Maybe you’ve heard there’s a Barbie movie coming out?
Well, this isn’t about that. It is, however, about the 11½ inches of intellectual property that inspired all the madness: the doll itself.
You know the one. Often blond, always smiling, occasionally naked and neglected at the bottom of a toy chest? Chances are you do: According to Mattel, more than 100 dolls are sold every minute, and quite a few minutes have elapsed since Barbie made her debut, at a toy industry trade show, in 1959.
Just as remarkable as the ways the doll has changed since then are the ways it hasn’t. Like the characters on “Sesame Street” or “South Park,” Barbie exists alongside us without quite aging with us — reflecting our times, but not our wrinkles.
That adaptive consistency may play a role in maintaining her cultural ubiquity (alongside her literal ubiquity), for while the things that make Barbie Barbie may get a face lift every few years, the DNA remains unchanged.
From her hair to her feet, her portfolio of properties to her fleet of automobiles, practically everything in Barbie’s tiny plastic world bears her unmistakable signature. How? It’s all about the visuals.
Turns Out, It Doesn’t Grow Back
Since Barbie first hit the market, rocking a ponytail and curly micro-bangs, her hair has undergone countless changes, from her feathery bouffants and bobs of the 1960s to her “flip” styles of the ’70s. Today, you can find Barbies with different updos, highlights, Afros and a range of hair textures. If a hairstyle has been in vogue, there’s a good chance that Barbie has at least tried it.
Obsession with the doll’s hair reached a peak in 1992, the year Mattel released Totally Hair Barbie, whose 11.5 inches of crimped hair fell down to her toes. According to Mattel, it remains the best-selling Barbie in history.
But for all the variety in Barbie’s hair over the decades, nothing came close to the at-home customization children would give to their dolls. There exists a venerable tradition of cutting it with a pair of scissors, often leaving her ends frayed and uneven. Some children would apply paint or Kool-Aid to her tresses — a de facto form of hair dye — or dip them in hot water in an attempt to form curls. Plenty of people can say they first learned how to braid or make a ponytail using their Barbie dolls as practice.
Of course, there were many others who accepted her hair as is. But in a society with beauty standards that historically haven’t been kind to those without blond, straight or thick hair, transforming Barbie’s hair in their own image was one way children could really make the doll their own.
— Gina Cherelus
Living Life on Tiptoe
One needs only to see a perfectly pointed foot, positioned to fit neatly into a high heel, to know it belongs to Barbie. The doll’s feet spawned an Instagram trend in 2018, and in the first shot of the trailer for the coming “Barbie” movie, Margot Robbie steps out of a pair of pompommed stilettoes onto the ball of her foot, her heel still suspended in air. It’s a look as glamorous as it is unnatural; while promoting the film, Ms. Robbie explained that to get the shot, she had to hold on to a bar to keep her balance.
Though a Barbie from the 1970s could wear flats as well as heels, Barbies who could wear flats didn’t become mainstream until 2015, when Mattel released a line of dolls with ankles that could be manipulated to fit into flat shoes. Some saw it as a sign that Barbie was modernizing, moving away from outdated standards of femininity.
Although Barbie’s feet have stood for years as a sort of visual shorthand for the doll itself, Dr. Priya Parthasarathy, a podiatric surgeon, said that if Barbie were human, she would be wise to get checked out for equinus, a chronic condition that often results from tightness in the calf muscles or Achilles tendon, sometimes because of long-term stiletto use.
Even with the risks, Dr. Parthasarathy doesn’t think women need to retire their high heels for good. Still, she cautioned, “we don’t want too many people wearing high heels all the time, because women should also be comfortable.”
— Emma Grillo
Is there anything more symbolic of all that is surreal about Barbie — the way the doll gave young women a twisted idea of the perfect body, the way she represented female reality distorted by male fantasy (she was based on a German doll meant to be enjoyed at bachelor parties) — than her measurements? Her pneumatic bosom, teeny waist, blossoming hips and endless legs are just the most obvious distortions. The more you look into her proportions, the clearer it becomes that she is unlike anything ever made in nature — even Margot Robbie.
