Book Review: Barbie

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Barbie: Four Decades of Fashion, Fantasy, and Fun

Author: Marco Tosa

Author’s publicity page: (he’s also on Linked In and E-Bay)

Translator: Linda M. Eklund

Date: 1997 (Italian), 1998 (English)

Publisher: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore (Italian), Harry N. Abrams (U.S.)

ISBN: 0-8109-4008-6 (English)

Length: 152 pages

Illustrations: lots of color photos

Quote: “Barbie lovers…do not judge her for disappointing their fantasies, but rather cling to the pleasant illusoriness of her trademark shocking pink world.”

Nothing quite like the American Barbie dolls existed before 1959. However, “fashion dolls”–patterns of fashionable clothes with stuffed forms underneath–existed before the realistic “baby dolls” of the early twentieth century. Many of these dolls were hardly built to survive being played with, but Tosa supplies a photo of a jointed, adult-proportioned doll buried with a little girl in a Roman tomb.

Barbie dolls got much of their distinctive look from a novelty action-figure doll, “Lilli,” based on a German cartoon character. The cartoon was not meant to entertain children. During the postwar years when many people in Europe were skinny, Lilli was distinctly plump, because she had a lot of boyfriends. It remained for an American tourist, Ruth Handler, to think of marketing dolls as curvaceous and sophisticated as Lilli to little girls. Her husband Elliot Handler, and his partner Harold Mattson, formed the Mattel toy company, and the busty but wholesome teen fashion model became their best-selling toy.

The collection Tosa photographed for this book features mostly early Barbie dolls, whose resemblance to Lilli was strong. Definitely more sexy than pretty, these dolls had “flirty eyes” that glanced off to the side when the dolls were locked into display stands. Like real models, they were supposed to be wearing flesh-colored body stockings (which, in real life, protect a model’s clothes from contact with sweaty skin), so anatomical features, including toes, were always covered even when the dolls weren’t dressed.

Although Barbie’s waist and thighs were always thin, she was never meant to model anorexia. She was meant to be displayed in elaborate costumes, often many-layered costumes. When clothes were layered around her tapered waist, she acquired the proportions of a large, well-fed woman. Early Barbie outfits were often inspired by European haute couture, and often featured realistically detailed rolled waistbands, belts, and pockets, which added width and depth to Barbie’s figure.

Tosa includes many sketches from the 1960 and 1961 Barbie costume catalogues, often shown in contrast with photos of what the costumes really looked like. In the catalogue Barbie often looked slim, sometimes like a girl with a 34” rather than a 42” bust measurement; sometimes she wore glasses, and her shoes were often sketched as fashionable “flats.” In the round she was top-heavy at best, and her feet were made to lock into high-heeled shoes.

Noting Barbie’s resemblance to pleasingly plump Marilyn Monroe, Tosa empathizes, “It wasn’t easy to dress such an explosive body.” Somehow, on those lipsticked, flirty-eyed Barbies, sweater-and-skirt, blouse-and-jumper school outfits, or the “Barbie-Q” dress with the chef’s hat and apron, just didn’t look the same. Tosa discusses two major commercial influences on Barbie’s wardrobe; her nice-girl looks were inspired by the costumes of Doris Day and June Allyson, while her “evening” fashions showed the European influences of Dior, Givenchy, Chanel, Courreges, Pucci, and Balenciaga.

Barbie has had lots of different jobs. Modelling was clearly only student labor for the world’s busiest doll. Between 1959 and 1997 Barbie had been a registered nurse (before self-demoting to a “Candy Striper” volunteer, to accompany a novel), astronaut, surgeon, Olympic athlete, veterinarian, teacher, rock star, Army officer, police officer, pediatrician, dentist, scuba diver, firefighter, paleontologist, and baseball player. She also ran for President—in 1992, when she probably collected a few write-in votes against Bill Clinton. Barbie has served in every branch of the U.S. military service, has been a stewardess on two airlines, and performed on several TV shows. Tosa doesn’t even count the movie roles on her impossible résumé (Barbie played both Dorothy and Glinda in The Wizard of Oz). In educationese, it’s all meant to help kids act out any and all of their “career” fantasies. In more practical terms, it sells a lot of doll outfits.

Barbie is also a world traveller who collects period costumes from many countries. Unlike most travellers, she changes her face and complexion to suit the country she visits. Japanese Barbie had slightly almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and a tan, and learned to smile with her mouth closed. Indian and Malaysian Barbie had big round brown eyes. Jamaican Barbie had a dark-chocolate complexion and a huge puff of curly hair.

Lilli was, of course, blonde. Marilyn Monroe was blonde. It’s hard to think of Barbie as anything but blonde, but in fact Barbie has had every color and texture of hair that could be imagined. Even in 1959 there were dark-haired Barbies. In the 1960s there were red- and brown-haired Barbies, and Barbies with brown or tan skin tones. There was a grey-haired “Barbie’s Mother” (I owned one). By the 1980s Barbie even had feminist cousins who wore low-heeled or flat shoes.

Tosa doesn’t discuss the mechanical innovations built into more recent Barbie bodies. He cites M.G. Lord’s Forever Barbie, which does. Some Barbies “talk” when a string is pulled, some raise their arms or step forward when a panel is pressed…and then there was the tasteless “Growing Up Skipper.” Tosa gets some points, from me, for not confusing these mechanical effects built into a toy with any statement about actual living women—nobody has reported that any child seriously tried to help a twelve-year-old girl grow faster by twisting her arm, or punch their mother’s back in to help her walk.

Adults conjecture that little girls think they’re supposed to grow up to look like Barbie. I suspect that more little girls think they’re supposed to look like some unlikely but not impossible living woman, of whom they recognize Barbie as a caricature. The party line that shrills that Barbie’s tapered waist made some N.O.W. members insecure, and therefore must have been among the influences that made their daughters insecure, does not give an accurate picture of all the possible ways little girls relate to dolls.

Little girls’ imaginations are less limited by visual effects than some adults think. If I wanted to play mother or teacher, I had no trouble casting my Barbie dolls as children (including the grey-haired one–she was the daring teenager who’d had her hair highlighted with silver, and was likely to do just about anything). More often, during the years when I played with dolls, I used them as action figures… and in fact some of my dolls can’t be passed on to the next generation because they were too badly damaged while living in real tree houses and swimming in real streams. The ones that survived that phase became the human figures in a world of miniature models, eventually dressmaking dummies with heads. A book about Barbie that recognized all these possibilities would be an interesting novelty. Tosa, unfortunately, did not write that book.

The book he’s written basically says “Look at my collection.” He’s a collector; his most active web site is E-Bay. Nevertheless, if you enjoyed playing with Barbie, if images from 1960s Barbie-clothes catalogues would be a nostalgia trip for you, Tosa’s Barbie will take you on that trip. Recommended to all who collect, repair, or dress dolls.

Although this is a big, glossy, expensive-looking sort of book, thanks to Amazon we can offer it for the standard $5 per book + $5 per package, and you could probably fit at least one other book into the package. Out of this total of $10 we’ll send Tosa or a charity of his choice $1 per book if you buy this book from this site.

Ativa at Morguefile contributed this photo of a Barbie doll of the vintage in which Tosa specializes:


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