With everyone hyped up for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie this Summer, we wanted to talk about fashion dolls!
The Madame Alexander Doll company was founded in 1923. The first ever doll based on a licensed character was the Madame Alexander Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind) doll. They released a set of 36 Queen Elizabeth II dolls in 1953 for the coronation all dressed in beautiful gowns modelled after those worn by the queen. Their first true fashion dolls were the Cissy doll, released in 1955. Cissy sported a pronounced bosom and high heeled shoes. She was the first doll with adult anatomy marketed at children. She had her critics! But Madame Alexander had her vision for the doll to wear the specific fashions of the decade, including lingerie, negligee and accessories. Retailers and department stores held Cissy fashion shows in-store.
The popularity of the doll began to fade in the late 50s as competitors swooped in.
The Bild Lilii doll was a German fashion doll based on a comic strip character. She came with a whole wardrobe of 1950s fashions for the beach, parties, and sports activities.
Mattel’s co-founder Ruth Handler based the design of their Barbie doll on the Lillli doll, which they released in 1959. Mattel acquired the rights to Lilli in 1964 and production of Lilli ceased. Children’s television programming enabled commercials marketed at children and Barbie took off. She has got through many changes and evolved into an entire franchise in the decades since and has sold over a billion units.
The first doll was a teenage fashion model and wore a black and white stripe swimsuit. Her clothes were designed by Charlotte Johnson and hand stitched in Japan. Johnson introduced the idea of attributing an evocative name to each of Barbie’s outfits including ‘Roman Holiday’ (after the Audrey Hepburn movie?), ‘Evening Splendour’ and ‘Gay Parisienne’. Her style reflected the old Hollywood glamour projected by icons at the time, like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor. Her fashion was all modelled on Parisian couture. Barbie has had more than 500 careers, all needing different outfits and has had many leading fashion designers work on her clothing over the years!
Dance group Aqua released the song Barbie Girl in 2002, which topped the charts worldwide, becoming instantly iconic. The music video shows the lead singer Lene Nystrøm as a Barbie-inspired character.
For her 50th birthday in 2009, she had a fashion show in Malibu with contributions from Diane Von Furstenberg, Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Bob Mackie and Christian Louboutin.
There are many collectors of Barbie’s worldwide and an original in-box Barbie can go for thousands of dollars online.
The doll line had its first real competition when MGA introduced Bratz in 2001. Mattel sued them and they were forced to stop selling Bratz in 2008, causing the company to have to rebrand a number of times.
Early stills of Margot Robbie as Barbie in 2022 gave rise to the BarbieCore trend in fashion. There’s lots more pink and yellow to come this Summer!
Check out part two of our doll series in THIS BLOGPOST about Barbie's 1960s rivals!