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The Evolution of Barbie from 1959 to the Present: Will She Come Full Circle?

There have been many articles on this little fashion icon discussing her evolution as it relates to the pervading pop culture milieu. But I have never seen an essay on her evolution physically and how it might relate to not only pop culture, but to the “selective breeding” process.*  

When I say selective breeding, think “dogs”, for example. They were once all wolves some tens of thousands of years ago! Now look at them--from Chihuahuas to Poodles to Great Danes, we have created a dog to fit every customer. We’ve done this through selective breeding, that is, taking the characteristics we were looking for, like teensiness in Chihuahuas, or glossy auburn fur in Irish Setters, and we’ve bred those males and females together that were the closest to our ideal. And voila--puppies who get closer and closer to what we think is “the perfect Poodle”, or whichever breed you please.

So Barbie doll’s evolution has also been through our “selective breeding”, sort of--clearly Mattel didn’t produce Ken to breed him with Barbie, that would be--well, more than strange, and just would not work. (Recall Woody of Toy Story’s comment to Buzz Lightyear: “You...are...a...TOY!” ) No, it’s more of an interaction between driving forces in marketing: What the customer wants, what’s going on in pop culture (which drives what little girls want, as we all know), what the parents are willing to buy for their children, what Mattel’s marketing people have come up with...and so on.

It won't go unnoticed that all the Barbies in this discussion happen to be Caucasian.  None of the early dolls were persons of color due to the marketing milieu of the mid-century.  Mattel produced a cousin for Barbie called "Francie" who came out in an African American version in 1967, and subsequently more diverse Barbie dolls began to appear.  But that is the subject of another essay.  

Having said all that, let’s look at how Barbie has evolved. In 1958 or thereabouts, Ruth Handler took a look at a popular German fashion model doll, Bild Lilli, and realized this was something that had not been seen in the U.S.--most dolls were baby dolls or variations of them. (Keep that in mind as the story progresses.) So Handler invented Barbie, named after her daughter.  

Bild Lilli


This was no baby doll; this was a sultry, sexy grown-up girl who exuded a sophisticated insouciance in the style of Bild Lilli, all the while being touted as a “Teenaged Fashion Model”.

#1 Barbie

She resembled Bild Lilli in her ponytail, heavily-lined eyes, and inscrutable side glance. The eyebrows and lips were modified to look a bit less pouty. Barbie’s face also reflected Asian/Kabuki influence--she was made in Japan, after all. (Here I will credit Christopher Varaste's book "Face of the American Dream".)  Her figure was impossibly hourglass, with a wasp-waist, pointy breasts which were in fashion in the 50’s and early 60’s, and slim hips. In fact, the first body molds had formed nipples, a feature that disappeared within the first couple of years of production. (More about that later.) Her long, long legs ended in tiny feet permanently on tiptoe to accommodate spike-heeled shoes.

The American response to this new siren, with all her couture clothing made to fit like a glove? Little girls loved her, but their mothers had a few reservations. This doll looked, at least to them, just a little too much like a sexpot--nothing like the baby dolls they were accustomed to buying for their children!  Those black-lined sultry eyes, those pointy brows and red, red lips--that body! Those were very adult characteristics. And the nipples--they had to go. (Mattel got rid of those quickly, but a few of the 1959-60 dolls circulating among collectors today have them.)

Nevertheless, little girls always love to play grown-up, and Mattel must have gotten feedback on what would sell (and after all, parents buy the toys) and what wouldn’t. So not so many of the first issue (only a few hundred thousand) were produced and sold. Not to be deterred, by 1960 Mattel came out with a new face for Barbie. The mold was the same, but Barbie now had new makeup. Her pointy brows were now softly arched, her heavy black eyeliner and white irises replaced by black eyelash ridges only, with blue or brown eyeliner that was far lighter and more


in appearance. Her red lips remained, as well as her hourglass figure. 

#3 Ponytail

Barbie changed again by the end of 1960, when Mattel started using an improved vinyl (the previous dolls had a tendency to fade in color), and along with that, made some more face changes. Her brows became a bit lighter, and her eyeliner became exclusively blue, and less dramatic. These changes gave her a subtly


appearance due to the look of less heavily-applied makeup. 

