BA Fashion and Dress History student Charlotta Ruotanen visits an exhibition about a popular – but contested – children’s toy
Love it or hate it, Barbie is one of the best known toys of the last sixty years and perhaps it’s for that reason that the exhibition Barbie – The Icon has been a hit. The exhibition, which was curated by Professor Massimiliano Capella and developed with toy manufacturer Mattel, originated in Milan and travelled to Rome, Bologna and Madrid before coming to Helsinki, where I saw it (Fig 1). It explores the history of Barbie from the late fifties to today.
Inside the Museum there were opportunities to pose with images of Barbie before entering the first room, which was dedicated to how the image of Barbie has changed over the years. There was a separate case for the original Teen-age Fashion Model Barbie Doll. This, the first ever Barbie, was introduced at the 1959 Toy Fair in New York. It looked sophisticated and was wearing a black and white bathing suit (Fig 2).
Looking at how Barbie had changed over seven decades prompted me to think about how the world and fashion have changed since the late 1950s. Even Barbie’s body and face have changed to comply with fashionable beauty standards. The original Barbie had strong cat-eye makeup with blue eyeshadow, hoop earrings and a tiny waist. This look stayed the same during most of the 1960s and Barbie had multiple different hair colours too. In the seventies Barbie’s hair changed to that long, blond, iconic hair that she still has. Also Barbie’s skin colour changed to become more tan as was fashionable and her face had a complete makeover. In recent years Barbie has been given even more makeovers and now there are even Barbies with different body-types to fit with campaigns about body positivity.
One exhibition room was dedicated to all the different careers Barbie has had. The first Barbie was a fashion model but since the 1960s Barbie has been an astronaut, doctor, veterinarian, air hostess, athlete and a lot more (Fig 3). The next room was about Barbie’s house and her family and friends, the next few rooms were about collectable Barbies. For example “Silkstone Barbies” were made to be glamorous and to have the face of the first Barbie despite being made in the twenty-first century. In the same room there were Barbies that had clothes inspired by famous artworks and, of course, there were also celebrity look-a-like Barbies. Some of these were characters from movies and some wore iconic outfits from celebrities like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Cher (Fig 4).
The exhibition ended with a room full of Barbies that represented different countries and cultures. This was clearly the curator’s attempt to end the exhibition with a sense of unity, but was problematic as most of the dolls were heavily stereotyped and their costumes depended on cultural appropriation. This was a disappointing end to what was otherwise an excellent exhibition.