Indeed, there have been various efforts to scale her up to adult size, simply to reveal the impossibility of her body shape, which originally clocked in at about 39-18-33. In a 1995 article in The International Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers calculated that to attain Barbie proportions, a healthy adult woman would have to “increase 24 inches in height, 5 inches in the chest and 3.2 inches in neck length, while decreasing 6 inches in the waist.” Ten years ago, Rehabs.com issued a report that examined Barbie’s effect on young girls’ body image, noting that the odds of finding someone with the doll’s chest-to-waist ratio were in the billions. The neck of a life-size Barbie would be too thin to support her head, and her torso would have room for only half a liver.
Barbie got a new body in 1998 — slightly wider waist, smaller chest and hips. By 2016 Mattel had caved to pressure and offered petite, tall and curvy Barbies. But despite all the supposedly more realistic options, impossible Barbie remains the standard Barbie for many. When it comes to the psychology of our physiology, she defies not just nature, but reason and expectations.
— Vanessa Friedman
The Original Boy Toy
Barbie’s ultimate accessory is her man. Since Mattel’s introduction of the Ken doll in 1961, Barbie’s boyfriend has entered the public imagination as a benevolent himbo, a chisel-jawed foil to her dynamism and curves. Their relationship is sexless (neither has genitals) but supportive: In early promotional images, Barbie occupies the foreground while Ken stands behind her to carry a bag or offer her a flower.
Ken arrived two years after Barbie, a literal afterthought. The original doll was a slim blond who wore skimpy red swim trunks. He beefed up as he tried on the styles of each decade: In the 1970s, there was Sport & Shave Ken, who had bulging forearms and a 5 o’clock shadow. By the 1990s, Ken had a Harley.
His image has been lightly complicated over time. Earring Magic Ken, released in 1993, became a cult item among gay men thanks to his pierced ear. In 2017, amid flagging sales, Mattel released a suite of Kens of different races, body shapes and hairdos (one had a man bun). Ken was no longer a monolith, Caity Weaver wrote in GQ: “He can be complicated, mysterious — maybe even vegan.”
Depending on whom you ask, Ken may be the epitome of emasculation, an all-American sex symbol, a feminist fantasy or a gay icon. He is all of this while still being secondary to Barbie. “She’s everything,” the poster for the “Barbie” movie reads. “He’s just Ken.”
— Callie Holtermann
Not Too Shabby for a Bachelorette Pad
It has taken many architectural forms over the decades, from a three-story townhouse with groovy Verner Panton-style furniture introduced in 1974 to a pink mansion with a balcony and a turret released in 1995, but one aspect of the Barbie Dreamhouse has remained consistent: its lone occupant.
“Even when she has a huge suburban mansion, she has a single bed,” said Whitney Mallett, an editor, with Felix Burrichter, of “Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Survey.” “Ken does not live there. It’s Barbie’s house, Barbie’s world.”
The Dreamhouse has long functioned as both a design lab — reflecting the changing American interior at a sort of time lag (recent versions have eco-conscious additions like recycling bins) — and a playground for female self-invention. The first version, a foldout ranch home introduced in 1962, included a bed, a sofa and a stereo console but no kitchen. It was a signal — radical for its time — that Barbie’s life would not be centered on family or domestic labor but rather on hosting friends and pursuing a career (or, in Barbie’s case, many, many careers).
Around 1990, Dreamhouses were supersized, and the elevators, spiral staircases, two-story slides and other over-the-top décor suggested affluence in Barbie’s fictional life — as did her Malibu, Calif., address. “The luxurious expansion of the Barbie Dreamhouse tracks economic expansion in the United States and conspicuous consumption,” said Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
As for the play set itself, it was made first out of cardboard and then out of molded plastic, inexpensive materials seemingly at odds with the fantasy interiors. But the contradiction makes sense, considering the mass-market nature of Barbie herself: The doll who has everything, at least materially, can be had for $5.97 at Walmart.
