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Barbie is the star of the summer’s hottest blockbuster. The much-hyped movie is the pinnacle of a 60-year history filled with rejections, lawsuits, and controversies for the world’s most iconic doll.

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A chronological order of all the Barbies throughout history, ending with Margot Robbie in the Barbie movie.

Mattel Inc.; Chelsea Jia Feng/Insider

  • When Barbie first went on sale in 1959, she was nothing like the other dolls filling the aisles of toy stores.
  • Industry buyers were initially skeptical of Barbie — especially her breasts and overt femininity.
  • As a huge new blockbuster film is released, read the history of the world’s most iconic doll.
Ruth Handler wanted to make an adult fashion doll but Mattel’s team shot her downBarbie dolls are displayed during an exceptional exhibition dedicated to the Barbie doll at "La Nef des jouets" on March 8, 2019 in Soultz-Haut-Rhin, France.

Chesnot/Getty Images

Barbie is back in vogue.

Millennials and Gen Zs are waiting impatiently to watch the upcoming movie starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Reynolds, #barbiecore is trending on TikTok, and suddenly everyone’s wearing pink again.

The current hype around the brand is in sharp contrast to the rejections Barbie inventor Ruth Handler faced when she first tried to create the doll in the 1950s.

Handler’s primary inspiration for Barbie was her daughter, Barbara. With the dolls on the market at the time, Barbara “could only play out being a mom or caregiver,” whereas Ruth’s son’s toys allowed him to imagine himself as a firefighter, astronaut, or doctor, according to Mattel’s history of the brand.

Barbie was made to plug a gap in the toy market: A doll for girls who were too old for the popular baby dolls of the time and who wanted someone inspiring to look up to.

The one-dimensional paper fashion dolls Barbara played with in the 1950s limited her imagination, while the three-dimensional “fashion dolls” were built like children and would have looked “ludicrous” in a prom dress, Handler wrote in her autobiography “Dream Doll,” published in 1994.

But Handler, who had co-created Mattel in 1945, struggled to convince people of the market for an adult fashion doll. Mattel’s team told her it wouldn’t be possible to make such dolls at a low price in the US, she wrote.

“As the years went by, I brought up my idea a few more times, but everybody would kind of turn me off,” Handler wrote. “So I stopped mentioning it.”

Inspiration came from a German doll with breasts and ‘long, tapered legs’Bild Lilli doll made of all rigid plastic with jointed limbs, blond hair in a ponytail with a front curl, painted black earrings and heels. The doll is dressed in a blue and white polka dot dress. Photographed on a plain black background

SSPL/Getty Images

But Handler’s imagination was sparked on a family trip around Europe in summer 1956. Walking past a toy shop in the Swiss Alps, both Handler and her daughter were “absolutely transfixed” by the sight of a doll they saw in the window – known as Bild Lilli. “Barbara and I lingered outside that shop for the longest time,” Handler wrote.

Bild Lilli had first appeared in comic strips in German tabloid paper Bild Zeitung. Lilli, a cartoon secretary, “pursued rich men by striking provocative poses in revealing clothes and spouting comic-strip bubbles of suggestive dialogue,” Robin Gerber wrote in “Barbie and Ruth,” her 2000 biography of Handler.

The newspaper began making Lilli dolls in 1955 featuring a heart-shaped face, glued-on high blonde ponytail, sharp red pout, and eyes that glanced sideways, complete with blue shadow and winged liner.

“The ‘Lilli’ doll was the embodiment of an idea I’d pitched to Elliot and our other Mattel toy designers some five years earlier,” Handler wrote. While Lilli’s face was “too hard-looking and cartoonish,” her body “was another story,” she wrote.

“Here were the breasts, the small waist, the long, tapered legs I had enthusiastically described for the designers all those years ago,” Handler wrote.

 

Barbie was made less ‘curvaceous’ but still looked a lot like LilliComposite pictures of Barbie doll (left), Bild Lilli doll (right)

Frederic Neema/Sygma via Getty Images, Chesnot/Getty Images

When Handler returned to Los Angeles later that summer, she showed Lilli to Mattel’s team and finally managed to convince her colleagues of her idea. The toy company ultimately made a manufacturing agreement in Japan, where production was cheaper.

