05 May 2007

It’s Barbie’s world. We’re just furnishing it for her.

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. I started to page through the 'zine, chuckling at a mental image of the editors of Rockrgrl looking over my shoulder and demanding how I could call this a “’zine?” But I stopped laughing when I saw that this ’zine’s contributors were every bit as ardent as any other indie gathering of culture-cultivators.

I also got right away what makes Barbie such a treasure, so attractive to kids and collectors: she is ready for anything, a Nancy Drew of molded plastic, dressed to the nines and accessorized for her next adventure. Like a Girl Scout, the clothes do make the woman: they tell you where she’s going. And Barbie has always been going places.

In all 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 were women – or, more likely, “girls.” Barbie had everything a girl could have needed then (except perhaps the prescription for birth control): a two-tone princess-seamed knit dress in bright, contrasting colors with coordinated headbands and/or sunglasses for holding back her Jackie-O flip, with complementing go-go boots, stylish round suitcase, and cosmetics case all covered in the same material.

You can take a trip with 1993’s Barbie in India, a Peace Corps-volunteer type with dark flowing hair who has donning the salwar kameez and bindi of the locals in the hope of taking a more profound journey. You may have known her in college as The Girl Most Likely to Sit on the Floor at a Party.

Barbies reveal interesting cultural shifts over time. As late as 1981, Mattel was manufacturing a doll named Oriental Barbie. I admit I’m mocking again when I say I love the way the box helpfully explains that Oriental Barbie is “from the Orient.”

And I love the bizarre moments in fashion that Barbie’s wardrobe snapshots leave us with. One doll shown here is a ringer for Annie Lennox, with, as the text on the box reads, “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 nearly-bald, besuited woman holds out from her body as if she is saying, “Where is the nearest trash receptacle?”

At first I was a bit taken aback when I saw the Donna Karan Barbie. That the Jewish powerhouse designer allowed toymaker 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 more about building brand loyalty among schoolchildren. But at the same time, isn’t Donna Karan’s story perhaps many a Barbie fan’s dream-come-true? She worked her way up in the fashion industry and if she were to retire today she would walk away with millions, having made her mark on the fashion world.

In translating their design talents to small toys, the couturiers have built brand recognition, sure, but they have also invited children directly into the fantasy worlds they create in their clothing designs. It’s easier to imagine yourself in Barbie’s place than in the contorted place of a smudgy-eyed Vogue model, especially if you’re a kid (or a dreamy doll collector).

The dizzying array of Barbie’s outfits shows as much variety as a designer’s sample book: Her outfits over time employ every possible dart placement, pleat style, sleeve shape, neckline, hemline, cuff, collar style, and so on. Multiply the garment construction variations by the exploding variety of up-to-the-minute colors and patterns and Barbie’s wardrobe seems infinite. She has pants ranging from hotpants to floor-length culottes; her dresses are copies of the most current fashions in New York, Japan, L.A., and Paris. She has shoes and boots for which urban women would battle mobs at sample sales to find in their sizes. You can even purchase her spiffy hairdos: Just attach her beehive and she’s ready to catch that flight and start serving those nice businessmen; slip on her long blonde fall for her night out at the disco.

Barbie Bazaar
reveals that many designers create entire wardrobes and special-occasion haute couture just for the dolls. Bob Mackie gowns are gaudy and elaborate, just like his couture originals, and the fevered pitch of some of the discussions indicate that the House of Dior has consistently been a major source of Barbie collectors’ most treasured designs.

As I continued reading, I kept trying and failing to maintain any superiority to the collectors; their enthusiasm for Barbie is so unwavering and sincere. I’m more sympathetic with the collectors’ true desires as I page through the magazine because I see how I share the same reverence for fashion, the same attention to detail these dolls show and inspire in others.

I wasn’t into Barbies as a kid. For my counter-culture parents, Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls were the perfect concrete and visible representatives of The Things They Wouldn’t Allow in Their House; that didn’t bug me too much because I was more interested in eating chocolate sugar bombs and watching cartoons in color at the neighbors’ on Saturday morning than in playing with Barbies, and I knew I could play with my aunt’s collection over at my grandmother’s house every month or two anyway.

While much is made of Barbie’s proportions – I too forwarded that e-mail about what would Barbie’s proportions be in real-life if she were a woman to my friends a few years back – I still don’t think the doll’s popularity is all about her larger-than-life parts. Perhaps her proportions make it easier to make her look good in all those different outfits. I don’t remember thinking about wanting to look like Barbie when I was a little girl: I wanted to be like her, perky and ready for action, the same way I felt walking out of the theater after seeing Goldie Hawn in the movie Cactus Flower.

