Another Birthday: Barbie Is About To Turn 50!

“Even at 50 Barbie shows no sign of slowing. The former model, whose cv runs from palaeontologist to presidential candidate, is worth $3 billion a year and looks better than ever. She’s had a bit of work done, but she’s no passive bimbo and she’ll fight like a cat to see off any pretenders to her throne.”

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Barbie owes her existence to the daughter of Polish immigrants. Ruth Handler and her husband, Elliot, drifted into the toy industry after the Second World War with doll’s houses fashioned from picture-frame offcuts. Elliot was the ‘el’ in Mattel, the company he founded with Harold ‘Matt’ Matson. Their first hit was a toy ukulele. The rising prosperity of the 1950s, greater leisure and the post-war baby boom combined to make toys a thriving industry. And, with careers beginning to open up for girls, the conditions were also ripe for a new kind of doll.

Existing dolls were mainly helpless infants to be cuddled, but Handler noticed how her daughter, Barbara, preferred to play with paper cut-out dolls, enacting imaginary adult situations instead of treating them as babies. She began to contemplate a new grown-up doll that would allow girls to project fantasies of independence and glamour.

On holiday in Switzerland she came across a German doll called Bild Lilli, which had gone on sale in 1955. Although Handler did not know it then, Lilli was based on a prostitute from a German adult cartoon, and marketed not to children but to men in bars and tobacco shops as a novelty. Vitally, though, Lilli had the physical characteristics Handler had envisaged – long legs, a tiny waist, a bust.

Back in California, Handler used Lilli as a proto­type for her new doll, and had to overcome the resistance of engineers (‘too expensive’) and other sceptics. The 11½in doll was launched at the 1959 New York Toy Fair, named after the Handlers’ daughter and labelled ‘Barbie Teenage Fashion Model’. Like Lilli, there was overstated make-up, an exaggerated body shape, a coy sideways glance, and a ponytail – but, unlike the German doll, there were no nipples.

Industry buyers hated the doll, especially those breasts. Half refused to place an order, others bought small. But Handler’s instincts were soon vindicated. Girls themselves loved Barbie and word spread. By the end of 1959 more than 350,000 dolls had been sold, and sales continued to soar as Handler ploughed more and more into advertising. Mattel had to open a department just to deal with the 20,000 fan letters a week. By 1963 it was among the 500 largest companies in the United States.

Handler’s genius was not just that she had sensed a new type of toy, but that the doll she created was a merchandiser’s dream. In marketing terms, her philosophy that Barbie could be whatever her owner wanted opened the way to scores of high-margin play accessories and clothes. And, as girls might choose to project themselves differently on different days, there was room for more than one Barbie in each girl’s life.

Barbie has never stood still. By 1975, when the Handlers were forced out of Mattel after financial reporting discrepancies led to an inquiry and shareholder lawsuits (Ruth Handler abandoned the toy business, dying of cancer in 2002), Barbie had become more innocent and youthful-looking. In 1976 she gained a wide smile and took on a superstar look. For the new millennium, her waist became thicker, and her bust and hips a little smaller, so she could wear fashionable midriff-exposing tops and low-rise jeans. ‘She reinvents herself over and over again,’ Julia Jensen, a Mattel vice-president, tells me.

Starting life as a fashion model, Barbie has so far tackled more than 100 careers ranging from air stewardess to palaeontologist, aerobics instructor to Marine Corps sergeant. One of her latest is television chef. She has also been Italian, Parisian, British Royal, Inuit, Japanese, Korean, Jamaican and Native American.

Clothes are crucial, and Barbie’s designers have included Armani, Givenchy, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Dior, Versace and Vivienne Westwood. Her wardrobe is such, says Ivy Ross, the former head of design worldwide for Mattel’s girls division, that with ‘the amount of garments we create, we’re bigger than any garment maker in the world’.

(When I was a kid I had the red-haired one, and I called her “Stacy”.)

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