Barbie, the design of the American dream

As the fisrt live action film of the franchise hits the big screen, we trace the history of the world’s most famous doll through her design and social meanings.

A Barbie doll is sold every three seconds in the world. This figure alone is enough to capture the significance, not solely economical but most importantly cultural, the American toy has held for over 60 years. With more than 50 jobs and hundreds of exclusive looks, Barbie is now a bonafide timeless icon.

The key to Barbie’s extraordinary commercial success stems from a reflection on the symbiosis that design and social context should always retain. Ruth Handler, wife of Mattel’s co-founder Robert, had the intuition to add a third dimension to the paper dolls that her daughter Barbara enjoyed dressing up with ever-changing looks. An idea strictly connected to the florid moment the United States were experiencing, thanks to the exuberant lifestyle promoted in the aftermath of WWII. The wardrobe of Americans had become hip and distinguished since appearance was key in the development of socio-economical relationships. As a matter of fact, the 1964 ‘Round the Clock Gift Set’ sees Barbie coming with a whole closet, boasting an outfit for the day, one for the evening and one for her travels. 

Il primo modello di Barbie risale al 1959, ispirato nei tratti dalla concorrente Lili Doll.
The first Barbie from 1959 was inspired by the American pin-up aesthetic and by a competitor, the Lilli Doll

A design to narrate America

Barbie’s identity finds its origins in the Wasp culture of white, wealthy, Protestant Americans but also in that of JFK, who by the early 1960s had shaped a whole new lifestyle. Traits that, curiously enough, were conceived by a Jewish family that, perhaps as a consequence of its diversity, had immediately identified the canons of the idealised happiness promoted by American culture. 

Barbie, born Barbara Millicent Robert in homage to the name of the Handlers’ daughter (needless to say, her brother Kenneth was responsible for the name of historical partner Ken), came to life thanks to a figure ingrained in the American identity of the time: Jack Ryan, a Yale graduate with a past as a US government aerospace engineer later turned product designer.

La rara Barbie in divisa Chicago Cubs incarna l'iconografia americana.
The rare Barbie in a Chicago Cubs uniform embodies the American iconography

Barbie, the Americanism and the diversity

The doll that debuted on 9 March 1959 at the New York Toy Fair, however, took at least ten years to acquire the characteristic features that still define her to the present day. Initially, a Barbie with black hair and short pin-up fringe à la Betty Page was also available on the shelves, but it was eclipsed in no time by the overwhelming success of the blonde version. The skin was much more cerulean, and the eyebrows thin and arched, according to the make-up standards of the time. In fact, her features were reminiscent of the Lilli Doll, a toy based on the German comic strip of the same name published in the Bild-Zeitung newspaper in the mid-1950s. Little did the young fans know that the protagonist was a prostitute. 

Another trademark feature of Barbie is her smile, which also made its appearance in a second stage. More precisely in 1971 with the Malibu model, which is by many considered the first modern Barbie. It is indeed the doll that inspired the name of one of the most famous of its parodies, Malibu Stacy, created by Matt Gröening’s for The Simpsons and collected in secret by Smithers, Mr. Burns’ personal assistant.

La Malibu Stacy dei Simpson nasce come parodia-tributo alla Barbie Malibù del 1971. Foto: till da video.
The Simpson's Malibu Stacy doll was born as a tribute-parody to the Malibu Barbie from 1971. Photo: still from video.

Quintessentially American – we remember the Mid-Century Thanksgiving edition coming with a roasted turkey and the rare one in a Chicago Cubs uniform –, Barbie was able to embody, not without an explicit Dem attitude and vocation, the evolution of the spirit of the times. As a matter of fact, in 1968, at the height of the debate on race equality, came Christie, the first African-American doll of the franchise. However, one had to wait until 1980 to see the first Black Barbie, as well as a Hispanic one.

Even her houses and shops, which throughout the years have maintained a distinguished Mid-Century Modern feel, suggest that Barbie’s canons for interiors are those of the suburban and Californian post-War middle-class. Needless to say, they’re religiously hot pink. As a matter of fact, as reported by various media outlets, during the preparation of the set for the live action film a global shortage of fluorescent fuchsia paint was registered.

Barbie was also a protagonist of the evolving zeitgeist with her jobs. Among them, the sign language teacher, the veterinarian, the rapper, the UNICEF ambassador, and even her six runs for the White House. She even conquered the Moon in 1965, four years before Armstrong. A variety of models, which conceptually go beyond mere costume collectionism, that has recently been enriched with more body inclusiveness. Today, the Barbie line includes models with artificial limbs and wheelchairs, pointing out that disabilities can and should be normalised from childhood.

Dal 2021 la famiglia di Barbie si è allargata, diventando più inclusiva.
Since 2021 the Barbie family began more inclusive.

Capitalistic symbol or queer icon?

Barbie notably is one of the toys that nurtured one of the richest dedicated bodies of critical literature. Often accused of being a tool of American cultural colonialism (many of its exotic models are portrayed through the eyes of Western stereotypes) and of transmitting an ideal of feminine beauty dictated by the male gaze, Barbie has however been subject of neo-Marxist readings. As a result of these, she can be now seen as queer icon. One of the most vocal theorists on the subject is sociologist and youtuber Alexander Ávila, who sees in the animated film franchise of the 2000s a strong message of female self-determination, from the moment Barbie puts at the center of her routine the relationship with her many female friends rather than being dependant on her partner Ken. 

