March 9, 2018 marks Barbie’s 59th birthday!
Many sewists got their start sewing for a favorite doll. For many people, that first favorite doll was a Barbie. Columnist Abby Glassenberg explores how those humble beginnings shaped, and continue to shape, the home sewing industry.
Share your memories of sewing for Barbie – or any other beloved doll – in the comments!
I never had a Barbie growing up. My mother objected to the way Barbie’s impossibly tall, busty, thin body might make a short Jewish girl like me feel. Mom wasn’t the only one who has worried about Barbie’s potentially negative impact on impressionable girls. Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie, came under fire almost immediately when it released the first doll in 1959. Parents worried that a doll with breasts wasn’t appropriate for children. Over the years, the company has been accused many times of perpetuating female stereotypes and making white skin and blond hair the ideal of feminine beauty. Still, Barbie has endured for more than 50 years as an American icon and, while I didn’t have her at home, I spent hours playing with Barbies at my friend’s house after school.
In addition to rejecting Barbie, my mother also rejected sewing. She’s of the generation that cast sewing aside when it became cheaper to buy readymade clothes at the department store. We didn’t have a sewing machine in my house, and when I begged for one in 8th grade after learning to sew in Home Economics class, I had to figure out how to use it on my own. When I look back at those frustrating afternoons struggling by myself to understand the language of sewing patterns, I see her lack of involvement as a blessing. In the end, I pushed the patterns aside and set about designing things on my own, turning to books, and later to blogs and YouTube, when I needed to master specific skills. I developed the confidence to become a designer in my own right.
I didn’t sew for Barbie, because I couldn’t, but I’m fascinated by the role that Barbie has played in our sewing lives. In 2009, to celebrate Barbie’s 50th anniversary, 51 of the most well known fashion designers created Barbie-inspired looks for a show at New York Fashion Week. It’s striking how many of them cite sewing for Barbie as a child as their first fashion sewing experience.
Bridal and eveningwear designer Reem Acra, who grew up in Beirut, told InStyle magazine at the time, “We had a live-in seamstress who made my clothes; and while she was making my clothes, I would sit next to her and make matching outfits for Barbie with the leftover fabrics.”
At the time Barbie came on the market, nearly all other dolls available in stores were babies. While on vacation in Switzerland in the mid-1950s, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler had purchased German dolls that were shaped like adults. She brought them home thinking that something similar would be popular in the US market. And, of course, she couldn’t have been more right. Mattel has sold over a billion Barbies since.
Alissa Haight Carlton is the Supervising Casting Director for Project Runway, which has become a fashion institution since it first aired in 2004. She’s been struck by how often Barbie comes up when she talks with potential contestants for the show. “I’ve interviewed a lot of fashion designers,” she says, “and every season a handful mention that sewing clothes for their Barbies was their first foray into fashion design.”
She has a theory as to why. “Fashion design in general is a hard world for kids who aren’t from privileged backgrounds to break into because it’s so based on internships and getting into companies by giving time for free. Plus who can afford to live in New York City? Mostly it’s kids who have parents helping out financially. No one is limited this way when sewing for Barbie. Scraps of fabric with a needle and thread are all they need to get started.”
Haight Carlton believes there’s another reason why Barbie was the doll that kids who grew up to become fashion designers chose to sew for. “It’s the first and maybe the only doll they got that looks like a woman and not a baby or small kid. No doll looks more like a fashion sketch than Barbie.”
Barbie is, in fact, like a three-dimensional croquis. She’s made at a 1/6 scale, which means that at 11 1/2” tall, she’s the equivalent of a 5’9” woman with a 36” chest, 18” waist and 33” hips. She’s the ideal blank canvas for a child to experiment with fashion design.
The major sewing pattern companies, including Butterick, Simplicity and McCalls, have released patterns for Barbie clothes through the years, but at such a small scale those patterns are fiddly and hard for a child to achieve independently. Perhaps that’s a blessing. Pushing aside the available patterns, children set about designing their own Barbie fashions, and some carry that experience forward into a lifelong passion for sewing.
Sew News reader Claudia McCartney got a Barbie in 1959, the year the doll first came on the market. “The next door girl and I would get our Barbies, sewing supplies and scraps of fabric from our mothers and spend hours creating clothes for them,” she recalls. “We learned about darts in the top and skirts. We learned about snaps and hook-and-eyes. We made them fancy with scraps of lace and trim.” Sewing for Barbie was the beginning of a lifetime of sewing for Claudia, who made three-piece suits for her husband in the 1970’s, clothes for her children, curtains for their house and has now begun quilting. “I think my first experience sewing for Barbie, and the success I had, encouraged me to keep trying new projects,” she says.
“Barbie was a huge influence on me,” says avid sewist Kathy Ranabargar. “I didn’t want to be her. I just used her as my mannequin.” At age five, Kathy began designing clothes for her Barbie using scraps from her mother’s projects. “I would lay Barbie down on the fabric and trace around her. When I couldn’t get the dress over her head I figured out seam allowance and figured I better make it a little bigger,” she laughs. “The first communion dress that my mom made for my older sister became the most beautiful wedding dress for Barbie.” Now, at age 45, Kathy says she’s never stopped sewing. She made her own wedding dress as well as her sister’s, and she now works for a quilting company.
Barbie’s role in the American toy and fashion industry has been well documented, but she’s also played a significant role in the world of sewing. So many children over the last five decades first realized the power and beauty of sewing while making a dress for Barbie.