13 MARCH 1993, Page 24


Isabel Wolff attends Barbie Doll's

34th birthday party and discovers a shopping phenomenon

`WHAT DO YOU like best about 'Bar- bie?', I asked seven-year-old Michelle from York. She helped herself to another pink-icing-smothered fairy cake, and chewed thoughtfully for a few seconds. `Well . . . she's, she's really pretty and . . . and she's got lots of nice clothes and she's got long hair which I can plait.' Michelle was one of 29 little English girls, chosen out of over 10,000 volunteers, to help Bar- bie celebrate her 34th birthday at the American Embassy in London this week. `What else do you like about her?', I enquired, as a passing caterer refilled Michelle's pink plastic cup with rose- coloured fizzy pop. 'Well, she's very kind,' she said seriously, brushing crumbs off her party dress, `and I think she works hard.' In the middle of the table a smiling, blonde Barbie Doll in a pink chiffon con- fection stared vacantly across the balloon- festooned room. Amongst the other tables, Miss Lisa Collum, a Barbie look-alike, cir- culated in a bustiered pink cocktail dress, and posed obligingly for photographers. She had driven to the embassy in a brand- new pink Jaguar complete with pink Bar- bie' number plates.

`Do you think Barbie has a nice life?', I asked Emily, aged six, from Bath. She gave me a blissful, gap-toothed smile.

`Oh yeth. She goeth on boat tripth, and she'th got nithe cars and she goeth thcuba- diving, and she meets lots of famouth peo- ple.'

`Do you want to be like Barbie?', I said. `Oh yeth,' she replied, unhesitatingly. `How many Barbie dolls have you got?' `Theven'.

She may only be 111/2 inches tall, but Barbie Doll is big. Forget Nintendo and Ninja Turtles, Barbie is the world's most popular toy, rushing off production lines at a rate of 55,000 a day. When she was launched at the New York Toy Fair in 1959 they said she'd never catch on; but since then this flesh-toned vinyl icon of miniature womanhood has dominated the toy markets in 100 countries. Over the last 34 years a total of 600 million Barbies have been produced and sold — put them all end to end, as Barbie's press officers never tire of saying, and they would circle the planet three and a half times.

She's had her imitators, but Barbie has remained the doll for our times. With her tidal wave of blonde hair, huge blue eyes and startling physique (life size, she would be an improbable 39-18-32), people have seen in her shades of Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe. In fact the prototype was the German Lili doll, inspired by a news- paper cartoon character of the same name. But if Barbie was conceived in Ger- many, she was born in California, spring- ing fully-formed, pouting and pony-tailed, from the drawing-board of Ruth and Elliot Handler, who named her after their own daughter. Barbie now earns her owners, Mattel, more than £300 million every year.

Barbie's permanence on the cultural landscape is no accident of history. She emerged at a time when the concept of `teenager' was a new and rather sexy one. Not only was Barbie herself a teenager her projected age is 19 — she was also a very fashion-conscious one. This was a doll who represented the values of young, newly affluent, female Americans of the first suburban television generation; values which have hardly changed, for all the depredations of Hollywood.

Barbie is the American consumer made vinyl. More than 20 million outfits are bought for her each year. She has more shoes than Imelda Marcos (approximately 1 billion pairs so far) and more frocks than the Princess of Wales could dream of. She has been dressed by Balenciaga, Yves St Laurent, Hermes and Kenzo. But most of her clothes these days are off-the-peg. She is the world's biggest purchaser of dress fabric, buying about 20 million metres every year; like Madonna, Barbie is a Material Girl — and it is this which is the great money-spinner for Mattel. While it costs only about £5 to buy Barbie, her dresses are between £8 and £12 each, as parents know only too well. But it isn't all frocks and hats and jackets and shoes; Bar- bie has 'dream kitchens' and 'dream hous- es', `dream theatres' and 'dream shops'. She has photographic studios and ham- burger stands, safari tents and 'poolside arrangements'. She seems, on the surface, to lead a life of unremitting leisure, stag- gering from beach party to barbecue, to ball. But Barbie is no shallow socialite; she is a Serious Working Woman, which is how she pays for her expensive lifestyle.

She's been an air-hostess (for three American airlines) and a doctor (her white coat cunningly converts into a ball-gown); she's been a nurse, a vet, a television exec- utive, a fashion editor, a heart surgeon, an Olympic gold medallist and an astronaut. True, she's never been a social worker or a tax collector, but she did once work in McDonald's. Some feminists argue that Barbie can be seen as a symbol of female emancipation, because she works for a liv- ing and doesn't depend upon men for her wealth and possessions. The feminist writ- er, Marina Warner, is not so sure: 'I don't think that Barbie is independent of men,' she says, 'because each year the highlight of the new Barbie fashion collection is the wedding dress, just as it is in the couture houses; so the idea of marriage does under- lie the doll and all her possessions.'

Barbie has had more wedding dresses than Elizabeth Taylor, (5 million, claim Mattel's hand-rubbing statisticians), but she's never tied the knot, although she's been going steady with her boyfriend, Ken, for the past 32 years. Tall (12 inches), dark and handsome, and with his own red sports car, Ken was the perfect escort for Barbie at fraternity dances and drive-in-movies. They did get engaged at the end of the 1960s, but Barbie got cold feet and called the whole thing off.

The truth is that Barbie is probably too busy trying to maintain her market share to contemplate marriage, having just seen off a big challenge from her British-made for- mer friend, Sindy. Sindy was always a more plain-looting, sensible doll, with a flat chest, a big head, a two-up-two-down in the suburbs, and a sensible car. But a couple of years ago Sindy was revamped — and was allegedly remodelled to look like American Barbie. Sindy's bust had swelled, her head had shrunk, and she had grown and streaked blonde her brown hair. Barbie went mad and took out injunctions against the sale of Sindy right across Europe. An intellectual copyright trial, scheduled for January was averted at the eleventh hour by an agreement from Sindy to have a face- drop.

So perhaps that's why Barbie particularly wanted to celebrate her birthday this year in Britain — just to show Sindy who's top doll.