With a bouncy ponytail, cat-eyes, red lips, and striped maillot, Barbie appeared for the first time on this day in 1959. The teen model caused a stir at the American International Toy Show in New York that year, a far cry from the baby dolls of decades if not centuries past. Created by Ruth Handler and distributed by the company she owned with husband Elliot, Mattel, Barbie was the first doll ever created in the States that resembled an adult.
Named after the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara, Barbie sold for a mere three dollars at the time, which would be a little over today. Toy executives outside of Mattel–many of them men–were skeptical that the doll would gain any traction. But in the first year alone over 350,000 Barbies were sold, and, in fact, Mattel became so successful that the company went public the following year. Billions of the doll, her friends and family included, have been sold since.
In Barbie’s beginnings as a fashion model, her early outfits were inspired by Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, and the toy’s designers actually studied how couturiers made the original garments in Paris. Ever in touch with fashion history, the first celebrity Barbie ever created was Twiggy, in 1967. Oscar de la Renta became Barbie’s first official design partner in 1985, which led to a wealth of collaborations in the decades following, from Ralph Lauren to Rei Kawakubo and so many more.
Barbie’s constantly changing look made her a sign of the times. This became especially true as she took on more diverse cultural representations: Mattel’s first black doll, Christie, appeared in 1968, though diverse dolls named Barbie appeared later in 1980. This past year, CR contributor Shiona Turini even worked with the brand to create a new array of black dolls this year for Black History Month.
Beginning in 2016, Mattel also introduced a variety of body types and abilities to reflect more of the population. The doll’s original proportions–with her large bust, tiny waist, and long legs–had been long criticized for their likely impossible beauty standards, that if a person Barbie might have to walk on all fours. But the new dolls include multiple, more realistic shapes and heights, from tall to petite to curvy, in addition to the original body, that also represent the change in Americans’ standards of beauty.
To Ruth Handler, Barbie was always a representative of the idea that women had choices, though Barbie has not been without her detractors, with feminist groups leveling criticisms at her proportions and her career choices beginning in the 1970s. Barbie has famously had over 200 careers in her lifetime. Many of those roles she had long before women held such positions in large numbers, if at all–she was an astronaut in 1965, for example, four years before a man landed on the moon; a surgeon when only five percent of American women were employed as physicians; and she’s run for president every year since 1992. Barbie also had her own dream home in 1962, before American women could even have a credit card without a man’s signature (this would change in 1975, with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act). Barbie meant possibilities beyond just being a mother, counter to what baby dolls of years past would perhaps have had girls believe. With Barbie’s Shero collection of 2015, dolls of groundbreaking women like Ava DuVernay and Eva Chen became part of the Barbie family, along with historical figures like Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart in 2018.
Today, Barbie remains an icon, an indelible part of pop culture commemorated in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History who’s also been painted by Andy Warhol, inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, showed on her very own New York Fashion Week runway, and even inspired the issue 14 cover of CR. “Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future,” Ruth Handler said in 1977. Sixty-one years after Barbie’s debut, her possibilities are still endless.END
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createdAt:Mon, 09 Mar 2020 14:32:04 +0000