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Barbie and Fashion: Life in Plastic. Is it Fantastic?

Making her debut appearance on March 9th 1959 at the American International Toy Fair, Barbie strutted onto the scene in a zebra-striped swimsuit with eye-catching cat-eye sunglasses to match. The world and fashion has changed since then; the days of zebra swimsuits are long gone; yet Barbie has barely aged a day. She is a timeless icon who remains the same. Instead she changes the world around her, having an enormous influence on the worlds of fashion, culture and media.

This influence hasn't always been positive, however. Whilst she's been praised for her contributions to fashion and culture, some see her in a very different light. Instead, they argue that Barbie is the architect of a generation of body dysmorphic women.

Designer doll

There is a lot of debate around how Barbie being a doll affects us and the way we should think about her. There’s a tension between two sides: should we see her as the model for unrealistic body standards, or is Barbie merely a mannequin for fashion?

We can see Barbie as a sort of ‘clothes horse’; simply an object or template with which to play dress-up. This is how Mattel addressed a lot of the criticism they received regarding Barbie. Vice president of design, Kimberly Culmone, suggested: “Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress”. In the way Culmone speaks, we can see the focus is on her clothes, rather than her body. The endless number of outfits and reimaginings of essentially the same Barbie support this view.

You could argue further that the changes they do make to Barbie's body are in aid of the clothes. In the late 90’s, Mattel widened the waist size of Barbie; commenting that this would suit contemporary fashions better. They then went on to create dolls classed as ‘petite’, ‘tall’ and ‘curvy’. As well as moving with contemporary fashion, Mattel used clothing-industry terms like ‘petite’, suggesting Barbie is ‘a form of clothes hanger for the fashions she can be dressed up in’.

An impressive hanger she was, too, being dressed by many high-profile designers and brands including Comme Des Garcons’, Hermes, Christian Louboutin and Diana Von Furstenberg. Belgian fashon designer Martin Margiela alsohad a particular interest in the plastic princess; with his Winter ‘94/’95 collection being partly inspired by her, and his tribute to Barbie and Ken on Barbie’s 50th birthday celebration. With all of this professional cachet, it’s no wonder she was awarded the Board of Directors’ Tribute at the 2019 CFDA Fashion Awards. Barbie remains the first non-living object to win the award.

Bad Barbie

Awarding Barbie like this has also drawn criticism, as people suggest her warped portrayal of the female body is harmful to young minds; this largely stemming from Barbie's exaggerated proportions. Scaled to human size, your average Barbie might be 5ft 9in tall, with a 36 inch chest, 18 inch waist and 33 inch hips. She would also lack the 17-22 percent body fat required for women to menstruate.

This clearly unhealthy presentation of the female body has been said to play a part in the rise of eating disorders and the prevalence of them among young girls.

Evidence of Barbie's proportions warping ideas of a healthy body were found in these Mattel focus groups, as many of the young girls called the Curvy Barbie 'fat'. The Curvy Barbie is in fact closest to the measurements of real women; much more so than the standard Barbie whom the children did not comment on.

More Mattel

While Barbie has made waves in high fashion, we can also see her impact on niche fashion ecosystems like drag. This is clearest through Brian Firkus, more commonly known as Trixie Mattel: one of the world’s most famous drag queens. Firkus has talked at length about the impact Barbie has had on his life, famously here in vogue. However, you don't need to look that closely to see Barbie’s influence on his art.

Two things inspired the name Trixie Mattel. Trixie was a slur Firkus' stepfather used to insult him for his effeminate mannerisms, inspiring Firkus to use it as part of his drag persona to reclaim the word, and Mattel is a tribute to the company which makes Barbie. His homage to Barbie is clear in his art, through his blonde wigs and abundant use of pink in his fashion. His exaggerated drag makeup also mimics Barbie's exaggerated features; although all drag queens use exaggerated makeup, Trixie's harsh, unblended lines arguably take it a step further.

Through Trixie, the carnival mirror measurements become something positive as they are turned into a healthier performance of femininity. Firkus has said that it is something that has helped him find power from some of the effeminate mannerisms he'd been bullied for previously. In a similar way, Barbie has helped empower a generation of women. The first toy designed for girls, she followed these girls as they became women and shattered glass ceilings joining the workforce. Now, girls growing up today can see themselves in their Barbies and know that they can be pilots, doctors, dog groomers, professional surfers or housewives; whatever they want to become.

And for that Mattel, we thank you.


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