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Vinobaby's Voice by Kerry Ann Morgan: Vintage Barbie was a Vamp

Vinobaby's Voice by Kerry Ann Morgan

30 March, 2011

Vintage Barbie was a Vamp

My Vintage Barbie was far more Liz Taylor than Sandra Dee.  She could melt a man (made of plastic or not) with her seductive, heavy-lidded gaze.  You could have spotted her posed at the bar of the Ritz, a cool Singapore Sling cocktail in her manicured hand.  She would have never set a perfectly pedicured and stillettoed foot in a pastel pink soda shop or plastic McDonald's.   Her clothes were sophisticated but sultry, far from revealing yet clearly to mature for your average teenager.  She was, in fact, a respectable 22 years old when my mother ceremoniously passed her into my small and eager hands.  A mature college graduate with a Jackie Kennedy bouffant instead of a perky, pony-tailed  and overly-endowed teenager.

My Barbara Millicent Roberts was a single girl in the city (long before we discovered sex or the television series).   Her budding career changed as frequently as her clothes--one day she was as a copywriter at a slick New York ad agency straight out of Mad Men, the next a fashion buyer at Bloomingdale's or an editorial assistant at Vogue.  She could have been a flight attendant, but only on private charters escorting celebrities to exotic destinations (which she photographed for travel magazines).  She would never have considered mermaid, fairy, princess (except for a brief dalliance with the idea around the time of Lady Di's wedding), or Dallas Cowboy's Cheerleader to be acceptable career choices.  And babysitter and dog walker were certainly left for young Skipper and her friends.

My Barbie did not live in a townhouse or dream mansion.  How could a cosmopolitan girl-about-town afford a place like that, really?  She was no  Holly Golightly on the fly, nor would she ever settle for being a kept woman.  She rented a chic little loft or pied-√†-terre in the city. 

Malibu beach parties were far to unsophisticated for her tastes. My Barbie would have been found lounging on the sands of the French Rivera before a big night out in the casinos of Monte Carlo.  If Ken wanted to catch her eye he had better be wearing a custom tux, drinking a martini (shaken not stirred), and charming her with some witty yet intelligent repartee while he won big at the baccarat table.    If he happened to be a prince,  he was too busy learning how to efficiently run a country to be prancing around in tights and singing sappy songs.

 Then came the inevitable, a pre-adolescent right of passage which causes every feminist to cry out in pain. Brainwashed from years of watching Saturday morning cartoons (back when they were ONLY on Saturday mornings) and caving into peer pressure, I cast Vintage Vixen Barbie  aside for a bubbly embodiment of anorexic cheerleading princesses everywhere. I saved up all my allowance and birthday money to buy my very own fresh-faced Pretty In Pink Barbie doll complete with a ratty pink fur stole and gossamer nylon cape.   Her face was sweet and wholesome, like a mid-western homecoming queen just dropped at the gritty L.A. bus station.  Her outfit was a teen pop diva's dream. She went to pool parties and attended Sweet Valley High.  She dated Ricky Martin (a la Menudo days...if only she had known).  She still didn't have a Dream House or pink corvette, but she hoped her part-time modeling gig would pay off soon and hung out with carbon-copy BFFs who shared their wealth.   Her wardrobe shifted into tacky 70's and 80's ensembles (legwarmers!) but she still had some fabulous shoes.

Little did we know back in those days of innocence why my beloved Vintage Barbie had such a seductive, come-hither gaze.  She's not the all-American teen fashion model we believed her to be.  Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler, produced her after discovering Bild-Lilli: a surprisingly similar doll based on a sexy German cartoon.
Bild-Lilli 1955 vs. Barbie 1959
Lilli was a curvaceous country girl who came to the big city to work at a newspaper and used men to get exactly what she wanted.  She was sassy, showed off her hourglass figure with tight skirts and spiked heels, and was referred to by many as basically a prostitute.  Her advertising tag line proclaimed, "Whether more or less naked, Lilli is always discreet."  So, yes, Barbie was based on  a novelty doll marketed towards *ahem* adults.
Male adults.
Now that I have discovered Barbie's scandalous history do I think any less of her?   Not a chance.   She was Carrie Bradshaw before Chick Lit, a Mid-Century Scarlett O'Hara bursting with her ambitions and desires.   Far more a smoldering young Sophia Loren than Gidget.  And far more interesting.

I always realized that I would never have Barbie's 38-19-33 measurements, flawless skin or luxurious mane of hair.  She is a doll.  I never suffered through years of depression, eating disorders, or surgeries trying to become a cheap piece of plastic.  But I wanted her life--not the prostitute's or the blond beach bunny babe's--I wanted to be the chic city girl savvy enough to utilize both her brains and beauty.   

And I wanted her fabulous shoes.

I still do.

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Blogger V. Furnas said...

Very interesting history of the fabulous Barbie.

March 30, 2011 at 7:40 AM  
Anonymous Deborah said...

Great piece that no-one who ever had a Barbie could resist! My own 'Sixties (late Sixties!) Barbie was just as you describe. But my Midge - Barbie's friend - holy-moly (as Ken might have said), she was a positively poisonous Dior model with red hair and such a sneer...

March 30, 2011 at 8:29 AM  
Blogger Kara said...

Barbie was based on a German cartoon of a prostitute? That's incredible!

I agree with you - I much prefer the sophificated version to the "bubbly embodiment of anorexic cheerleading princesses."

Great piece.

March 30, 2011 at 9:27 AM  
Blogger MuMuGB said...

I love Barbie too. My Barbie is missing a leg and an arm, curtesy of my daughters (sigh). That said, she was a bit too perfect (I love the sassy past!).

March 30, 2011 at 2:38 PM  
Blogger Jewels For Hope said...

Love this post!!

April 2, 2011 at 9:45 AM  
Blogger Samantha Sotto-Yambao said...

I was more of a tomboy growing up so I skipped the Barbie phase - but thanks to my daughter, Barbie has taken over the house :D

April 4, 2011 at 9:05 AM  
Blogger Serendipity's Library said...

Great post. I remember having the plastic barbie case filled with Barbie and her clothes. My daughter was also a big Barbie fan so our attic is filled with old and new versions of the beloved doll. I also want her shoes!

April 4, 2011 at 2:24 PM  
Blogger myinnerchick.com said...

oh, this brings me back.
I've always loved those little plastic heels...!!! All the cool colours.


April 4, 2011 at 6:04 PM  
Blogger SoMo Mom said...

Love the angle!! Hilarious about Ricky Martin! Great post :)

May 29, 2011 at 9:31 AM  
Blogger JDaniel4's Mom said...

What a history she has!

August 16, 2011 at 10:21 PM  

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