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The History of Barbie

With the release of the anticipated Barbie movie this week, it’s time to take ourselves back through the history of this doll and how it became the Barbie that we know today. Barbie has shaped the world and become a symbol of empowerment for women all over. The doll itself has gone through a lot of iterations. Every decade or so, Barbie gets a new makeover, a few alterations here and there; this is done purposefully to define the world that surrounded the doll at that time.

When we are talking about toys, specifically dolls, we are talking about tiny historical snapshots of cultural significance. The definition of a toy itself is something that a child can aspire to and relate to. Barbie showcased what adult women were actually doing in the world, covering topics such as: What jobs did they occupy? What were they wearing? What kind of hair did they have? What did their everyday makeup look like? Were high heels common? If so, how tall were the heels? Did they wear a lot of jewelry? Or did women accessorize through sunglasses and scarves instead? It tells you a lot about societal standards, which is why it is so interesting. When we deep dive into dolls, we deep dive into fashion and child development.

The first ever Barbie: Number 1 Barbie.

Starting off with 1959's number one Barbie. Surprisingly enough, people claimed the doll was pornographic. It was obscene to the male audience that a child could own a curvy doll in a swimsuit with no husband; in addition to that, it was stated that this Barbie had her own house, which she obtained from her successful occupation as a fashion model. For women, this was a giant leap in women's power. However, some mothers feared that their children would be influenced by the doll's promiscuous and informal appearance. This was a time when women of a certain social class mostly didn't have jobs, so being well-groomed and beautiful was of huge importance to them. Simply acquiring a husband meant they would have security, a home, and food. Most of the women started as being uncomfortable with this doll, but eventually, they accepted and considered it as a tool for their child to discover their own sense of style, fashion, and beauty since the marketing scheme of this doll was that children were encouraged to style the Barbie to their liking. The doll was sold for 250 dollars, and the outfits would be sold for 2 - 5 dollars each.

Bubble Cut Barbie

From 1959 to the early 60s, this Barbie with a cropped haircut was released. There was a cultural significance of women with short hair. Think of Betty Rizzo in Grease; Rizzo was portrayed as the bad girl because she had shorter hair in comparison to the other female characters in the movie. During the early 60s, the quality level of Barbie’s clothing was at a sky high. The clothing pieces would come with real working zippers; the pieces were meant to be as realistic as they could possibly be. This line of Barbie would become the last line in which the facial features still resemble the original Barbie doll.

Twist And Turn Barbie

The 60s were the time when Twiggy became the it girl of the moment. 60s-mid Brady Bunch fashion was very in, and that is when Barbie was released with a new face. Twist and Turn Barbie, or TNT, has physical features that the previous Barbie dolls did not have. This new capability excited teenagers of America; not only were they excited about creating movements, but they were also excited about the new possibilities that came with dressing the Barbie. This Barbie has her waist cut on an axis which means that the outfits could now be made to be more versatile and lively. The 60s were also a time of the retro movement, so sparkly going-out outfits were created in accordance with the type of lifestyle that was trendy at the time. Another interesting detail about this Barbie is how it came with real lashes, showcasing how women were more experimental and how they weren’t afraid to put on thicker makeup.

Living Barbie

These 1970 Barbies were meant to be a toned-down version of the TNT Barbie. In comparison, this Barbie is a little less pointed; she has a little more chubby cheeks to showcase a sweet aura. This softening look of Barbie would eventually become more apparent in the years to come. The dramatic arched eyebrow of the 1959 Barbie is now gone, and the side glance is now more of a curious kind of glance. She has a different body type as well; not only could she move from side to side, she could actually bend. This Barbie would be of significant importance, as it resulted in the now infamous broken wrist feature of the doll. Actress Maureen McCormick starred in a commercial for Living Barbie where she had the doll with her hand out, and Barbie had never had a broken wrist before. Now Barbie could move her hands up; she could have her hands out; she could swivel; she could do all types of hand movements. Not only that, this Barbie doesn’t have quite the high heels that the previous models had. This Barbie has flatter feet, and the footwear that was released around this line were boots instead of stilettos. It is interesting how this allowance of mobility correlates with the time when women had achieved freedom of choice.

Malibu Barbie

Another significant line of Barbie was the Malibu Barbie that came out in 1971. Imagine the 60s when the Beatles were at their height of popularity, and now we are moving into the beginning of what will shift into the early 70s Beach Bunny California craze. This is when we first get women wearing way less makeup and the hair long and straight. Around this time, the average mother would have a bubble cut or big curly hair, and teenagers were starting to be into long, straighter hairstyles. This would become the beginning of young women expressing their different preferences of style as opposed to the ones from their mothers. An important detail of this doll is how it looks straight and not to the right side like the previous Barbies. Women were expected to be submissive, and they were barely encouraged to have careers. A change of eye direction showed that women are capable of diving into the real world and having careers. At this point, we have Carol Spencer designing the Barbie dolls; she said, “Now that we have women designing for Barbie, we had the world being like we’re not ready for that, that’s a little too racy, that’s weird. Now that we have Barbie looking at the camera, she’s like I’m here, I’m a woman, I have freedom.” The Malibu Barbie would eventually become the biggest-selling Barbie of the time.

Superstar Barbie

Superstar Barbie was a huge reset; her face is completely different from the other ones before her. Superstar Barbie came out in 1977 when Studio 54 was all the rage. Everything was about glamor, disco, sequins, and boas; everything was elevated and dressed up. This is where Barbie was first sold in a long gown; she has a boa with her and a bright blue eyeshadow. She is bringing the glamour back. This Barbie starts to actually look like the modern Barbie we have now. She was sold next to Superstar Ken, who was also glammed up with a disco suit and sunglasses. This is the first Barbie where she is positioned with bent arms, so this is where we start to get the stereotype of Barbie having arms like that.

The First Black Barbie

Between the late 70s and early 80s, there is one crucial moment we can not skip over, the world has changed for the better, and one of the big steps that Mattel took was to come out with the first black Barbie. “She’s black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” were the taglines printed on the packaging. This Barbie came with a hair comb and a pick; she came with a necklace and a twisting waist. Before 1980, there had been a black Francie but never a black Barbie. It was a very important move; Mattel wanted to spread the message that Black women are equally important to their white counterparts.


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