30 November 2023

Barbie: well beyond bubble-gum pink!

Barbie is often associated with her bubble-gum pink wardrobe, Dream House, and sporty convertible. But during her long career she became much more sophisticated, even collaborating with top haute-couture designers.

The original 1959 Barbie

Barbie was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, a mother and visionary entrepreneur. In the long-ago 1950s, Handler was tired of watching her daughter project her dreams and aspirations onto paper dolls. At the time the market only offered baby dolls for girls, who were encouraged to foster the idea of themselves as mothers and caregivers. In contrast, her son had toys that allowed him to imagine himself as a firefighter, astronaut, doctor, and more. This inspired Ruth to create a doll that showed girls they had choices—that they could be anything.

Now, over 60 years later, Mattel’s Barbie has empowered girls to imagine themselves in aspirational roles, ranging from a princess to president. She also confronted criticism over the years from feminist groups for her unrealistic physique and idealistic lifestyle. But as a result, she has also evolved. Above all, she has raised her social consciousness, becoming increasingly worldly and inclusive.

Barbie has always been a “fashion doll“, but not all girls dream of being fashion models. Few of them could or would ever aspire to being a long-legged blonde bombshell. Over the years, diverse dolls reached the market, but they were always Barbie’s friends. It wasn’t until 1980 the Mattel introduced the first Black and Hispanic dolls names Barbie. Now there are Barbie dolls of every ethnicity possible. Today there are also wheelchair Barbies and even Barbies with Down Syndrome.

From fashion doll to the runways

Over the years, Barbie reflected contemporary trends in hair as well as in fashion. Her original high pony tail continues to inspire red carpet looks. All ethnic Barbie dolls had hair that reflected their origins: straight or curly; black, red, or blonde. And hairstyles changed to reflect the career, activity or personality.

Indeed, the Totally Hair Barbie continues to be the best-selling Barbie doll to date. She originally celebrated the loud fashions and big hair craze of the early ’90s and featured the longest hair ever on a Barbie doll. To celebrate the doll’s 25th anniversary, she was re-released in 2017.

The Totally Hair Barbie
Photo: Jeff O’Brien Stylist: Beverly Elam

1967 saw the launch of the first celebrity Barbie doll based on the British fashion model Twiggy. The original Twiggy doll had iconic Twiggy makeup and pixie hairstyle and wore a yellow, green, and blue vertical-striped mini dress and yellow boots. She was the beginning of a long line of dolls made to resemble celebrities and fashion’s elite.

Then, in 1985, Barbie ventured the world of haute couture when none other than Oscar de la Renta created a line of designer clothes for her. His signature glamorous jewel tones and metallic outfits sparked the imaginations and creativity of many budding designers. This was the start of many fashion collaborations to come.

“Barbie is an iconic image which continues to fascinate young women everywhere. As we consider all the positive advances women continue to make in society, Barbie represents that grace and style are also part of what can make a young woman’s life exciting and beautiful.”  – Derek Lam

Other designers who wooed Barbie

Over recent decades, fashionista Barbie has caught the eye and inspired an A-list of haute couture designers. For example, Bob Mackie was the first of many famous designers to collaborate with Barbie on a collector doll in 1990. Later, Christian Louboutin took his collaboration with Barbie to yet another level. In 2009 he unveiled a collection of dolls and shoes. And the “kicker” was that the shoes were available in both Barbie-size and life-size!

In order to take full stock of Barbie‘s influence on haute couture designers and pop culture, we have compiled a gallery of images of her sporting designer outfits on runways and more.

And what kind of fashionista would Barbie be if she couldn’t boast of her own collection of fabulous LBDs!

Over the past six decades, Barbie’s status as a reflection of the times has made her a cultural icon.

All photos courtesy of Mattel, Inc.


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