For 35 years, Carol Spencer was Barbie’s personal couturier, designing styles for the California doll that ranged from cocktail attire to beachwear, surgical scrubs to an eastern European Empress that sold for $50,000. Now 86, Spencer reflects on serving as Barbie’s personal stylist from 1963 through 1998 in her book Dressing Barbie (HarperCollins).
“It was like she was my best friend,” Spencer says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she’s lived since the early ’60s, when she moved from the Midwest. Women, she writes, were expected to choose a career from a short list that included nurse, teacher, secretary, “seamstress,” and “shopgirl.” Those who didn’t like those options could always choose wife and mother.
“When I graduated from high school I was supposed to be a secretary,” she says. “I couldn’t stand it. Taking shorthand and sitting there, working in an office, that was not for me.” Instead, Spencer enrolled in the fashion-design program at the Minneapolis School of Art.
When she arrived at Mattel four years after Barbie debuted in 1959, she was charged with reimagining current fashion trends in the doll’s size – roughly one-sixth human scale. “It took 18 months to get certain products into production,” she remembers. “By the time it was in production [the trend] would either be at the peak or slightly on the decline, but it would be well-known to the child. It didn’t have to be the initial fashion that Christian Dior had designed that week, because the child wouldn’t understand it.”
For example, it took nearly a year for a look that nodded to Barbra Streisand’s 1969 Oscar look to hit the market. Streisand had popularized the evening-pyjama trend with an Arnold Scaasi pantsuit with plastic sequins that, unbeknownst to her, turned see-through under the Oscar spotlight. Spencer used a similarly translucent fabric for Lemon Kick, but, in a spoof on Streisand’s bum-baring look, Spencer made sure Barbie wore a pair of oversized panties underneath.
Barbie’s undergarments were a bit of a fixation for anxious parents. “From the beginning, if we didn’t have underpants, parents would ask for underpants,” Spencer says. “They would say, if Barbie doesn’t wear them then the child won’t wear them.” Mattel tried everything from offering underwear separately to dolls with painted-on drawers but still found Barbie a reliable lightening rod for controversy.
“With any toy, especially for a child, you get a certain amount of comments,” Spencer says. “We made sure that the product was wholesome but also that it was fashionable and it followed the trends.”
One of the most vocal critics was the late Baptist minister Jerry Falwell who later became infamous for his conspiracy theory that Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, advocated a gay agenda. “He used to call our PR department every time a new line came out,” Spencer recalls.
In the ’80s, Barbie’s style goals shifted as her closet expanded to include looks that ultimately grew to represent over 200 professions including surgeon, rapper, executive, paleontologist (twice), game developer, and president. Barbie’s career ambitions reflected what was happening in North America. When she debuted in 1959, Stats Canada reports a quarter of women were employed or actively looking for work. By 1990, the percentage of women in the workforce was 76%.
Rather than reinforcing the traditional careers that Spencer had grown up with, Barbie’s “we girls can do anything” mantra positioned her as an unlikely trailblazer. For example, astronaut is a vocation that has appeared on Barbie’s resume a dozen times. Inspired by NASA’s first spacesuit designed for female astronauts, Spencer created a realistic spacesuit for Barbie in the ’80s. She even had her own flying space vehicle.