In March 1959, a doll named "Barbie" launched onto the American toy market, sporting a black-and-white striped bathing suit, pouty red lips and a sassy blonde pony tail. The leggy, 11-inch plastic figure—full name: Barbara Millicent Roberts—was the first mass-produced toy doll in the U.S. with adult features. She would go on to become one of the most iconic playthings in history.
Barbie was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, co-founder (with her husband Elliot) of the toy company Mattel, Inc. Inspired by watching their daughter play with make-believe paper dolls of adult women, Handler realized there was an unfilled niche in the market for a toy that allowed little girls to imagine the future. Barbie’s appearance was modeled after a doll named the Bild Lilli, which had been inspired by a German comic-strip character. Originally marketed as a racy gag gift that men could buy in tobacco shops, the Lilli doll later became extremely popular with children. Mattel bought the rights to Lilli, and Handler created her own version.
For decades to come, Barbie continued to evolve with the changing times. Here's a look at her cultural revolution through the years.
1. The First Barbie Doll Launches at the American Toy Fair in New York City
Barbie’s official birthday is March 9, 1959—the day she was officially introduced to the world. Handler always saw Barbie as a reflection of the times, with the first doll mimicking the glamour of 1950s stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. In its first year, 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold. The first Barbie doll sold for $3.00, but a mint condition #1 doll can fetch more than $25,000 today.
2. Barbie’s Impressive Resume
Over the span of her existence, Barbie has had more than 200 careers. She broke the plastic ceiling when she went to the moon in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong. Since then, she has been everything from a doctor to a paleontologist to a rock star to a computer engineer.
3. The Year of Ken
Barbie’s on-again, off-again longtime boyfriend, Ken Carson, was introduced two years after Barbie in 1961. Ken was named after Ruth Handler’s son.
4. Barbie’s Friends & Family
To counteract criticisms that Barbie was solely a sex symbol, Mattel gave her a best friend, Midge Hadley, introduced in 1963. A year later, they gave her a little sister: Skipper Roberts.
5. First Celebrity Barbie
In 1967, supermodel Twiggy became the first celebrity to have a Barbie made in her likeness. Cher, Audrey Hepburn, Diana Ross and JK Rowling—to name a few—would later join the ranks of celebrity Barbies.
6. African American and Latina Barbie Introduced
While there had been other African American dolls in the Barbie collection before—including Barbie’s friend Christie, first introduced in 1968—an official African American Barbie wasn’t created until 1980, alongside a Latina Barbie. That same year saw the first of more than 40 different international Barbies released to date.
7. Andy Warhol Paints Barbie
Given Andy Warhol’s longtime fascination with iconic stars such as Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, it came as little surprise that the Pop artist would get around to depicting Barbie. The inspiration for his 1986 painting came from his longtime friendship with a jewelry designer, who happened to be an avid Barbie collector with tens of thousands of dolls. When Warhol asked to paint the designer’s portrait, his friend replied, “Do a portrait of Barbie because...Barbie, c’est moi.” Nearly 20 years later, Mattel returned the favor, issuing an Andy Warhol-themed Barbie collectible.
8. Bob Mackie Designs his First Barbie
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To this day, the Bob Mackie Barbie dolls are some of the most sought-after collectibles. Featuring his trademark glam style, the Bob Mackie Gold Barbie featured 5,000 hand-sewn golden sequin accents. Mackie helped start the collectible Barbie craze.
9. Barbie for President
Barbie first ran for president in 1992, and has hit the campaign trail at least seven times since. In 2020, she launched a campaign team.
10. Barbie and Ken Break Up?!
Amid a rash of high-profile celebrity breakups, Barbie and Ken made news of their own in 2004 when they decided they were better off as friends. They didn’t have to worry about splitting up their things though; the Dream House was always Barbie’s. After seven years apart, Barbie and Ken reunited.
11. Barbie Walks the Runway
To celebrate her 50th anniversary in 2009, Barbie had her own runway show in the New York Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, featuring original creations by 50 notable designers.
12. Drag Queen Barbie?
The avant-garde design duo, Phillipe and David Blond, known for glitz and glam, created the Blonds Blond Diamond Barbie. Some see this fabulous doll, dressed to the nines in sparkles, gems and fur, as the first “drag queen” Barbie.
13. Ella, the First 'Chemo Barbie'
To help young girls with cancer, Mattel produced a bald friend of Barbie named Ella. First manufactured in 2012, they were created in only a limited number and were distributed directly to hospitals. Responding to a petition from a cancer patient’s mother, Mattel agreed in 2014 to produce more Ella Barbies.
14. Cover of Sports Illustrated
Clad in a black and white suit reminiscent of her first outfit from 1959, Barbie made the cover of the 2014 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition
15. Barbie Embraces Diversity
To address longtime criticism that Barbie dolls did not accurately reflect the diversity of the modern woman, Mattel in 2016 introduced Barbie Fashionistas. They came in four body types, seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles.
16. Barbie Goes Historic
In 2018, Mattel released a new “Inspiring Women” collection that features three ground-breaking, history-making women—Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo and Katherine Johnson. Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. Kahlo was not only an inspiring and beloved painter, she was an activist who continues to influence women’s movements today. Johnson—who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Barack Obama—was a physicist, space scientist and mathematician at NASA’s Langley Center. She provided the calculations for Alan Shepherd’s historic first flight into space, John Glenn’s ground-breaking orbit of the earth and the trajectory for Apollo 11’s moon landing.
In 2019, with the marking of Barbie's 60th anniversary, Mattel released a new Barbie body type that featured a smaller bust, less defined waist and more defined arms. The addition was just the latest in Barbie's expanded line featuring a wider array of body shapes.
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