Mattel’s Barbie doll, the beloved ingénue role model of every little girl, is 50. If she were a real person, she’d undoubtedly have strands of gray hair, a hint of midriff flab, and hot flashes. Given her propensity for the latest fashion, by today’s standards, she would also be considered shallow – the Paris Hilton of the doll world. Fortunately, Barbie will forever be the fantasy woman of our youth.
From a commercial perspective, Barbie is as successful and enduring as Oprah. She has outlasted Cabbage Patch kids, Beanie Babies, sock monkeys and Raggedy Ann.
Invented by Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, Barbie debuted on March 9, 1959, at the American International Toy Fair wearing a black-and-white zebra striped, one-piece swimsuit. Handler’s inspiration for Barbie was a German doll called Bild Lilli. The German comic strip character upon which the Lilli doll was based was a seductive and sassy secretary who loved to hang out in bars and unabashedly pursued rich men. One cartoon strip had her saying, “I could do without balding old men, but my budget couldn’t.” As a doll, the curvaceous Lilli came with a wardrobe, sold separately, that mirrored the fashion of the 1950s.
Handler’s persona for Barbie was more wholesome than Lilli, but no less fashion conscious. Barbie’s eternal commercial appeal is her constantly updated clothes and accessories. Barbie’s wardrobe ensured that little girls who loved playing dress up would continually buy new outfits to make sure Barbie was appropriately dressed for any occasion, from beach parties to prom night. This wardrobe changed from culture to culture and era to era, seamlessly evolving from psychedelic to disco to punk.
Handler named Barbie and her boyfriend, Ken, after her two children, but it was designer Jack Roberts and his partner Ralph Carson of the legendary ad agency, Carson/Roberts Advertising, who created the dolls’ girl-and-boy next door identities and bestowed them with their own names – Barbara Millicent Roberts and Ken Carson.
To date, more than one billion Barbie dolls have been sold to kids around the world, not to mention billions of teeny dresses, swimsuits, T-tops, sportswear, purses and accessories for every occasion.
Happy birthday, Barbie. You go, girl!