— Steven Kurutz
A Clotheshorse With Room to Gallop
Barbie made her entrance into the world in a knit, black-and-white-striped, strapless one-piece swimsuit, but even back then she had other outfits — 22 of them, in fact. Over the years, she acquired clothes almost as quickly as she was acquired; Mattel estimates that by this point, over one billion outfits have been made for Barbie and her clan, using over 105 million yards of fabric.
Her wardrobe has been a mirror held up to our most identifiable trends over the decades — a sleeveless blouse and a pencil skirt in the ’60s, a bandanna print halter-neck maxi dress in the ’70s, an aerobics-ready purple leotard and matching leg warmers in the ’80s — and to our sense of self. Barbie always dressed the parts we allowed ourselves to imagine, from debutante to doctor. Her outfits helped keep her relevant.
Little wonder fashion loves her. Dozens of designers have done special Barbie collaborations, starting with Oscar de la Renta in 1985. There have been Bob Mackie Barbie (1990, in gold paillettes and white marabou stole), Dior Barbie (1997, complete with throwback New Look jacket and skirt), Diane von Furstenberg Barbie (2006, wearing a signature pink-and-white wrap dress and toting a wheelie bag) and Moschino Barbie (in 2015, with faux leather outfit), to name a few.
In 2009, for Barbie’s 50th birthday, 50 designers created life-size Barbie-inspired looks for a special runway show at New York Fashion Week. In 2019, Barbie was given the Board of Directors’ Tribute by the Council of Fashion Designers of America — an award that had previously been bestowed on Michelle Obama and Gloria Steinem. Why? Well, Barbie may not be us, but her wardrobe is.
— Vanessa Friedman
Tickled a Very Specific Pink
Though she is now synonymous with a pink so distinctive that she has co-opted the Pantone swatch 219 C, Barbie made her 1959 debut in monochrome. With just a pop of crimson on her lips, Barbie’s black-and-white striped bathing suit provided a neutral springboard that begged to be swapped out for one of 22 other looks (sold separately) in a classic palette of mostly navy, black and red.
Still, there was a hint of the pink to come in a few pieces from Barbie’s debut collection: notably, the “Nighty Negligee” dressing gown and the regrettably named “Plantation Belle” ensemble, which featured a flirty pink tea-length frock and matching straw purse. Those particular pinks were a far cry from neon, more reflective of the soigné shades immortalized in the “Think Pink” sequence from the 1957 film “Funny Face.” “That candy pink totally suited the moment,” said Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Color Institute.
But the moment changes. The collector and author Bradley Justice cites the late ’60s as the time when the relative restraint of Barbie’s wardrobe gave way to the pop influence of Mod. Fluorescent colors increasingly came into play in the ’70s. Kim Culmone, Mattel’s head of design for Barbie, points to the boa-draped Superstar Barbie in 1977 as the first moment the doll “went full-on pink.”
The dawn of the ’80s ushered in a taste for all things brighter and bolder, and with it, Barbie’s signature color. In 2011, Mattel and the industry color authority Pantone teamed up on a Barbie doll swathed in 219 C, a shade already available to the public, and the association stuck. The color is a rich, turbocharged pink that telegraphs the potency and staying power of Barbie not just as a toy but as a global brand.
— Jeremy Allen
Top Down, Wind in Her Stitched-In Hair
Barbie’s taste for the finer things extends well beyond fashion. Her car collection — sports cars, Jeeps, even a camper — as well as the various shades of pink that it comes in, is proof.
Her first car, introduced in 1962, was an Austin-Healey 3000 Mark II. The British sports car came in a variety of colors — most indelibly, a faded light orange with aqua seats, a silver steering wheel and dashboard, whitewall tires and silver hubcaps. It was perhaps sleeker than later Barbie rides, and her signature car — all-American this time — was yet to come.
In 1976, the Star ’Vette, as Barbie’s Chevrolet Corvette was called, became an immediate touchstone of the doll’s image and an enduring staple of her car collection. The toy sports car came in metallic shades of hot pink and purple with shooting star decals on the hood and either of its two doors. Her luggage also came attached to the top of the trunk. Barbie was on the move.
A label on the original packaging called the micro-Corvette a “dream machine for Barbie doll and her friends.”
