Fashion and Beauty in Barbie Novels from the early 1960s

Look for vintage clothes for Barbie from the1960s and you’ll find more ensembles that can fit in the closets in her dream house.  Search for reviews of the pioneering novels about the girl who is the living doll and you’ll come up price and identification guides plus some cover designs for the thirteen novels Random House issued between 1962 and 1965.

Cynthia Lawrence and Bette Lou Maybee collaborated on the majority of the volumes, but they seem to have left few traces behind, except for entries in the copyright records and a single box in the Random House archive at Columbia University.  A romantic explanation for the gaps in the record would be that these novels were written for money under assumed names by people who did not want to connected with them in the future, should their careers take off.   A more earthbound one is that they found employment elsewhere in publishing or in another industry altogether.  A really satisfying and completely unproven possibility is that one of them had been a Stratemeyer Syndicate writer in the Nancy Drew mill.

Whoever Lawrence and Maybee were, the world of difference between their presentation of the iconic character and in the later publications such as the 12-volume Barbie and Friends Book Club (Grolier, 1998-1999, pictured at the end) seems to have passed unnoticed.  In comparison to those later titles  promoting the well-established hydra-headed money-making brand, the short stories and novels of Lawrence and Maybee function something like a courtesy book for early sixties girlhood, a successor and competitor with the Nancy Drew mysteries.   Barbie is clearly a real girl and her connection to the doll is really not developed or exploited, although it is impossible to forget it.

“The Size 10 Dress” in the first volume, Here’s Barbie, is cringe-making. “Big Bertha,” a size 14 blonde damned to wear slimming shirtwaists, goes on a diet, determined to become like Barbie so she won’t sit at home any more.  Barbie encourages her to step out and join in, knowing that Bertha’s father is too busy and clueless to guide her in the womanly arts, but finds it embarrassing at being copied down to her lipstick color.  Bertha breaks down when the home-economics teacher won’t let her model the dress  identical to the one Barbie made, but she takes to heart Barbie’s advice “I’m just an ordinary girl, no better or worse than you or any other girl!  But I’m me.  And you should be yourself too.  When you try to become me, you’re just half a person and you make me less than myself.”  With Barbie’s coaching, a new hair cut, and the power of accessorizing, the new Bertha steps out on the stage with Barbie at the school fashion show.

The play in the same volume, “The Easter Hat,” shows Barbie the candy-striper volunteering in the local rest home, with a tip of the hat to the classic Hollywood film with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.  One of the residents, who had been a Broadway star in her youth, gives Barbie the Easter bonnet she wore when her husband proposed to wear in the Easter Parade.   Barbie denies herself the joy of buying a smart new chapeau with her own money to show off on Sunday and instead organizes a surprise parade at the facility, where she and Ken bring up the rear in vintage costume, much to the delight of the ladies.

Barbie’s New York Summer is a whirl-wind account of her Teen Magazine internship, during which she effortlessly picks up the fundamentals of modelling and of fashion journalism.  In the evenings, she is driven to the Village in the red Jaguar of the adoring Latin trust-fund baby Pablo, who does his best to replace the faithful, steady All-American future lawyer, Ken in her affections. He’s a powerful temptation, who wouldn’t have any trouble being a playwright and keeping her in filmy frocks, matching pumps, gloves and tiny evening bags that Grace Kelly might wear.  (It’s surely no coincidence that Mattel has issued Grace Kelly dolls from Alfred Hitchcock’s films To Catch a Thief and Rear Window in their Barbie line).  The chic editor who bears no resemblance to Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, offers her a permanent position before she graduates from high school.  But in the end, Barbie’s head isn’t turned because she realizes that she loves and misses her life in Willows too much to leave home for the big city–she still has a lot of growing up to do and that process might take her down other paths before she returns to the industry she has come to love.   The editor thinks that Barbie has made the right choice and reassures her that the job will be there when she is ready.  And so will Pablo, which is just too good to be true.

It’s easy, for example, to find evidence of a fixation on thinness in the three books–the adjective “slim” is always a compliment and the most attractive characters, like Barbie’s mother and her Latin lover Pablo, conform to that body type. “The Size 10 Dress” concludes with a chart in which to record the reader’s measurements and more.  Overall the co-authors indirectly emphasize inner beauty as more important as outer, show that kindness to others is more satisfying than indulging personal pleasures, and suggest that listening to ambition without checking in with the heart and head may not lead the way to the best path forward.  Barbie Millicent Roberts in these books may be blonde, pretty and well-dressed enough to turn heads wherever she goes, but she is not a terrible role model, being  a thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic teenager instead of an airhead clotheshorse.   Of course she is too nice to be believable, when she should by all rights be the queen of mean girls.    Where on the scale of role models will the Barbie(s) in Greta Gerwig’s hot pink star-studded extravaganza fall?

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