But I have always been interested in clothes, and in all their variations in color, texture, drape, and functionality. All through school I have sketches of outfits or jewelry in my notebooks. I still have ideas for clothing lines, like one-handed clothing – clothing you can put on your baby and fasten with one hand, which would be great for families with twins and other busy people.

And when I got to junior high school, I knew right away that those things people said about beauty being more than skin-deep and the clothes not making the man (or woman) were all hooey. I remember the proof: it was this blissful week when social groups had not yet formed at the very beginning of junior high, my seventh-grade year. I circulated among all kinds of people, the week before everyone got sorted into groups according to who had the latest stuff and styles (many of them) and who didn’t (me). The opportunity to try out for cheerleading during this week of limbo was my idea, too, another one of those Impossibilities that my parents had arbitrarily chosen never to support. (I heard, “We’re not joiners,” several times when requesting help with brownie uniforms and cheerleading outfits.) Being choreographically challenged didn't help either. The astronomical $85 to rent the outfit for the year put the concrete boots on the dream and sunk it in the canal.

It was just as well, though. I couldn’t stand spending hours chatting about clothes (even though I like fashion), fingernails, and shaving; nor the required bouts of speculation about what certain preapproved members of the generally inscrutable opposite sex might be thinking about. I’d rather have been reading or talking about books or listening to music or seeing movies, all of which is still true today. By high school I was shaving my legs (but not talking about it much) and I was writing essays in AP English about those “popular girls.”

I still have acute memories that center on clothing. There was that day Michelle and Francie both wore the same fashionable sundress to school (white with a big flower appliqued on the front) and had this big old feud over it, or the time in music class when Windy and Karin and some of the other popular girls included us in their circle by passing a down coat around so that we could all play their game of screaming into the coat without being heard by the rest of the huge class. I squirm a bit now to think of the first brand-new outfit I ever bought with my own earnings: a shiny polyester knit skirt and matching long-sleeved, cowl-neck, belted top in black with diagonal bright yellow, turquoise, and red bands that was so disco and so wrong for me, yet I know how proud I felt in my new ensemble, with my feathered hair and cork wedge sandals with the macrame across the toes.

High fashion remains as irrelevant to my daily life as ever; I mostly live in my mom’s uniform of jeans, boot-like comfortable shoes, and knit shirts or sweaters. Yet going to a boutique and seeing the colors, feeling the weights of the fabrics, and trying on artfully constructed clothing, even when I have no interest in buying it, is like a vitamin to me: it connects me to what’s going on in the world and reminds me of all the possibilities that still exist. Sometimes I’m just itching for a chance to put on a costume for a moment, even if it’s just mentally. It's an itch that Barbies and browsing in shops can satisfy equally.

One of Barbie Bazaar’s correspondents brings us up to date on the doll scene in Japan in an article about Takara Jenny dolls. Like Barbie and her friends, Jenny dolls have different identities. The Japanese dolls have a special characterstic, however: a blood type. Some of the characters’ blood types are even listed as “unknown.” It turns out this accurately reflects a Japanese cultural concern with genetic similarity between spouses. The Jenny dolls have endless romantic triangles and varying degrees of friendship as each new doll is introduced. Blood type, social status, and appearance all affect Jenny’s compatibility with her array of boyfriends.

While Barbie has an outfit for every occasion, Jenny seems to have a date for every occasion, says our reporter: “Jenny’s debut was a resounding success thanks to her loveliness and charm. Special thanks should also go to [her date] Charles who, in addition to giving her jewelry, was obliged to give Jenny lessons in dance and protocol.” (I guess everyone had been sniggering behind their wrists about her manners until she started going out with that prince.)

After a line of fair-haired, round-eyed boys, Tom enters the scene as “Jenny’s most controversial friend...a dark, dangerous fellow who poses a direct threat to Jenny’s relationship with Jeff.” The Tom doll has light brown skin, dreadlocks, and a big gold hoop earring. Our Barbie Bazaar correspondent wistfully concludes her report, “Hopefully in the future, Tom will be portrayed in a kinder light.”

The mystery of how a Barbie Bazaar dated a year after we moved into our house appeared in my husband’s closet was at last solved: it was a gag gift my sweetie had forgotten to give to my mother for her birthday. But I got a lesson from it: that I share Barbie’s fans’ passion for fashion. We can’t all afford Marc Jacobs handbags, but for now our Barbies can carry knockoffs in our stead. To all of us with all our ambitions Barbie remains a beacon glowing with the eternal promise and potential of youth: always ready, willing, and accessorized for anything that could come her way.

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