Found  /  Origin Story

This is the Real History of Barbie

Before the eagerly-anticipated film hits our screens, we take a look back at the story of the world's most famous doll.

A doll to place your dreams on…

“Someday I’m gonna be, exactly like you… till then… I’ll make believe I’m you.” So went the dulcet tones of Barbie’s first ever TV advert in 1959. That year, what would come to be toy company Mattel’s most significant and long-lasting creation, Barbie, arrived.

She was the brainchild of Ruth Handler; the co-founder, along with her husband Eliot, of Mattel in 1945. According to one of two origin stories (the other involving an adult novelty doll called Bild Lilli, handed out at bachelor parties), Handler noticed her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls and decided she wanted to give her a doll that was not a baby, but a woman she could aspire to. Barbie, named after her daughter, was born and she premiered at the annual Toy Fair in New York in March 1959. In the first year, 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold.

She was ‘petite’ as the advert chimes, with all the latest clothes and accessories. Among these was, of course, a wedding dress. Her immediate MO was clearly as a stylish and sophisticated style maven, the kind of svelte, pretty woman young girls wanted to be – at least in 1959. Her first ever outfit – as exemplified in Gerwig’s initial teaser trailer for the Barbie movie – was a black and white swimsuit, with white heels and white-rimmed sunglasses. Unsurprisingly, by 1961, she was ‘going steady’ with Ken (oddly named after the Handlers’ son).

Courting controversy

By the 1960s, Barbie was already attracting criticism for being a ‘sex symbol’. To counteract this, the Handlers gave her a little sister, Skipper (originally a child and now sold as a teenager), and a best friend, Midge – who would go to have her own chequered history. Fashioned as a ‘homelier’ friend for Barbie (with red hair and freckles) Midge would disappear after 1967, returning in the 1980s along with a husband, kids and a ‘Happy Family Line’ of toys, which even included Pregnant Midge (with a detachable womb!). The line courted scandal from every angle – among which was outrage that Midge was pregnant without a wedding ring. Cannily, Gerwig has lined up Emerald Fennell to play Midge. Yes, Pregnant Midge.

Though to many Barbie was too conventional – with her improbable proportions and origins as a doll who aspires to, essentially, marry Ken – to many she was too progressive. Indeed, as early as 1968, nine years after Barbie’s invention, Mattel introduced their first Black doll, Christie, a friend of Barbie. Christie arrived at a fecund point in American politics, just as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 – enshrining the illegality of racial discrimination – was passed.