Handler tweaked Lilli’s look. Her curved eyebrows were swapped for dramatic arches and her lips were softened. Handler also gave Barbie tiny individual toes, unlike Lilli, whose legs simply transitioned into her shoes. Lilli’s hard plastic was switched for a softer material, her hair was rooted, and she was made less “curvaceous,” Handler wrote.

But Barbie still had Lilli’s high blonde ponytail, delicate nose, and winged eyes. “In the end, Lilli and her new sister were barely distinguishable except to the new doll’s creator,” Gerber wrote.

Handler wanted Barbie to be a blank canvas for the children who played with her.

“When we began sculpting Barbie’s face, I insisted that it not be too pretty or contain too much personality,” Handler wrote. “I was worried that if she were too glamorous, little girls wouldn’t be able to identify with her.”

Handler didn’t just want a doll, however. She wanted a whole suite of exquisitely-detailed clothes and accessories, too, with tiny zippers, buttons, and hems. She hoped that ultimately these would contribute more revenues than the dolls themselves – unlike Lilli, whose clothes weren’t sold separately.

Handler consulted the psychologist Ernest Dichter during Barbie’s development, too. After interviewing 191 girls and 45 mothers, he suggested enlarging the doll’s breasts but also downplaying her “sexual overtones” to appeal to mothers, according to Gerber.

“Little girls dream of being curvaceous, dreamy, exciting,” Handler once said. “They want – some day – to have gorgeous clothes, be chic, and look like movie stars.”

Handler had wanted to name the doll after her daughter’s nickname, Babs. But that had already been taken – as had Barbara. So Handler settled for Barbie, and gave the doll the full name Barbara Millicent Roberts.

Readying Barbie for mass production was a slow process. “Over the next three years, the time it took to bring the doll to market, slowly but surely the concept gained momentum and enthusiasm at Mattel,” Handler wrote. “I can be very persuasive in getting others to see the light.”

Buyers didn’t care about BarbieThe first Barbie, who came out in 1959.The first Barbie, who came out in 1959.

Frederic Neema/Sygma via Getty Images

Barbie was finally unveiled to the public at the National Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959, which is now known as her birthday. The 11-inch doll took over a room at the New Yorker Hotel, the centerpiece of which was a Barbie in a wedding dress.

Before leaving for New York, Mattel told its manufacturers to increase supply, setting a “modest” forecast for the first year of one million dolls and two million pieces of clothing, Handler wrote.

The first version of Barbie to hit the market cost $3 and wore a black-and-white striped swimsuit, small black heels, sunglasses, and hooped earrings. 

Additional items of clothing from her 22-piece wardrobe were sold at between $1 and $3. “It was the razor and the razor blade theory: Sell the razor at a reasonable price and people will buy the razor blades – or clothes, in our case – to go with it,” Handler wrote.

Mattel was already an industry heavyweight with a booming portfolio by the time of the 1959 toy fair. But there wasn’t much interest in Barbie.

About a quarter of Mattel’s usual buyers ordered “good-sized quantities” of the doll at the toy fair, and the same proportion ordered a “token number,” Handler wrote. The remaining half “wanted nothing to do with her,” saying little girls only wanted to play with baby dolls.

But their biggest objection was that Barbie had breasts. This is despite the fact that “her ‘figure’ typified what the feminine ideal was in the late 1950s,” Handler wrote.

Handler wired Mattel’s Japanese manufacturers to cut production by 40%, before going to her hotel room to cry, she wrote.

Sales started to climb and parents didn’t object as much as buyers expectedThree old Barbie dolls and one Ken doll shown at an auction in 2000

Fiona Hanson/PA Images via Getty Images

But interest in the doll started growing as schools broke up for summer. The first Barbie TV commercial aired during the Mickey Mouse Club that year. Suddenly, Mattel could hardly keep up with the demand for Barbie.

“People in the retail business use an expression for a popular product – they say it ‘walks’ off the counter,” Handler wrote. “Barbie didn’t walk. She ran.” Around 350,000 dolls were sold in the first year. Bild Lilli sold 130,000 dolls in her lifetime.

Mattel ramped up production, “but it took us three years to even come close to catching up with the demand a little bit,” Handler wrote.

