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Barbie’s Fashion Designer Carol Spencer, 90, Tells All About Her Tiny Pal: ‘She Was My Muse’

The woman who designed (and sometimes wore) Barbie’s outfits has a memoir to go with the ‘Barbie’ movie


spinner image Totally Hair Barbie Doll
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

No runway model in history can rival the figure, the fame or the fashions of Barbie, the iconic doll who debuted at a toy fair in 1959. And few know her as intimately as Carol Spencer, who designed Barbie's thousands of outfits for 35 years.

Forever 17 in play world, Barbie turned 64 in March. Spencer is 90. And both are enjoying newfound fame. On the eve of the highly anticipated $100 million movie Barbie (opening July 21), Spencer’s photo-packed 2019 memoir Dressing Barbie is being republished in paperback.

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spinner image carol spencer sitting behind three barbie dolls and a small paper cutout of ken
Carol Spencer designed thousands of Barbie's outfits for 35 years.
Scott Miles Photography

Barbie was already a star when Spencer landed at Mattel in 1963. The original Barbie, available as a blonde or brunette, had a ponytail and wore a black and white striped swimsuit. Roughly 350,000 dolls sold the first year, and a billion by 2006.

She was adored and scorned. Gloria Steinem sneered, “Barbie is … everything the feminist movement was trying to escape.” But Barbie evolved, taking on the roles of doctor, astronaut, gymnast, firefighter, paleontologist, tennis player, CEO, vet, race car driver and countless others. The film features at least 15 Barbies with various professions.

Today, Barbie has 15 million Facebook followers, and Mattel sells 100 of the dolls a minute, earning $1 billion a year. Spencer, still active on the Barbie convention circuit, tells AARP that she can’t shake her affection for the doll she never outgrew.​

spinner image 3 barbie dolls wearing pink dresses with a twisty curl hairstyle
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Initially, male Mattel executives resisted the idea of an adult doll. Yet Barbie was an instant hit and remains popular. Why?

It’s because she was realistic and changed as we changed. Barbie was a lifelike-looking teenage fashion model, and people related to her in so many different ways. I have heard from Barbie fans in countries I didn’t know existed.

spinner image 2 barbie dolls with fringe clothing and another barbie doll wearing a yellow poncho
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

What was challenging about designing clothes for an 11½-inch client?

Reducing the scale. Because we were instructed to think of Barbie as real, all fashions had to be in perfect scale to a real person, so that they weren’t overstated. A quarter of an inch can make a tremendous difference. Getting your eye close to the smaller details was an adjustment. What was wonderful is, you could sit down. Making clothes for people, most of the time you were standing, draping on a mannequin and cutting patterns.

spinner image a barbie doll wearing the pink premiere gift set
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Your first design was a red and white suit inspired by Jackie Kennedy. Where else did you look for inspiration?

In LA, I could go to the Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive stores and also see what people were wearing on the streets. In the ’70s, Melrose Avenue got going. And the beach at Malibu was close. I learned from magazines about things like avant-garde and British mod and Mary Quant. I still have the Peter Max mod fashion issue of Seventeen magazine. I love it to this day.

spinner image a barbie doll in aerobics apparel in a gym with a model exercise bike in the background
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Many criticized Barbie for having unrealistic proportions. In real life, she would be 5-foot-9 with a 17-inch waist.

I really thought they were overstating things. I was 5-foot-6½ with a 16-inch waist, and I was proportioned. The thickness of the seams posed a problem. At Barbie’s waistline, you ended up at times with four layers of fabric. They hollowed out her waist a little bit to allow for the thickness. The same thing for the inner thighs and under the arm. We needed space for the two layers joining the sleeve and the bodice. Changes were made so Barbie would look right dressed.

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spinner image a barbie doll wearing a black cocktail dress
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

How did you deal with those tiny arched feet?

The shoes were basically done by the sculptors. We did have tennis shoes that went on and looked fairly reasonable. In the ’70s, Living Barbie came out with an ankle that moved to make her foot flat. It didn’t work that great. We did make long boots to go with mod dresses, and that wasn’t easy.

spinner image a ken doll and barbie doll together
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

You designed gorgeous luxurious gowns for Barbie. Did you ever want to see those dresses on a human?

I’ve seen some. At the conventions, they have a style show where people replicate Barbie fashions and walk down the runway. Twice I have done a Barbie fashion for myself. We were asked to do a doll for the second convention in 1982, in Troy, Mich., and I dressed Barbie as an Indian. I replicated that costume for myself. We had Western days at Mattel, and once I made the Western blouse I had designed for Barbie. I can’t get into either one now. Those pictures remind me of how slender I once was.

spinner image two barbie dolls in long dresses and two ken dolls in leisure suits
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

You were intimidated by the debut of the Ken doll.

[Mattel cofounder] Elliot Handler told me, “Don’t worry. Go look at clothes.” He gave me a list of shops. I would carefully examine the garments and learned to make things realistically. The real intimidation came when the Big Jim doll came out in the ’70s. He was our counterpart to GI Joe. He had adventures. He went to outer space. He was an athlete, a guerrilla — even a Bedouin warrior, if you can believe it. I went to the sports stores to see how that clothing was made and figure out how to do it for the doll. 

Barbie arrived after your childhood. What dolls did you grow up with?

I was born in 1932 in Dallas at the height of the Depression. For years, I had a wonderful baby doll and my grandmother made all kinds of clothes for it. I also had a Dy-Dee doll that would wet. But she kind of disintegrated after a while. The fluids going in didn’t all come out. We didn’t have a lot because you had to put food on the table first. But, you know, we could create our own dolls out of sticks and little pieces of tree branches.

spinner image five different barbie dolls at barbie cafe today
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

How big is your massive Barbie collection?

It’s much smaller. I’m finding new loving homes for my dolls. In my dining room, I still have 300 to 400 of my favorites. I display others around the house. More are packed up.

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spinner image a barbie doll sitting on color change fabrics
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Did you let go of many treasures?

In February, I made a big donation to the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, including my Barbie Magical Mansion. I decorated it my way for the night before Christmas. Upstairs I have dolls dressed in sleepwear. There are small cabinets from Japan, a Suzy Goose dressing table and the toilet that Mattel made that was supposed to flush. And the Kelly doll is seated on that with her panties down. In the kitchen I have the Vitaveggie Lucy Barbie and she’s feeding the first Ken doll, who’s in a kimono robe. He’s kind of skinny, and she’s feeding him vitamins to fatten him up. The Strong has 27 other cases of Barbie dolls that I donated.

spinner image carol spencer's signature on the back of a gold jubilee barbie doll
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Do you miss designing for Barbie?

I do, but when you get to be 90 the fingers don’t do what they once did. The eyesight is not what it once was. From time to time I do come up with new ideas and actually make them.

spinner image the book cover for dressing barbie
"Dressing Barbie" by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Mattel, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

How do you stay connected to the Barbie world?

I enjoy meeting old friends at conventions. Travel has gotten to be a bit of a problem because I have back problems. I let my passport expire. I’ve seen pretty much of the world and it’s hard to use a walker and schlep a suitcase. I still travel a lot in the United States.

You worked so closely with Barbie for so long. What does she mean to you?

She was my muse. She was a little gal always sitting on my shoulder critiquing everything. Now I thoroughly enjoy her. She became my friend.

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