#4 Ponytail

From 1961 through 1963 Barbie had more hair colors and new bouffant hairdos to choose from. Her face didn’t change too drastically, continuing to have the same mold, although her lip color went from deep red to shades of pink and coral along with the fashions of the 60’s. Barbie stayed in the more


crowd with the light lip colors and hip bouffant hair style. By 1963-66 Barbie’s face became plumper-cheeked. She had a new, larger knob that held her head on her neck, which necessitated the plumper face--or did it? In any case, a plump face is more typical of a teenager, and confers youth. Her eyes became larger in appearance due to the way the eyes were made up. By 1965 her legs could bend, too. 

Platinum 1963 Bubblecut

Pale Blonde 1964 Swirl Ponytail

American Girl 1966

In 1967 Barbie became an entirely new girl with the advent of a new face mold and a twist-n-turn waist. She quickly gained real rooted eyelashes, bigger eyes, a somewhat rounder face, and plump pink or coral lips. Her hair was now in the new long, straight style that would usher in the 70’s. Barbie had the same face mold essentially through 1972, although there were a number of variations that walked, talked or could be contorted into more poses.

Twist 'n Turn Barbie

The Malibu Barbie that came out in 1971 and persisted through 1977 broke the mold--the previous face mold, that is--with a new, even plumper face sporting a cute pug nose, big blue eyes and a coy but definite smile complete with teeth. And she had a tan (considered youthful and healthy at the time!). The side glance, which had been persistent for a dozen years, finally gave way to a more straightforward and innocent gaze.  

Malibu Barbie

It becomes easier to see the trend that has been working here since Barbie’s inception, doesn’t it? No longer the Mona Lisa-mysteriously smiling, side-glancing, sultry adult; now we see a plump-faced, wide-eyed, pug-nosed, glowing surfer girl with a cute California smile! In the space of 12 years, Barbie has “reverse-aged” by at least that many years, if not more!

(There have been countless “collector” Barbie dolls for some years now, and these are still being produced; these are marketed primarily to adult collectors rather than children, so they are not in the same category as the ones discussed here.)

The most recent Barbies are well represented by this picture:

So, what’s the point? It looks as though Barbie has

gradually become more childlike

in appearance. Is that not what moms everywhere prefer their little girls to play with? But


do they want this? After all, Barbie was not made to be a doll to be placed in a toy pram and given a toy bottle; she was designed to be a fashion model, although she subsequently took on many careers. They want it because of biology. That’s right, these moms (and maybe even their daughters to some extent) are slaves to their own biological predispositions. The process, in the animal kingdom, of adults retaining the look of the juvenile of the species is called “neoteny” (Stay with me here).

In the biological world, neoteny happens when the development of the individual is slowed at certain points, and the baby features, instead of becoming more and more adult-like, stay more baby-like. Baby people, like baby animals, all have this quality as babies and juveniles. Think about it. Big foreheads, huge eyes, small chins, small or button noses. Human babies have all those qualities, and so do kittens, puppies, and pretty much all other baby mammals. Most species of mammals will lose most of those baby features as adults, when their snouts lengthen and their eyes look smaller. Humans are something of an exception, but obviously even we lose some of that baby-faced appeal! 

...And one thing the 1959 Barbie lacked to some degree was that baby face. Sure, she had a small nose and chin, and big eyes--but those eyes were clearly not so innocent-looking, and the nose was pointed, becoming softer in later editions. Mattel was following the market demand by moms that Barbie evolve into a more childlike, innocent-looking creature, at least partly because of biology. We and other animals are hard-wired to want to protect and nurture little helpless creatures that look like...babies.

So, to get to the question posed by the title of this essay, will Barbie come full circle? Will she eventually keep going on the same track and in another 20 years or so, look like this? 

~ Teresa

*  With all due credit and apologies to my late friend and noted biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who, in his essay "A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse" (reprinted in The Panda's Thumb", 1980)  described a similar evolution of Mickey with far more panache and rigor.  In his essay Steve  said "You may, indeed, now ask what an at least marginally respectable scientist has been doing with a mouse like that."--and after you read what followed, you didn't have to ask!  I ask the same withholding of judgment about why I'm spending time with a doll like that!  


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