Some of my fondest childhood memories include Barbie. I know that is not something you might expect to hear from a self-proclaimed feminist, but it is true. Barbie celebrated 60 years on March 9 and I recently read Dressing Barbie by Carol Spencer. The author designed thousands of outfits for Barbie over her 35 year career at Mattel. In a perfect coincidence, last week when I flew to Florida to meet with Kent School alumni over spring break, I read an article on the 86-year-old Spencer in People magazine (my favorite airplane reading material, but that is another story).
The iconic (and sometimes controversial) Barbie doll was invented by Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel with her husband Elliott, whose daughter was named Barbara. Barbie was introduced as a teenage fashion model in 1959 at the American Toy Fair in New York City. Barbie originally came as a blonde or brunette, and I had the brunette version as a young girl. I loved my Barbie doll collection, but, most importantly, I loved her clothes. Barbie always dressed in the most current and exciting fashions of the day, and because it took two years for a design to become available in stores, Carol Spencer always had to be forward-thinking. Girls would certainly know if Barbie’s clothes were dated and out of fashion.
I was most definitely inspired by the fashions Barbie was sold with, but I had a secret weapon. My Nana. She was a seamstress by trade who specialized in creating custom bridal dresses in the 1960s and 1970s. She had a huge basement workshop in her home in Boston which served as her sewing room, complete with a large cutting table that my grandfather made for her of knotty pine. She had several sewing machines that were operated by foot pedals, and spools and spools of vibrantly colored thread hanging neatly in rows. I loved her sewing room and spent long hours watching her meticulous work. I witnessed many bridal party fittings, and was so proud of my grandmother’s handiwork. She was a designer and a perfectionist.
When Nana began to outfit my Barbies I knew I was the luckiest girl around. She made dresses, coats, skirts and slacks for my Barbie in the latest fabrics and fashions. Sometimes she made me and my Barbie matching outfits! My friends may have had more Barbie accessories – like the car, boat and dreamhouse, but I had the most clothes by far! When I saw the title of Carol Spencer’s book, Dressing Barbie, I immediately thought of my Nana in her sewing room. She dressed Barbie for many years as well.
Barbie does get a bad rap sometimes, especially as it relates to body image, with her height and her busty, small-waisted build – not to mention her feet, pre-formed to fit into high heels. Spencer realized the times had changed by the 90s and she wrote: I don’t think she was so out of proportion – people don’t understand doll scale. And, she’s a doll!
Spencer helped create many different career Barbies over the years and is proud of her work. She wrote: During the women’s movement all of us designers belonged to the National Organization for Women, but we didn’t flaunt it. It was this quiet goal to start promoting women. I wanted more choices for Barbie. I wanted more choices for myself.
Today, an estimated 100 Barbies are sold per minute. My favorite, and Mattel’s best-selling Barbie, was the Totally Hair Barbie sold in the 1990s. She wore a Pucci-esque mini dress designed by Spencer. Hair drama and high fashion in one doll.
Happy 60th Birthday, Barbie. Thank you, Carol Spencer, for your vision and fashion sense. And thank you, Nana, for making my Barbies the best-dressed dolls anywhere!
Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown, a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s, a member of the Board of Chesapeake Charities, and a member of the Education Committee of Sultana Education Foundation.