History of Barbie

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A8816. Photography by Jean-Francois Lanzarone © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

From time-to-time curators are asked to speak on radio about objects in their collections. Last week I went into the Sydney studio of the popular ABC 702 drive time presenter, Richard Glover, as part of their Self Improvement Wednesday section of the show. My topic was the history of Barbie.

Barbie is the product of the American toy company, Mattel, founded by Elliot and Ruth Handler. In the 1950s Ruth had the inspiration for a fashion doll after watching her daughter playing with cut-out dolls and putting on different clothes. Handler said in her 1994 autobiography that the whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices. But when she took the concept of an adult doll to her marketing team at Mattel, they baulked at the idea. They said that little girls liked playing with baby dolls, to practise at being mothers. And anyway, what mother would want their children to have a doll with an adult figure?

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Bild Lilli on display at the Prague Toy Museum. Image courtesy of Phillip Simpson.

It took her nearly three years, but Ruth finally convinced her marketers that the doll should be made. A voluptuous European doll provided the early inspiration for Barbie. In the 1950s the Handlers were on holidays in Europe and Ruth’s daughter Barbara spotted a fashion doll called Bild Lilli. Lilli had begun as a racy German cartoon in 1953 and was later manufactured and marketed as an adult novelty doll. At that stage she wasn’t thought appropriate for children. This soon changed and the doll was sold to children all over Europe complete with changes of outfits. Mattel later quietly bought all the patent rights to Lilli in 1964 and production of the doll stopped. Back in America, Ruth Handler thought Lilli had the required look for Mattel’s own fashion doll and gave her a makeover. She named the doll “Barbie”, after her own daughter (Barbara), and she was launched at the New York Toy Fair on 9th March, 1959. This date is now considered Barbie’s official birthday.

The other toy manufacturers were very sceptical of an adult doll, but how wrong they were. Mattel launched an advertising campaign for Barbie on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show. Barbie set a new sales record for Mattel in its first year on the market, selling 351,000 dolls at $3 each. Barbie’s success led to Mattel becoming a publicly-owned company in 1960 and 5 years later was on the Fortune list of the 500 largest US industrial companies. Barbie is now the biggest-selling doll and biggest-selling toy in history. If all the Barbie dolls and her friends and family were placed head-to-toe they would circle the earth over 7 times.

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Fur trim Barbie doll clothing set, A8816-10. Photography by Nitsa Yioupras © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

In the 1960s a series of novels were published by Random House to create a back story for Barbie and her family details were revealed. Her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, but she’s always been known as just Barbie. Barbie’s parents were George and Margaret Roberts of the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin, USA. She attended Willows High School and later we learn that Barbie attend Manhattan International High School in New York City, also a made up high school. Barbie began as a teenage fashion model and Mattel designers travelled to the Paris collections to study haute couture outfits. Her gowns, costumes, dresses and sportswear were all modelled on Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent creations.

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Barbie doll clothes set, A8816-7. Photography by Nitsa Yioupras © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

Mattel said she was given the voluptuous measurements and dimensions (large chest and tiny waist) because it made her clothes sit well. Over the years Barbie’s had over 50 leading fashion designers working on her enormous wardrobe, including the likes of Burberry, Calvin Klein, Versace, Armani and even Vivien Westwood.

The legendary romance between Barbie and Ken began in 1961 when they met on the set of their first TV commercial. Ken’s full name is Ken Carson. The Ken doll was named after Ruth and Elliot Handler’s son, Kenneth. Both the Handler children were said to be very embarrassed that their names had been given to toys. In the first year of production Ken’s hair was made of felt but was replaced with a plastic-moulded haircut when the felt hair fell off when it got wet. Ken got a more muscular body in the late 1960s and in 1971 a “Walk Lively” Ken saw him manage a few dance moves. In 1975 “Now Look Ken” came with shoulder length hair, an interchangeable beard, sideburns and two Dennis Lillee moustaches. Ken’s arm muscles popped up in 1981 with “All Star Ken”.

