Perhaps the best word to describe the iconic children’s toy, known simply as Barbie, is “invincible.” In the battle waged to win the hearts and minds of little girls (and more than a few boys) everywhere, the toy battleground is littered with thousands of battered beauties, all whom failed to knock this iconic princess from her lofty pedestal. In name recognition alone, real people like Princess Diana and Mother Theresa don’t hold a candle to Barbie, a doll that, for over the past five decades, always seems to emerge unscathed and ready to show the world why she is the queen of style, the princess of fashion, and the most beloved toy that perhaps the world has ever known.
Barbie’s history is a colorful one. Her roots stem from a German comic strip character named “Lili” – a blond head-turner with measurements to die for. Thanks to Lili’s popularity in printed form, someone decided that she might make a good doll, although perhaps not one that was appropriate for small children. With her risqué wardrobe and adult makeup, she would reside, not on toy store shelves, but within adult novelty shops where she was likely to be sold as a gag gift. Still, the idea of an adult female doll, rather than the typical infant representation was an intriguing one and all it would take was a good dose of American ingenuity to take the idea and run with it.
The American pioneers responsible were Ruth and Elliot Handler, who ran a small garage-based toy company called Mattel. Ruth noticed how much her daughter Barbara loved to play with her baby dolls and wondered if little girls might enjoy a companion that was a little more grown up, more like an older sister/role model than a drooling toddler who needed to be fed and have their diapers changed. They took notice of the German Lili and her appealing figure and created a brunette doll that they introduced at the 1959 New York Toy Fair. It seemed only natural to borrow the doll’s name from their daughter and their creation was christened “Barbie Millicent Roberts.” With a flowing ponytail, eyes that looked coyly to one side and a fashionable one-piece bathing suit, the buxom beauty known as Barbie made her debut.
Little girls thought Barbie was pretty cool; their mothers were less convinced. Barbie didn’t fit their preconceived notions of what a children’s doll should be. With her stylish wardrobe and suggestive womanly figure, breasts included, Barbie was a little more mature than conservative parents of the era were comfortable with. Mattel, however, was quick to point out that Barbie was certainly a positive influence in a little girl’s life. With her refined fashion sense, apparent wealth, and drop-dead good looks, she was something for a young girl to aspire towards. Looking back, it might seem a tad superficial but, regardless, it worked and public sentiment towards Barbie was on the upswing. Here’s a clip of one of the first Barbie commercials ever produced:
And as Barbie’s popularity grew, so did her wardrobe choices. Soon Barbie would be adorned with fashions straight from a Parisian runway, including an “Easter Parade” line and “Gay Parisienne” ensemble. But clothing designer Charlotte Johnson didn’t stop there, not by a long shot. Barbie would soon be taking fashion tips from the beloved First Lady Jackie Kennedy and mimicking her short-clipped locks and affinity for pink satin.
Barbie would also finally get a companion of the opposite sex with the introduction of a slightly taller male doll. Like his female counterpart, “Ken” would take his name from the Handler’s son. She would also get a couple of female companions to pal around with – Midge, her slightly less fashionable best friend, and Skipper, her younger sister. A few other innovations were just around the corner as well. The addition of eyes that opened and closed was very short-lived but the knee joints that allowed her legs to bend and therefore walk, would open up all sorts of possibilities for the little beauty queen, as would the “twist and turn” torso that finally allowed the poor girl to sit down once in a while. She would also be given a pal who was markedly more chic than that wallflower Midge, a fellow model named Twiggy, fashioned after the real-life celebrity with the same name. And finally, in 1968, the world finally heard Barbie speak, as a version was introduced that allowed her to say six different phrases when a string was pulled at the back of her neck.
But Barbie was always about cutting edge fashion and her wardrobe has always mirrored the trends of the times. In the mid-to-late 60s, she took her cues from the British Invasion with colorful mod outfits and grew her hair long again. In the 70s, she was offered a more varied assortment of duds, including everything from outfits to disco the night away to appropriate Southern California beach attire as part of the Malibu Barbie line. Tucked away in her closet were even a granny dress and prairie outfit for those times when being conservative was more appropriate. And when the Olympics hit in 1976, she was ready to compete in gymnastics, figure skating, and skiing events with her very own line of Gold Medal attire. And with the purchase of a Growing Pretty Hair Barbie, youngsters had the ability to adjust her magic ponytail to any length deemed appropriate. Barbie was also made far more flexible with the addition of bendable wrists, ankles and elbows to ensure that there was no activity that Barbie couldn’t excel at.
In the late 70s, Barbie became more career minded and with the purchase of a few accessories, was ready to show her talents as a ballerina, doctor and even a stewardess. Apparently, these career paths helped her overcome her shyness as well, as her eyes no longer looked shyly to the side but finally made direct eye contact with the world. Of course, vocational training aside, Barbie was no mere working girl. Her true calling was recognized with the introduction of Superstar Barbie, tipping the hat to the iconic celebrity she had become. Looking a little more confident, a little more friendly, she was eager to strut her stuff on her very own, remote controlled plastic catwalk, displaying the beauty and grace of a woman who has come into her own, and knows it.
By now her iconic status was assured and collectors began taking serious notice. Ever mindful of this, Mattel was ready to deliver a number of special addition Barbie dolls, just ready to adorn the shelves of her devoted followers. 1986 saw the introduction of the porcelain Blue Rhapsody Barbie, followed by the equally collectable Happy Holidays line in 1986 and a series of vintage reproductions in 1994 to celebrate her 35th anniversary.
But lest you think that the 80s and 90s were all about the special addition Barbie dolls, rest assured that good ol’ standard issue Barbie was doing just fine in her own right. With worldwide appeal, it was only natural that African-America and Hispanic would hit the market, along with Italian, British, and Parisian collections to give her more of an international flair. She also delved into western apparel and was even given a trusty steed named Dallas to gallop around town in. And ever mindful of the first lady’s fashion sense, Barbie was fitted with a red dress in the 80s, just like the one wore by Nancy Reagan. Artist, Andy Warhol even took notice of Barbie during her 25th anniversary celebration in New York and would soon release a portrait. In recent years, Barbie has taken a turn towards designer gowns, fashioned by some of the biggest names in the industry, including Christian Dior, Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, and Oscar de la Renta. The Hollywood Legends collection has allowed her to dress like some of the biggest screen characters of yesteryear, including Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Scarlet O‘Hara.
Into the new millenium, the merchandising has shown no signs of slowing. Take a look at this commercial from 2008, which offers a glimpse of the 21st century Barbie, ready to enjoy a day at the beach.
All of this merchandising is simply a testament to the overwhelming popularity and longevity of Barbie. To those that question her iconic status, consider these facts. Mattel is actually the largest manufacture of women’s clothing in the world, thanks to Barbie. A million Barbie dolls are sold, each week. And even more astoundingly, a staggering 90% of all girls in the last half-century have had their hands around a Barbie Doll. There simply isn’t another toy that comes close. Magazines, museums, you name it. Barbie is as much a part of popular culture as Uncle Sam or Apple Pie. And for all those dolls poised and ready to give her a run for her money, beware. Many have tried to surpass the legendary Barbie and none have succeeded. Yeah, she is pretty much invincible.
We suspect that you have a few memories of your own, considering that Barbie has been a part of our collective world for over a half-century now. Tell us about your favorite Barbie, and if applicable, the accessories and amenities that your particular doll possessed, in our comments section – as we tip our hats to this icon of the toy world, the likes of which will never be surpassed.