Barbie: the controversial fashion muse

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She's one of the most famous faces on the planet and is widely criticised for her unrealistic appearance, so why is the fashion world so obsessed with Barbie?

Barbie is many things to many people. For the vast majority of women – and an elite set of sartorially savvy little boys and girls – this voluptuous bombshell of a doll is their first foray into fashion. Whether you dressed her as a princess or a punk, styling her hair and playing dress-up among her infinite wardrobe constituted whole days lost in the fantasy of Barbie’s World. She’s inspired pop hits, couture gowns and the cover of Vogue. She is a potent and enduring symbol of femininity. Though some would argue she’s an outdated role model (after all which high profile media figure hasn’t had their share of controversy?), it’s hard to ignore her enduring stature as an entrée into a grown-up, and glamorous world. Now, more than half a decade after her creation, the fashion world have fallen for the golden-haired figurine anew.

This summer, British shoe designer Sophia Webster unleashed a typically flamboyant collection of real life Barbie-inspired footwear, which, as you might expect, featured a head-spinning quota of pink. Made in collaboration with Mattel, these girlie confections fluoro-hued vinyl kitten heels, metallic fairy-winged stilettos a satin skate shoe and glitter-clad high tops take Barbie Back-To-The-Future. “I’m a lifelong fan of Barbie so this project is very close to my heart,” says Webster of the collection for adults and children which launched last month. “An inspiration to girls around the world, we have seen Barbie as everything from a company CEO to a doctor, rapper and Olympic ice skater. Throughout the years she has shown young girls that they can do or be anything they choose.”

Despite the fact that Barbie is controversial as a role model, Webster is certainly not alone in her adoration. When Jeremy Scott sent an army of Barbies down the runway for the Moschino s/s 2015 show, he made the trademark bubblegum pink look desirable. His frothy cocktail dresses, oversize sweatshirts and pearlised tuxedos – as well as a playful boombox handbag and mirrored iPhone case – have been worn by everyone from Charli XCX to Rita Ora (and perhaps less surprisingly, Paris Hilton). And the collection incited an Instagram frenzy of the kind you’d expect from a gang of sugar-crazed nine-year-olds. 

So why is Barbie such an enduring muse for the fashion elite? “I thought she was the perfect muse for a designer: she’s had every job imaginable and an outfit for every occasion, put together with real flair,” wrote Scott in The Guardian. “But I didn’t forget that Barbie is a toy, she’s there to bring fun. Fashion is the ultimate luxury – I mean, you don’t need it – so it should bring you pleasure and make you happy.”

Barbie was first unleashed into the world in 1959, the brainchild of American businesswoman Ruth Handler, who decided to create a three dimensional doll when she saw her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls and imagining them in different roles such as a student, cheerleader and business trailblazer. Until then, no child’s toy had mimicked the life of an adult. Mattel bought the rights and today, over one billion Barbies have been sold in 150 countries.

Over those 56 years, some of the world’s greatest designers have not only been inspired by her, but also dressed all 11.5 inches of her diminutive frame. Oscar de la Renta put her in full-skirted gold, Christian Dior a floor-length brocade gown and Giorgio Armani lilac grey with intricate beading. Christian Louboutin designed Barbie a bespoke pair of pink stilettos, Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera made her wedding dresses, Stephen Jones designed hats for her and Roksanda Ilinicic renovated Barbie’s Dreamhouse. On creating a pink wrap dress for the doll (also available in ‘human’ size), Diane von Furstenberg said, “Barbie represents a confident and independent woman with an amazing ability to have fun while remaining glamorous.” 

Despite her status as an icon in the world of fashion, Barbie isn’t without controversy, unusual for a woman made of plastic. Parents objected to her unrealistic proportions from the start. Many studies have explored the influence of her unrealistic body shape – specifically her tiny waist and big breasts. Scientists also have concerns about the impact this might have on children. How are young girls supposed to live up to her highly idealised, and sexualised, form? So unhealthy are her proportions that researchers from the University Central Hospital in Helsinki found that if the doll were scaled up to human size, she would lack the 17% body fat necessary for a woman to menstruate. 

That hasn’t stopped women trying to emulate her form. Valeria Lukyanova, for example, the Ukrainian dubbed the ‘Human Barbie’ has endured endless rounds of surgery to look like her. In recent years, Mattel has come a long way in bringing Barbie up-to-speed with the 21st Century, smartly addressing the issues raised by her detractors. Back in the Sixties, Barbie showed signs of a troubling relationship with food when they introduced a ‘slumber party’ doll, whose How To Lose Weight handbook included a page that read: ‘Don’t Eat’. The Dreamhouse bathroom scales were permanently stuck at 8st. That’s at least three stone less than the ideal for a woman of her stature.

Happily, her waistline was widened in time for the new millennium. And in 2009, Mattel introduced their first dedicated collection of black dolls – before that they’d merely issued painted versions of the original white dolls. The most recent Barbie collection, called The Fashionistas, features 23 new dolls, all with totally different body shapes, in eight different skintones and with 14 different face shapes, a sign she’s caught up with a world that celebrates more than one vision of beauty.

Though Barbie’s representatives see her as an ‘aspirational’ figure for young girls, studies point to the fact that she is one of a barrage of media images that contribute to an epidemic of body dissatisfaction. Yet Barbie’s initial creation went beyond aesthetics, ostensibly, to tap into the wider women’s movement: “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices,” said her creator Ruth Handler. “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be.”

Does Barbie consider herself a feminist? In an interview with V magazine, the doll herself (no, really), said: “Well, I did land on the moon before man landed there…” referring to the launch of astronaut doll four years before the moon landing. Career-wise, she claims to have broken the ‘plastic’ ceiling. She has had over 130 jobs including CEO, engineer and scuba diver. She was in the running to be the first female president years before Hillary Clinton, and, given her CV, it’s only a matter of time before she succeeds.

It is this self-assured knack for reinvention that makes Barbie a pin-up on so many designers’ mood boards. Now more than ever she is an everywoman who stays true to her own style. As one of her most recent celebrants Jeremy Scott neatly concludes: “Her and I share the same things: we just want to bring joy to people.” And in our troubled world what could be more welcome than that. 

Words: Kate Faithfull-Williams and Harriet Charity Verney, Photography: Matthew Shave

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Stylist Team