At an age when many a woman is content to bake pie and dangle grand babies on her knee, Barbara Millicent Roberts continues to be a fashion-forward, contributing member of society. Don’t know who she is? She’s Barbie! And yes, she has a whole name and a rather fascinating history, as well.
In the 1950s, the dolls that little girls played with were typically made of plastic, paper, or cloth. The majority of girls’ dolls looked like babies. That all changed when Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Mattel Creations, observed her own daughter at play. The child’s name was Barbara, and little Barbara liked to pretend that her paper dolls were teenage cheerleaders or career women. Handler, so the official Mattel story goes, would have given her daughter a three-dimensional adult-featured doll to play with, but there were none available anywhere.
Unavailable, that is, until the Handler family visited Europe. It was there that Mrs. Handler came across a German-made doll that featured hips, a bosom, and other comely adult female features. Called a Bild Lilli doll, the winsome plaything was precisely the sort of doll that Ruth Handler believed would give her daughter and other little girls a chance to “experiment with the future from a safe distance.” She purchased three Bild Lilli dolls and hurried home to El Segundo, California.
With the assistance of John W. “Jack” Ryan, (the same engineer who designed Chatty Cathy and Hot Wheels and also happened to be the sixth husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor), the Bild Lilli doll was redesigned and given a new name: Barbie.
Billed as “Barbie the Teenage Fashion Model,” the 11.5-inch tall doll made her groundbreaking debut at the American International Toy Festival on March 9, 1959. Dressed in a black-and-white striped, one-piece, strapless swimsuit, Barbie sported a cantilevered bosom and wore a permanent pony tail. Available with blond or brunette saran hair, the tiny fashionista with the demure sideways glance was an instant hit with American girls.
More than 350,000 Barbies were sold in her first year of production. In 2016, Mattel estimates that one billion Barbies have been purchased so far, and there are more than 100,000 dedicated Barbie doll collectors in more than 150 countries.
Over the years, Barbie has been an astronaut, a flight attendant, a nurse, an entrepreneur, and dabbled in countless other occupations, too. Barbie’s driven a pink Corvette, gone on safari, and lived in a dozen different “dream houses” — and she does it all while wearing the most fashionable of attire.
The forever-teenage doll has not been without controversy, however, especially in regard to her unrealistic body shape. If a standard Barbie were scaled up to human size, she would be five-foot-nine and weigh 110 pounds, at least 30 pounds underweight for her height. Her measurements would be 36-18-33. And those tiny feet? Barbie would be unable to stand upright.
Body image aside, there have been some pretty weird Barbies and friends of Barbie made during her 57-year reign as America’s favorite fashion doll. One of the weirdest was called Growing Up Skipper. Barbie fans are sure to remember Barbie’s younger, less glamorous little sister, Skipper. Introduced in 1965, Skipper was freckled, flat-chested, and fairly nondescript. That all changed when Mattel debuted the “new and improved” version of Skipper in 1975. According to Forbes, Growing Up Skipper’s torso stretched, and she suddenly developed breasts when her arm was rotated. In response to the public hubbub, Mattel recalled the instant-adolescent doll and replaced her with yet another version of Skipper (with stationary breasts) in 1979.
It was not the first time the Mattel company has listened and responded positively to public opinion. In a press release in January, Mattel announced a grand expansion of the Barbie doll product line. This year, the toymaker debuted three new body-type Barbies. As of Spring 2016, tall, petite, and curvy versions, with realistic hips and thighs, join their standard sister on store shelves. The new Fashionistas line of Barbie dolls also offers 24 new hair options, seven new skin tones, and 22 new eye color choices.
Said Evelyn Mazzocco, the senior vice VP and Global General Manager at Mattel, “Barbie has always given girls choices – from her 180 careers, to inspirational roles, to her countless fashions and accessories. We are excited to literally be changing the face of the brand – these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them – the variety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them.”
As reported by Vogue this week, the doll destined to be a teenager forever turned the big five-seven on March 9.
[Photo via Ian Waldie/Getty Images]