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Barbie History: Barbie Fashion Style Over the Years

Did you know Mattel wanted to sell more Barbie clothing than dolls? That's why her proportions were so wild—the clothes make her look human!

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.

Friday Nite Date Barbie Fashion

Friday Nite Date Barbie Fashion

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.

Evening Splendour and Golden Girl Barbie Fashions

Evening Splendour and Golden Girl Barbie Fashions

Open Road Barbie Fashion accessories: foldable map, wedge shoes, sunglasses, and sweater

Open Road Barbie Fashion accessories: foldable map, wedge shoes, sunglasses, and sweater

Tennis, Anyone Barbie Fashion accessories: racquet, goggles, rule book, two balls, tennis shoes, and socks

Tennis, Anyone Barbie Fashion accessories: racquet, goggles, rule book, two balls, tennis shoes, and socks

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.

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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.

Three pieces from the Pink & Pretty Barbie outfit: faux fur wrap, skirt/cape trimmed with faix fur, and pink bodice.

Three pieces from the Pink & Pretty Barbie outfit: faux fur wrap, skirt/cape trimmed with faix fur, and pink bodice.

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?!

Sources

  • 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.

Comments

rajashree on December 17, 2012:

I am glad to say that the Barbie world is rocking now.

just i want to than u to present it and i too enjoyed the cute hub.

Rachel Vega (author) from Massachusetts on March 23, 2012:

Thanks, Susan M! I've found the same thing... when my mom bought us the dolls in the 80's, she did make some of the clothes as we couldn't really find what we wanted -- and her clothes were a lot better made. :-) Now, as a collector, I am running into the same thing you mention.

Thank you so much for the in-depth comment. I really appreciate it.

susanm23b on March 23, 2012:

Great article! I love Barbie and grew up with Barbie. I especially love the variety of outfits she had. Later, when I started buying Barbie items for my daughters, it seemed to me that the emphasis had really moved from clothes to more dolls. When I was little, the clothes were beautiful and well made. You didn't have a dozen Barbies. You had a few and a large stash of clothes. When I was buying Barbies in the late 90's and 2000s, there were so few cute outfits. They (the company) seemed to just want you to buy another doll.

I enjoyed this very much! Voted up!

Rachel Vega (author) from Massachusetts on March 14, 2012:

Hi Simone! I'm so glad you enjoyed the Hub. And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg... I chose styles representative of each decade, but I really wanted to list everything! :-)

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on March 14, 2012:

I've always been fascinated by the beautiful outfits Barbie wears- it was so much fun to read more about their different iterations over the years! Awesome Hub.

Rachel Vega (author) from Massachusetts on March 12, 2012:

Hey, Robin! My pleasure... I could talk about clothes all day! About the 60'2 accessories, I completely agree. Those shears with Sweater Girl are a real find.

Robin Edmondson from San Francisco on March 12, 2012:

It's fun to see the changes in styles and how they adapted for Barbie. Thanks for the decade by decade guide to Barbie fashion! The accessories of the 60s are amazing!

Rachel Vega (author) from Massachusetts on March 12, 2012:

Oh, Silverlily555! There is still so much to find out. :-) I've been collecting for years now and I'm constantly learning more about her. :-) Thanks for commenting!

Evelyn J. Washington from OAKLAND, CA on March 12, 2012:

The world of Barbie is so fascinating. What else can anyone say?

Rachel Vega (author) from Massachusetts on March 11, 2012:

Thanks, Brainy Bunny! I love that visual too. :)

Brainy Bunny from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania on March 11, 2012:

I love the stats at the end of your Hub -- just imagine all those teeny tiny Barbie clothes circling the earth! Travel costumes, indeed.

Rachel Vega (author) from Massachusetts on March 11, 2012:

Thanks, flashmakeit! Great to see you and I'm glad you liked it.

flashmakeit from usa on March 11, 2012:

I enjoyed the cute hub.

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