02 May 2005

It's Barbie's world. Are we just furnishing it for her?

Here's an essay I wrote about a year ago:

The other day, my husband pulled a Barnes & Noble shopping bag out of his closet. Inexplicably, it contained a May/June 1997 issue of Barbie Bazaar, a doll collectors’ magazine. Tucked into the magazine pages was a photo greeting card of a Japanese woman in Kabuki makeup grinning from ear to ear and displaying a mouthful of silver braces. Where did these things come from? How did they wind up in my husband’s closet? We will most likely never know.

I started to page through the ’zine, and immediately I got what makes Barbie such a treasure, so attractive to collectors, and it wasn’t the absurd dimensions of her body. It’s that she is ready for anything, a plucky Nancy Drew of molded plastic, dressed to the nines and accessorized for her next adventure. The clothes do make the woman here – they tell you where she thinks she’s going, and Barbie has always been going places.

She has every length of pants, skirt, dress, coat. Every dress is a copy of something currently fashionable in New York, Japan, L.A., or Paris. She has shoes and boots for which the women on Sex and the City would fight mobs at sample sales to find in their sizes. You can even purchase a package of the spiffiest hairdos: Just attach her beehive and she’s ready to catch her flight and start serving those nice businessmen, or slip on her long blonde fall for disco night.

Looking at all of these Barbies of different eras I saw the appeal of collecting: It’s instant time travel. You can zip back to 1963, when all pilots were men and stewardesses had not yet become flight attendants. She’s got the go-go boots, a suitcase, a two-tone princess-seamed tricot dress and coordinated headbands (holding back her flip), and Jackie-O sunglasses to complete the look.

Or take a trip with 1993 Barbie in India, a Peace Corps-volunteer type with dark flowing hair who is donning the sari and bindi of the locals in the hope, one imagines, of having a more profound journey. You knew her in college as The Girl Most Likely to Sit on the Floor at a Party.

You can buy a Donna Karan Barbie. That the Jewish powerhouse designer allowed Mattel to make a Barbie in her image makes the cynic in me fear that it’s less about what we consider glamorous now and so much more about building brand loyalty among schoolchildren. Donna Karan's own story is a Cinderella story – she grew up with her Brooklyn ancestors’ high tolerance for working like dogs and is now living her dream.

Barbie Bazaar reveals that many designers create entire wardrobes and special occasion haute couture for the dolls. There’s a whole line of Bob Mackie gowns, and Dior is a major source of Barbie collectors’ most treasured dresses.

The dizzying array of outfits show as much variety as a clothing designer’s handbook: Every possible dart placement, pleat style, sleeve shape, sleeve cap shape, hemline, cuff, collar style, and so on. Multiply the garment construction variations by the up-to-the-minute colors and patterns and Barbie’s wardrobe is absolutely infinite.

After browsing the magazine for a while, I find to my surprise that I don’t feel superior to the collectors, nor do I begrudge them their enthusiasm for the object of their desires as I page through the magazine. Instead, I revel in our shared love for fashion.

I was never into Barbies as a kid. For my counter-culture parents, Barbie represented one line they simply would not cross, and I was more interested in eating the forbidden Chocolate Sugar Bombs in front of our neighbors’ big color TV on Saturday morning than in playing with their Barbies.

But I have always been interested in clothes -- their endless variations on texture, hue, drape, and function. High fashion remains quite irrelevant to my daily life, which I usually spend in my mom’s uniform of jeans, boot-like comfortable shoes, and knit shirts or sweaters. Going to a boutique and handling and trying on thoughtfully constructed clothing is like a soul vitamin to me: It restores my sense of self and reminds me of all the identities available to me every time.

The Barbies reveal interesting cultural shifts over time. As late as 1981, Mattel was manufacturing a doll named Oriental Barbie, “From the Orient,” the box explains helpfully.

I love the bizarre moments in fashion that Barbie reveals. One doll is a ringer for Annie Lennox, with “surprising but stunning white flocked hair.” She is dressed as what looks like a lawyer and looks like she could shed the tailored jacket to become a dominatrix by night. What I can’t explain is the lute-like instrument the besuited woman holds out from her body as if she is saying, “Where is the nearest garbage can?”

In Japan, Takara Jenny dolls are the equivalent of Barbies, one of Barbie Bazaar’s correspondents writes. Each doll's profile lists their blood type. But that’s not the quirkiest bit. Some of the characters’ blood types are listed as “unknown.” Blood type must have a profound influence on Jenny’s compatibility with the parade of boy dolls.

The Jenny dolls have endless romantic triangles and varying degrees of friendship as each new doll is introduced. After a line of fair-haired, round-eyed boys, Tom enters the scene as “Jenny’s most controversial friend.” Tom is a “dark, dangerous fellow who poses a direct threat to Jenny’s relationship with Jeff.” The doll has dreadlocks and a big gold hoop earring. The romantic author of the Barbie Bazaar article about Jenny dolls writes wistfully: “Hopefully in the future, Tom will be portrayed in a kinder light.”

While Barbie has an outfit for every occasion, Jenny seems to have a date for every occasion: “Jenny’s debut was a resounding success thanks to her loveliness and charm. Special thanks should also go to [her date, the royal] Charles who, in addition to giving her jewelry, was obliged to give Jenny lessons in dance and protocol.” Yeah, everyone still remembers all the sniggering behind wrists about Jenny's terrible social graces until she took up with that suave prince.

Among Barbie's legion of fans, many may not be frequent flyers, buy designer gowns, or have the luxury of attending college. But this game, trendy, ├╝ber-girl gives us all a taste of the good life. Outfitted for every occasion, Barbie proves that if you can dream it, she can do it. And if a doll can do it, well, surely you can too.

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