Dressing Barbie: Meet the designer who created a miniature fashion icon

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 7/17/2023, 1:08 p.m.
From carefully coordinated all-pink looks, to opulent evening outfits made in partnership with Oscar de la Renta, it’s no secret …
She called designing for the doll "her passion." Mandatory Credit: Scott Miles Photography

Originally Published: 14 JUL 23 11:36 ET

By Nicole Mowbray, CNN

(CNN) — From carefully coordinated all-pink looks, to opulent evening outfits made in partnership with Oscar de la Renta, it’s no secret Barbie has long been one of the most fashion-forward toys on the market.

It’s a reputation forged in large part thanks to Carol Spencer, a now 90-year-old fine arts scholar who answered a newspaper job advertisement in 1963 to become Barbie’s fashion designer — a position she held for 36 years until 1999, making her the figure’s longest serving stylist.

“When I joined the company, I worked with Ruth Handler (the inventor of Barbie) who was still at Mattel,” Spencer said in a telephone interview from the 2023 Barbie convention in Orlando. “As soon as I started, I just truly fell in love with this little doll called Barbie and she became my passion.”

But becoming a fashion designer in California was a long way from Spencer’s early life. Born in 1932 in Minneapolis, Spencer said she rejected the common female stereotypes of the day. “I graduated from high school in 1950 and at that time there were basically five jobs for women,” she told Business Insider in 2019. “You could be a teacher, nurse, secretary, clerk or a wife and mother.”

Instead, Spencer enrolled at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to study fine arts with fashion design and, after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1955, Spencer travelled to New York for a “guest editing” internship slot at Mademoiselle Magazine (alongside Joan Didion), before moving to Milwaukee for a job in fashion design.

Seven years later, she landed the job at Mattel and moved across the country to fulfill what she believes was her destiny.

It’s a career celebrated in her recently re-issued book, “Dressing Barbie” (Harper Books), which sees Spencer reflect on some her career highs as a couturier in miniature.

“When you look back at Barbie dolls, they replicate history and show what was what was happening at the time, which is why the 1960s was one of my favorite decades working with Barbie,” she said. “So many things were going on. Fashion was changing, from the ‘couturier period’, where high fashions began in Europe and spread around the world, to a huge youth culture movement, the advent of ‘mod’ fashion and Mary Quant’s wonderful designs. There were wonderful new musicians — Elvis Presley and The Beatles, for example. It was lots of fun to work on Barbie’s changing style alongside that.”

Spencer says however, that Barbie would never be positioned as a vanguard in this new youthquake movement.

“Barbie’s clothing and style has to be understandable to a child,” she said. “So we always waited for fashions to become established before creating pieces for Barbie. She also had to be wholesome — we always had to put underpants on the Barbie, for instance — but also a fun toy.”

When Barbie first came out in March 1959, she was introduced as a teenage fashion model; a glossy alternative to the dress-and-undress paper dolls children cut-out and played with at the time. While Barbie’s narrow beauty standards have caused consternation in modern days, Spencer says Handler’s intention was always for the doll to move with the times. “Ruth Handler’s plan was very much for the doll to be as lifelike as possible and evolve as society evolves,” she said. “She was designed to be interpreted and played with in many different ways.”

As times changed, the design process began to change too, Spencer said. While today’s designers work on computers, Spencer and the design team worked on fashions on 3D models of dolls rather than drawings (“drawings often don’t relate to what something looks like in a box or package,” Spencer said).

“The team did everything by hand; from making patterns, cutting them, to sewing the miniature garments and then we would make adjustments until it looked right on Barbie and in the box. Barbie’s scale is roughly 1/6 the scale of a real person and everything needed to look right.”

While Spencer is the longest standing member of the design team for Barbie, she notes that from the mid 70s to the early 90s, there were three designers for the doll. “I was from the Midwest and more-or-less the most conservative designer,” she says. “There was also Kitty Black Perkins, who was African American and from the Southeast and Janet Goldblum from New York. The company wanted designers from a variety of backgrounds and each of us had different strengths.”

While at the time of this interview, Spencer hadn’t seen the movie and didn’t yet know if any of her exact designs will feature, she said scenes she had seen stay true to the spirit of the designs. “The clothing has used the flavor of many of our designs, but I’ve not yet seen any direct replicas,” Spencer said.

“There is a lot of pink and white gingham for example, which is a fabric pattern we used about five or six times throughout the years, but the film’s designer (Jacqueline Durran) has updated the styles — as every designer does. She’s also had to make the looks work on actors who need to move and maintain the look of the costume.” (Spencer herself admits to replicating Barbie’s miniature outfits in adult size for herself just twice, including a Western-style embroidered shirt she wore with blue jeans, a 10-gallon hat and cowboy boots).

As well as a back catalog of hundreds of dolls, Spencer’s personal collection of Barbies at one time totaled more than 500 dolls at her home in Los Angeles, including 400 in her dining room alone. While she likes to joke that you’re never alone in her house, the designer is in the process of finding “loving homes” for her extensive collection alongside her Barbie Magical Mansion kitted out with miniature furniture collected from her travels around the world.

But there are some dolls which will always stay with her, including a much-loved red-haired 1992 Benefit Ball Barbie, clad in a chic gold and teal metallic gown and a Golden Jubilee Barbie doll from 1996, featuring Carol Spencer’s name on the back. “She’s a favorite of mine. I love her,” she said. “I’m the only designer to have her name printed on a Barbie doll and it really means a lot.”