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Barbie History: Barbie Fashion Style Over the Years
Everyone wears clothes, and Barbie is no different.
When the original Barbie was being designed in the 1950s, the world was still attempting to figure out the adjustments of life, post-World War II. Rationing had ended, and with that came the hope for a flourishing future. And Barbie's clothes followed suit!
"Even for daywear, women had the impetus to look like queens, and everyone, even those women who could only admire the garments from afar, wanted them."
-Natalia Aspesi, journalist
Barbie's New Look, courtesy of Christian Dior
Nothing brought to mind a flourishing future like Dior's New Look, with its yards and yards of fabric and rich-looking, glamorous accessories. Women all over embraced their re-found glamour... and their daughters noticed.
Barbie fashions, 1959-1964
Beginning with Barbie's inception in 1959 her fashions stayed within that glamorous, couture, "New Look" niche.
Even the Friday Nite Date fashion, made of simple light blue corduroy, had a skirt that poufed out well past Barbie's hips in deference to the black wool skirt of Dior's Bar suit that inspired it. Suburban Shopper, executed in blue cotton and lace, had the same nipped waist and full skirt. One errant breeze and her skirt could be blown right over Barbie's head!
But there were also outfits cut more narrowly. Evening Splendour, a gold brocade strapless sheath dress with matching coat and real fur trim on the cuffs and hat (Golden Girl), is one of the most well-known fashions. Sweater Girl featured a narrow wrap skirt of clean cut gray flannel with an all-covered-up turtleneck sweater with matching cardigan.
Barbie's accessories, 1959-1960s
The accessories from Barbie's costumes of 1959 through 1966 differentiate themselves from accessories of later decades by their originality and high quality.
Here is a list of some of these now-rare beauties:
- Three tiny balls of yarn, knitting needles, and scissors that opened and closed in a cork bowl with a "How to Knit" book with Sweater Girl
- Velvet handbag, short gloves, and pearl necklace and earrings in Evening Splendour
- Straw hat with scarf, cork wedge shoes, a foldable map, and workable toggles on the coat in Open Road
- Tennis shoes, socks, goggles, rule book, tennis racquet, and two balls in Tennis, Anyone
- Eyeglasses and a portfolio with real design sketches in Busy Gal
- Barbie Mix 'N Match Fashion Paks sported embroidered pieces, real angora trim, and special utensils, as well as an individual hanger for wearable clothes.
"If the Fifties were the period of burdensome garments loaded with ostentation, of whimsicalities and exaggerations... then the Sixties were the period of a more familiar and widespread well-being that had more to do with exisential security."
- Doretta Davonzo Poli, historian
Barbie Fashions in the 1960s
Starting in the early 1960s, Barbie's clothes began to be more "functional", progressive, and sporty. Carol Spencer joined Mattel's creative division under Charlotte Buettenback Johnson's tutelage and increased the growth of Barbie's wardrobe even faster, which was fortunate for Barbie's growing circle of friends.
These outfits tended toward the mod style of the decade (i.e. clear raincoats, bright colors, geometric designs, and vinyl) like Fashion Shiner and were also modeled on Jackie Bouvier Kennedy's impeccable style (pillbox hats, pale suits, and A-line overcoats) like Red Flare.
Live Action Barbie commercial, 1971
Barbie Fashions in the 1970s
But the good feelings and free spending of the 1960s ended with the recession during the first few months of 1971. Practicality was now the name of the game, and a fashion hierarchy had begun to emerge, categorizing social groups and types by their distinct styles of clothing.
Fashionable youngsters wore bell-bottomed jeans, fringe, and other casual, fun clothing as evidenced by the outfits included with Live Action Barbie, which came with a microphone and record album.
Barbie Fashions in the 1980s
Starting in 1980, designing for Barbie became a free-for-all, with a collection by American designer Carol Spencer based on science fiction, lamé dresses by Oscar de la Renta, and the concept of "fashion as theater" by Billy Boy, a French designer.
Golden Dreams, Pink & Pretty, and Barbie and the Rockers epitomized the 80's with their "more is more" attitude and glitzy, ruffled styles with multiple pieces.
Barbie Fashions in the 1990s
In the 1990s, Mattel sought to draw attention to Barbie's connection to international fashions now en vogue, such as with their "Designer" series. Designers for this line included Nicole Miller, Christian Dior, Donna Karan, Escada, and Calvin Klein.
Also, Mattel changed Barbie's body in 1997 to allow a wider waist and legs that could swivel more, with the approach that the design would better fit fashions designs of the day. Unfortunately for people owning older dolls, new clothes wouldn't fit their dolls again until the 2000s.
Barbie Fashions, 2000-2010
In 2000, Silkstone Barbies came out, with another new body... then in 2004, Mattel launched the Model Muse Barbie mold as well. These dolls can wear clothes produced before 1997.
In 2004, Mattel launched the Fashion Fever line, with its shimmery fabrics and multitude of new accessories cut for a distinctly young group of Barbie lovers (and Barbie's 1997 body).
Barbie Fashion Fever Spring 2004 Collection Commercial
Significance of Barbie Clothes
There is much signifiance in what Barbie has worn throughout her life, and it teaches us about ourselves -- what we find beautiful, garish, tacky, or perfect. One thing is for sure -- Mattel never claimed to make all the outfits in Barbie's wardrobe purely for "nice girls"... they only follow the trends, exploiting whatever style is popular at one moment in time. Hey, Barbie's first job was as a model after all, and models need up-to-the-minute clothing!
The good news is that because Barbie is inanimate, by dressing her in the right clothes she can be whatever you want her to be at that moment... be it model, nurse, astronaut, teacher, presidential candidate, or chanteuse. In the immortal words of the 1980s Barbie campaign, "We Girls Can Do Anything. Right, Barbie?"
Facts about Barbie Fashions
- From 1959 through 1997, more than 115 million yards of fabric have been used to manufacture clothes for Barbie and her friends, and they would form a chain that could circle the earth more than 11 times if laid head to toe.
- 53 dressmakers, 37 milliners, 21 hairdressers, and about 20 accessory production houses worked together to dress 1/4 life size mannequins to market the "New Look."
- Barbie and Ken Doll's Travel Costumes from 1964 were re-envisioned using similar fabrics and accessories in the late 1980's.
Barbie's body has changed?!
Do you think Mattel did the right thing by changing Barbie's body mold in 1997 to thicker hips?
- Lord, M.G. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994
- Tosa, Marco. Barbie: Four Decades of Fashion,. Fantasy, and Fun. New York: Harry N Abrams, Inc., 1998.