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Doll’s playset, ‘Barbie and the Rockers’, 2009/35/2. Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

Together Barbie and Ken have been portrayed as romantic couples like Scarlett and Rhett from Gone with the Wind, Romeo and Juliet, and even Lily and Herman Munster, but sadly Barbie and Ken broke up in 2004 after being together for 43 years, but they are still good friends. There were hints that it was because of Ken’s reluctance to get married. While Barbie and Ken were having a break Barbie became involved with Blaine, an Australian bogie board rider. But in 2006 there were hints that Barbie and Ken might just get back together again.

One of the reasons Barbie has remained popular is because she’s changed with the times. She began in 1959 as pony-tailed teenage model with dark eye make-up. Up to the mid-1960s she turned very chic with a distinct haircut known as the Jackie Kennedy bubble cut. During the disco era she was dressed in glitter, and when Jane Fonda got into exercise Barbie donned knitted leg warmers.

Barbie’s face changed over time too. In the 1960s she had fine, pert features and a distant look. This changed to more of a baby look with large round eyes, puffy baby cheeks, and lots of hair, and glitter. From 1977 she was given a smile, which made her look more friendly, introduced with “Superstar Barbie”. These changes reflected the much younger market for Barbies from around 3 to 10 years of age. Another change occurred in 1997 when Barbie’s amazing proportions changed – her waist got wider and her chest got smaller.

Barbie’s had over 500 careers. After modelling during the 1960s she became a ballerina, a nurse and an air hostess, followed by a fashion editor and student teacher. When a man walked on the moon, Barbie became an astronaut. By the 1970s she was a surgeon and an Olympic athlete, in the 1980s she was an aerobics instructor, UNICEF ambassador, and had her own pop group, Barbie and the Rockers. By the 1990s her CV included a Summit Diplomat, Ice Capades Star, rap dancer, presidential candidate and a Harley-Davidson rider. When soldiers went to the Gulf War Barbie became a Desert Storm medic. In 2000 she participated in the Sydney Olympics in her green and gold tracksuit, and it was great to see her competing at the Paralympics in a racing wheelchair. Barbie’s been portrayed as a number of celebrity personalises, Twiggy was the first in 1967 and more recently Barbie has become a German head-of-state Angela Merkel doll. Only a few months ago I visited a toy museum in Prague that claimed to have the world’s largest collection of Barbies. In fact, there were over 500 on display, all in different outfits.

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Harley-Davidson Barbie, 2003/60/1. Photography by Margaret Simpson © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

Last year it was Barbie’s 50th birthday. How did she celebrate it? She had a fashion show in New York, there were Barbie parties in real life Malibu dream homes, and Volkswagen of America created a customized pink VW Beetle Convertible with rhinestones and a motorized vanity in the boot. In New York a toy shop sold reproductions of the first Barbie at the original price of US$3, and in Europe, she got a pink Fiat 500 “Bambino” car complete with different-coloured lip glosses in the glove box.

And one of the more recent in the Barbie range is “Totally Stylin’ Tattoos Barbie” which comes with over 40 tiny tattoos to adhere. This reflects the growing trend in body art today.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

3 thoughts on “History of Barbie

  1. Anne-Marie

    Enjoyed the History of Barbie post. I’d be interested to hear if you or readers think Bruno Benini’s photograph of two mannequin’s in boxes is Barbie-inspired. See it in the ‘Creating the look: Benini and fashion photography’ exhibition currently on display at the Powerhouse Museum or on Anna Battista’s blog post, ‘Bravo, Bruno: rediscovering Bruno and Hazel Benini’s works’:
    http://www.irenebrination.typepad.com/irenebrination_notes_on_a/2010/07/bruno-hazel-benini.html
    or even on the Museum’s online collection database:
    http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=398715&search=bruno+benini&images=&c=&s=

  2. Anne-Marie

    Interestingly the ‘Barbie’ boxes used in Bruno’s photograph were recycled from a fashion window display designed by Hazel Benini where fashion mannequins were placed in five similar boxes. The two boxes seen in the Bruno’s photograph were recycled when this display came down, and Bruno suggested to Hazel that they could be recycled for a fashion shoot rather than just thrown out.

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