Barbie became a must-have toy for young girls in the US and beyond. According to a 1962 article by Time, Barbie “appeals to little girls because it looks ‘grown up’ and to their parents because it is inexpensive.” Handler said she got letters from mothers “grateful to us for getting their daughters to be more conscious about style and good grooming.”

Even as production scaled up, Handler and other Mattel designers kept a “scrupulous eye on the incoming shiploads of finished dolls,” The New York Times wrote in 1963. “Rejects go back to Japan to be sold there.”

By 1968, Barbie had brought in more than $500 million in retail sales, including the sales of 103 million costume sets, with around 10,000 workers in Japan producing the doll and her myriad accessories, Gerber wrote.

Designing Ken led to an argument over how prominent to make his crotchA young boy looks confused while a young girl inspects Ken dolls in 1961.A young boy looks confused while a young girl inspects Ken dolls in 1961.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Beginning as early as September 1959, we received hundreds of letters from little girls begging us to make a boyfriend for Barbie,” Handler wrote. “We were scared to death of boy dolls, and so was the rest of the toy trade. Boy dolls had been tried in our industry dozens of times and they’d always flopped. But how could we ignore what our customers were saying?”

So Ken came out in 1961, just two years after Barbie, named for Handler’s son. The 12-inch doll cost $3.50 and additional outfits were available for between $1.25 and $5. He originally had flocked hair, but “had been prone to bald spots,” leading Mattel to switch it out for plastic hair, Handler wrote. His development included a disagreement between Handler and other Mattel execs over how much of a crotch to give him.

Though the initial response in the trade was “mildly negative,” Ken still sold well, Handler wrote. By 1963, around one Ken doll was sold for every three Barbies, The New York Times reported.

Mattel quickly built up a line of characters in the Barbie collection. In 1963, “Barbie’s best friend” Midge was introduced, with the same body shape as Barbie so she could wear the same clothes, but production stopped in 1967. She looked “much more girl-next-doorish than the glamorous Barbie,” perhaps contributing to her poor sales, Handler wrote – though the doll did come back decades later.

Other dolls in the collection included Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister, who came out in 1964 and had “a flat-chested child’s body,” and 1966’s Francie, who was “slimmer and had smaller breasts” than Barbie, meaning Mattel had to bring out a new line of clothes for her, Handler wrote.

As well as Barbie and Ken, other dolls in the franchise were named for Handler’s relatives. These included Allan, “Ken’s best friend,” who was named for Handler’s son-in-law.

Christie was released in 1968 as a friend of Barbie after a failed launch of a Black version of Francie the year before. Christie was one of the first Black fashion dolls on the market. “She was overwhelmingly accepted,” Handler wrote. The first Black and Hispanic Barbies weren’t released until 1980, however: Prior to that, Mattel’s non-white dolls were always known as “friends of Barbie.”

Mattel was quick to expand the Barbie line beyond just dolls, too. In 1962, only three years after the doll first hit shelves, her most iconic accessory, the Barbie Dreamhouse, was released.

Barbie became ‘prettier and prettier’ as the years went byBarbie dolls are displayed during an exceptional exhibition dedicated to the Barbie doll at "La Nef des jouets" on March 8, 2019 in Soultz-Haut-Rhin, France.Opposable limbs and different hairstyles were among the innovations in Barbie’s early years.

Chesnot/Getty Images

Mattel was keen to innovate and regularly released new dolls to reflect manufacturing advancements, including more posable ones with bendable limbs. The first talking doll came out in 1968, uttering phrases like “Help me fix my hair” and “I think I’ll call Ken.” A “Growing Up” version of Skipper came out in 1975, whose arm could be rotated to make her grow taller, get small breasts, and have a slimmer waistline.

Barbie’s style also changed over the years in response to fashion trends, demand from customers, and Mattel’s ideas.

Though Handler had wanted Barbie to be a blank canvas for young girls, Mattel’s advertising agency “wanted to play up the glamorous aspects,” she wrote. “Eventually, I began to lose the battle because consumers seemed to prefer the glamorous side of Barbie.”

“The designers made the doll prettier and prettier as the years went by because it became clear that little girls were not intimidated by Barbie’s looks,” Handler continued.