The Star ’Vette has made an appearance in every decade since. Barbie’s garage would later grow to include a Ferrari 328 GTS, a Porsche 911 Cabriolet and, in 2000, a Volkswagen New Beetle.
With the top down and room for a passenger friend, Barbie’s image took on another meaning, showing girls that the freedom of the road was theirs to enjoy, too.
— Frank Rojas
The designer Michael Kors once called accessories the exclamation point of an outfit. When it comes to Barbie, her accessories also became, for countless parents of Barbie-loving children, the exclamation point at the end of “Ouch!” — as in “Ouch! I just stepped on a tiny stiletto!”
Household annoyances aside — dogs eating her handbags, vacuums sucking up her cat-eye sunglasses — a Barbie is largely defined by her accessories. Once upon a time, these accessories were fashion-forward and valuable collectibles. In the 1960s, a doll-size fur stole made of real mink was sold at Sears for $9.99 — the equivalent of almost $100 today.
But as Barbie collected more occupations and hobbies, her accessories became more like identity totems. Today, Music Producer Barbie carries a sound mixing board and wears over-the-ear headphones. Teacher Barbie comes with a blackboard and thick-framed glasses. Fashion Designer Barbie wears statement necklaces and a sewing tape measure around her neck. Where would Surfer Skipper or Surfer Ken be without their accompanying surfboards? At the bottom of the toy box, waiting to be given — via accessory — a purpose.
— Jessica Testa
Her Work Gear
Dressed for Success, in Every Field Imaginable
Barbie is the ultimate career woman. Who else among us has been a fighter pilot, UNICEF ambassador, marine biologist, cupcake chef, computer engineer and aerobics instructor?
Inevitably, for someone with a résumé boasting more than 250 different occupations over six decades and diamond-hard ambition barely concealed by her fluffy exterior, Barbie’s extensive toolbox has grown in line with the advances of modern women in the workplace. In the 1960s, fans could buy Barbie as a ballerina with ribboned shoes; a student teacher with notebooks and glasses; or a registered nurse with medicine, a hot water bottle and a diploma (though as the space race took off, an astronaut Barbie came with a white helmet, a silver suit and snazzy zip-up moon boots). Later on, Barbie also became a veterinarian, complete with a white jacket, plastic cats and dogs, and a stethoscope; an Olympic swimmer with goggles and medals; and an entrepreneur, armed with an iPhone and a tablet displaying a rather promising-looking bar chart.
In recent years, Barbie, who has never had children, has focused on building a career in STEM (the acronym used for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — all fields in which women are underrepresented). Now, Barbie comes as a science researcher, a robotics engineer and a software developer, with free coding classes for those who buy those dolls.
— Elizabeth Paton
Her Perfectly Smooth Pelvis
‘Undress Me Everywhere’
To play with Barbie is to take her clothes off. It’s all right there in the Aqua song: “You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere.” And you can undress her everywhere: Her pelvis is smooth plastic, devoid of anything remotely clinical or anatomically correct. After all, despite what Greta Gerwig’s film would have you believe, she is not a human woman.
Still, that distinction hasn’t stopped Barbie’s nether region from stirring up some controversy. In the mid-1990s, Mattel released Teacher Barbie, an educator doll that sported a skater dress covered in numbers and apples and that came with her own blackboard. Teacher Barbie, like many a Barbie doll, was issued without any underwear. (If you want to get technical, her pelvic area was lightly textured to represent underwear, according to a report from The Journal Times of Racine, Wis.) Moral outrage ensued, and the doll was ultimately reissued with cloth underwear. “They keep forgetting it’s a child’s toy, and when we put our adult eyes on it, we see things kids don’t think of,” a spokeswoman for Mattel told the newspaper.
Strangely, there was no such hand-wringing over whether Elizabethan Queen Barbie, issued the same year as Teacher Barbie, needed a set of panties.
— Madison Malone Kircher
Jeremy Allen, Gina Cherelus, Vanessa Friedman, Emma Grillo, Callie Holtermann, Madison Malone Kircher, Steven Kurutz, Elizabeth Paton, Frank Rojas and Jessica Testa contributed reporting.