed this influence, and are starting to look a lot like Disney characters. This may make them magical and enchanting to her now very young audience, but the loss of a connection to reality makes this least glamorous evolution so far.
Of course, none of this is to say that any one incarnation of Barbie is better than any other, or that glamour is necessarily even still relevant to Barbie’s role in American girl culture. After all, I came of age in an era when glamour was largely gone from the brand, and yet I loved my campy Barbie in her hot pink spandex and her fuschia dream house. But while my loyalty to 80s Barbie is unquestionable, there is little part of me that can’t help but wish for a renaissance of that old-school Barbie, the kind of doll that would grace the pages of the The Sartorialist, rather than the aisles of Forever 21.