Deciding which outfits to manufacture was difficult because of the lag between Barbie’s clothes being designed and hitting stores. “We never tried to set fashion, we just tried to anticipate what the fashions were going to be by the time the product came on the market,” Handler wrote.

Ken changed over time, too. His physique was altered in 1963 to give him “broad shoulders, a tapered waist and somewhat more muscle” than previous models, “when his makers kept him on the scrawny side to make him easier to dress,” The New York Times wrote at the time. The publication described him as having “an earnest, unsophisticated look.”

In the late 1960s, both Barbie and Ken were restyled. Barbie had “plastic surgery,” giving her a “wider-eyed, less-sultry, more teenager-like face and longer hair,” while Ken got “a hunkier build, a handsomer face, longer hair, and a healthier skin tone,” Handler wrote.

From the early 1970s, Ken “reflected society’s attitude that it was now acceptable for men to primp and be vain,” including the release of a “Mod Hair Ken” with shoulder-length, rooted hair, Handler wrote.

Over the decades, Barbie has received fierce criticism for creating unrealistic body standards. At the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality in New York City, some marchers chanted “I am not a Barbie doll,” as The Smithsonian Magazine reported.

Barbie sales started to flag in the early 1980s. Jill Barad, who took over the Barbie line in 1983, put this down to people thinking that the doll was sexist, per Gerber. A new advertising campaign marketed Barbie as a professional role model, using the tagline “we girls can do anything.” Careers Barbie has taken on in her more than 50-year lifetime include being an Air Force pilot, scuba diver, and NASCAR driver.

Particularly controversial dolls Mattel released over the years included a pregnant version of Midge, the “Earring Magic Ken” clad in a lavender mesh shirt and purple pleather vest, the “Teen Talk Barbie” who said phrases like “Math class is tough,” and 1965’s “Slumber Party Barbie” who came with a “don’t eat” diet book.

Barbie’s focus for the last decade has been diversitybarbie fashionista lineMattel has tried to diversify Barbie so that children can play with dolls that look like themselves and that better represent society.

Mattel

Sales slumped at points in the 2000s and 2010s as more children played with games consoles and Mattel faced stiff competition from newer toys and franchises like Bratz and Disney’s “Frozen.”

“Barbie was seen as too perfect and aspirational,” Lisa McKnight, global head of Mattel’s doll portfolio, previously told Insider. “We needed to show her vulnerability.”

Mattel, in response, has tried to diversify Barbie so that children can play with dolls that look like themselves and that better represent society. Curvy, petite, and tall Barbies were introduced in 2016 – putting the doll on the cover of Time magazine. Mattel has also released dolls with hearing aids, colorful prosthetic limbs, and skin conditions, as well as one representing a person with Down syndrome, which hit stores earlier this year.

“Right now when you say ‘Barbie’ to someone, a very clear image of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slim doll comes to mind,” Kim Culmone, global head of design at Barbie, told The Telegraph in 2016. “In a few years, this will no longer be the case.”

Barbie engages with children beyond just its dolls. The brand’s YouTube channel has 11.4 million subscribers with animated videos featuring “vlogs” from the dolls, recipes, and mini-series, and Mattel has also released dozens of Barbie films.

Greta Gerwig has brought Barbie back in styleRyan Gosling and Margot Robbie in a scene from "Barbie" where Barbie and Ken are driving in a pink convertible down a desert road.Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.”

Warner Bros.

Culmone told UK magazine Stylist that there were three main reasons interest in Barbie had ballooned in 2022: “The pink revival in fashion, Noughties nostalgia, and, of course, the film.”

“We are incredibly confident and excited about Barbie’s future,” Mattel COO and President Richard Dickson told investors in May. “The cultural conversation around Barbie is only highlighting the importance of the brand and the age extension that we have as well, both in our core consumer and young adults as we pursue the collector strategy as well.”

This doesn’t mean that the company is selling more dolls, though. Gross billings for Barbie – the amount invoiced to a customer without including trade discounts – fell 41% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2023.

“The shift of promotional activity has moved into the second quarter, which aligns better with the theatrical release of the movie,” Dickson told investors. “We’ve got extraordinary innovation that’s lined up as always for the back half.”

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