Is Barbie an Unrealistic Menace? Evaluating Barbie in the Historic Context of the New Look

Barbie gets a bad rap these days.  She’s mocked for her body shape.  She’s translated into “real measurements” ad infinitum.  Mothers refuse to let their daughters play with Barbie because they might catch a “bad body image” from her.  Barbie is anti-feminist.  Barbie makes women feel bad.  Barbie is evil.  We’ve all heard it — over, and over, and over.  And it’s getting old.  When we look at Barbie qualitatively — from a dressmaking perspective and an historic perspective, instead of just “by the numbers,” an alternate picture presents itself.

First of all, let’s take a quick look at Barbie’s careers.  Feminists should love Barbie, really.  According to this article, Barbie has over 130 careers, even running for President before any other woman.  If there’s any doll that might influence a girl to be everything she can possibly be, it’s Barbie.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what Barbie looks like with clothes. All the measurements on Barbie are taken sans clothing — and it’s a distortion.  The other day, I came across this great blog post that does a visual comparison of Barbie’s waistline with and without her clothes. I quote Amanda:

“Do you know why Barbie . . . has such a small waist? Proportion and scale. Fabric doesn’t scale down that much. Once the clothes are around that tiny waist, she begins to look more “normal” because the seams around the waist add bulk.”

There are only so many things you can do to shrink Barbie clothes. As Amanda observed, fabric has to be a certain thickness.  We can’t dress Barbie in tissue paper.  In addition, clothes really can’t be made — in any size — with less than 1/4″ seam allowance.  If you check out the interior side seam of any T-shirt in your dresser drawer, you’ll find that the seam allowance is probably 1/4″.  This means that you and Barbie have the same seam allowance on your clothes.  Let me translate that: Regardless of the significant size difference between you and Barbie, you both have same amount of excess fabric taking up space on the interior of the garment.  On an 11-1/2″ doll, that’s a lot of bulk.

Let’s look at Barbie — dressed, since we’re civilized people and don’t judge others by how they look unclothed — and compare her to some other images.

2012-02-08-Barbie6edit.jpgAbove, here’s a photo of Barbie, in one of her original dresses from 1960.  Please note that she looks quite normal (and if you click the picture, it takes you to the article where I found it — quite a fun read). here’s a women’s sewing pattern that’s nearly identical to Barbie’s dress shown above (again, linked to the source — decent price for an adorable vintage sewing pattern, too).

Do notice that Barbie in the first photo is much more realistically proportioned than the drawing on the sewing pattern envelope.

Now, here’s something else to think about. In 1959, when Barbie came out, the New Look was still in full force in popular American fashion. Let’s run a Google Image search for “New Look.”

New-Look-Hero.jpgHere’s our number one result, from, depicting a woman in a Dior outfit. Does her silhouette remind you of anyone we know? A plastic, 11-1/2″ someone?

The New Look was introduced in 1947 — a very feminine fashion that reacted against the restricted styles of WWII.  It consisted of a full bust, a very fitted waist, and either a full skirt (pictured above) or a slim-fitting pencil skirt.  This silhouette — the hourglass shape — dominated fashion from 1947 into the early 1960s.  It was THE fashion of the era.

Barbie’s shape wasn’t some diabolical scheme to make girls feel bad about their bodies. Barbie was simply the New Look, in doll form.

Now, here’s something else about the New Look — achieving this look typically required the use of various undergarments for shape.  Full skirts were achieved by petticoats; tiny waists were shaped by girdles; and full busts required uplifting bras, extra fullness in the bodice, and sometimes even padding.  But who puts girdles and bras on dolls?  Barbie is just the woman of the 1950s with all of her supporting undergarments already incorporated into her shape. Dressed, Barbie looks like Mary Tyler Moore, Donna Reed, Marilyn Monroe, or even Andy Griffith’s girlfriend Ellie (if you don’t believe me, look them up!). And when was the last time we kept a girl from watching Andy Griffith because it might be “injurious to her self esteem”? Yeah, right.

With all the Photoshopping that we see in magazines or Photoshopped ads from Target, don’t you think maybe we’re overreacting a little bit to Barbie’s historic New Look figure?  If I had a daughter and were choosing whether to let her watch television, look at a magazine, or play with Barbies, I’d rather her be playing with Barbies any day.  Barbie is a woman in good shape, yes — no one would mistake her for being portly — but an unrealistic woman?  Not when you look at her in her historic context.

About Charity

I have an inexcusable number of cookbooks (and like to experiment with them), have worked in architectural antiques, and have been sewing most of my life. I recently graduated with a Ph.D. in Apparel, Merchandising, & Design from Iowa State University. Doing household things (except for cleaning!) and hunting for antiques are my favorite pastimes.
This entry was posted in Ruminating, Reminiscing, & Rambling and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is Barbie an Unrealistic Menace? Evaluating Barbie in the Historic Context of the New Look

  1. Nichole says:

    This is interesting for context.

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