Similarly, the payoff for one of the live action movie’s campaigns states “She’s everything. He’s just Ken”. Her ultra-feminine aesthetic, now deconstructed, layered and processed through memetic, is reappropriated by new niches as well as becoming cross-generational. As Ávila suggests, Barbie & the Diamond Castle today is pure cottagecore.

Margot Robbie interpreta Barbie nel primo live action dedicato alla bambola Mattel. Foto: still da video.
Margot Robbie interpreta Barbie nel primo live action dedicato alla bambola Mattel. Foto: still da video

How many times, after all, we heard the phrase “is that a Barbie?”, referred to women channeling a doll-like aesthetic. In a society devoted to the image, the Barbie model has been fully applied to reality: not so much in the pursuit of the classic beauty canons promoted by the doll, but as in the search for a plastic aesthetic both in terms of body volumes and facial features. What is, we should in fact question, our real face today? The one we see when looking at ourselves in the mirror or the one shaped by social media filters, including the one released for the film? Nobody’s got a definitive answer. As a consequence, it only seems fair that the world’s most famous doll has finally made it in live action on the big screen.

The rejection of biological age, though, doesn’t unfold only through one’s body and clothes, but also with the celebration and consumption of childhood icons even during adulthood. Think of the Barbie line in collaboration with Moon Oral Beauty or the thematic cruise set up by Warner Bros on the occasion of the film. 

Barbie’s divorce

Sensual at best but never erotic, Barbie has also been a protagonist when it came to intercept the changing values and costumes in matters of sexuality and relationships. On the eve of Valentine’s Day 2004, with a press release Mattel announced Barbie’s separation from Ken after more than forty years. Only a few months later at the New York Toy Fair – where everything had begun – they introduced her new companion: Blaine Gordon, better known as “Cali Guy”. The doll fully embodied the surfer aesthetic of the early 2000s. Not a radical change, but a renewed return to the California beaches and origins of the franchise, reminiscent of the first Ken from 1961.

As early as 1977, Don Richard Cox noted in the Journal of Popular Culture how the doll was considered capable of influencing social values, not only in the transmission of an undoubtedly idealistic lifestyle, but also by encouraging female independence. A series of special models seem to confirm us so, such as the one dedicated to the singer and queer icon Cher, and the Ziggy Stardust Barbie, which celebrates an androgynous identity as a reference to David Bowie’s glam style in the 1970s.

Sempre al passo con i tempi, a inizio anni Duemila Barbie sceglie (anche se per pochi anni) un nuovo compagno, Blaine.
In the early 2000s Barbie divorced, choosing (although for a few years only) a new partner, Blaine.

Illustrious guests for an illustrious wardrobe

Collaborations are among the most fascinating gems dotting the Barbie universe. Sources of joy and torment for collectors, they seem to suggest that Barbie provides the pop culture consecration of a brand or personality. The first of these dates back to 1967, at the height of the Swinging London, when teenage fashion was turned upside down by Twiggy. The model became the first VIP face to shape Barbie's features, who introduced an unprecedented short haircut. 

Barbie’s closet therefore stands as an essential tool to read our recent history and culture. From the opulence of childhood dreams to the pauperism of her more conscious incarnations, from the 1992 Totally Hair Barbie, the best-selling doll in the history of the franchise, to the collaboration with Star Wars for a crazy Chewbacca Barbie. 

La Totally Hair Barbie del 1992 è il modello di maggior successo del franchise ultra decennale.
Totally Hair Barbie from 1992 is the best-selling model of the franchise, according to the Guinness World Record

Barbie and the fashion system

No wonder, then, that so many designers have passed by Mattel. Even if allegedly not directly involved, in 1968 Paco Rabanne inspired with his metallic and futuristic creations a limited edition promotional model for Island Steel. He was followed by Oscar De La Renta, who in 1984 became the first couturier to dress Barbie, and later by Calvin Klein who in 1996 created a street style-edged total denim look. Not to forget the model in collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent dedicated to his iconic Safari Jacket or the Karl Lagerfeld Barbie. Christian Louboutin, Dior, Givenchy, Coach, Vera Wang are other illustrious names that over the years participated in Barbie's wardrobe. Collaborations that led, in 2009 in New York, to Barbie's catwalk debut on the occasion of her 50th birthday.

On top of these, are the many collectors’ editions embellished with real diamonds such as Barbie & the Diamond Castle, a model released to promote the animated film of the same name and featuring 318 precious stones, which is now worth $94,800.

Embed from Getty Images

Paco Rabanne at work on an exclusive design for Barbie

In 1996 Barbie herself became a designer, once again breaking all records. Mattel sensed a gap in the computer games market, which until then had been a purely male affair. Barbie Fashion Designer, which initially was mildly welcomed by shops, sold one million copies within two years, setting an important precedent for what the industry defines as “games for girls”.

And if girls are always their parents’ little princesses, Barbie certainly could not miss out on dedicating a series to the sovereigns who made history with the Women of Royalty Series (2005), inclusive of, among others, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Marie Antoinette. Like a true queen, in 1989, Barbie celebrated her own Silver Jubilee sporting a power silver outfit with pronounced shoulder pads.

Today, almost 65 years from her birth, Barbie continues to be the talk of the town, always one step ahead, an undisputed champion of fashion and manners.

Opening image: Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are the protagonists of the first live action film dedicated to Barbie. Photo: Still from video.

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