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.
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.
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.
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.
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.