For 50th birthday, Barbie gets new international wardrobe

McClatchy NewspapersMay 19, 2009 

Mattel created the International Collection in the 1980s to appeal to girls of all nationalities and ethnicities. Above, Spanish Barbie.

ARIANNA DAVIS/PSU/MCT

  • FROM PENN STATE

    About these stories

    This story resulted from a nine-day reporting trip to Mexico City by print and broadcast student journalists from Penn State University. See all of their work here.

MEXICO CITY — In her 50 years, Barbie has grown from a mere childhood toy to an international cultural icon.

Barbie's birthday was marked by a series of exhibits all over the world sponsored by her manufacturer, Mattel, that featured the evolution of the doll, born Barbara Millicent Roberts.

In Mexico, the exhibit highlighted a cultural progression. Ten Latino designers presented outfits designed specifically for a doll that had once symbolized a light-skinned, fair-haired ideal of beauty.

"People don't realize that, culturally, Barbie has been more than just a doll," said Juan Carlos Frank, who said he's been a Barbie collector since 1978. "When Barbie changed to Barbie Malibu in 1977, she had darker skin, and for the first time, children with darker skin could actually relate to their dolls; before then, they only knew of the fair skinned Barbie, and she was what all the little girls wanted to be."

Frank said that rather than focus on Barbie's 50th birthday, Mexicans should note that Latina designers had been invited to join the ranks of designers such as Ralph Lauren and Christian Dior, who've also designed for Barbie.

"The fact that Latina designers were selected to design for this iconic doll's birthday is monumental," Frank said. "In the past, the designers that have designed for Barbie have only been more mainstream designers."

Frank was one of the many collectors that Mattel called upon to lend dolls to its large exhibit in Mexico City, which featured the original Barbie, Career Girl Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, Black Barbie and Hispanic Barbie, who made her debut in 1983.

Roberto Isaias, the director general of Mattel Mexico, said that months of work and planning went into the exhibit. He said he hopes that the people of Mexico will appreciate the event as more than just the celebration of a doll.

"Tonight, this isn't just something for this Barbie doll, but it's something for us," he said at the Barbie exhibit's opening at the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City in early March.

"We should be proud of our designers and what this doll has come to signify for young Latinas," Isaias said. "And if you ever doubted the influence of Barbie and if she was important, tonight we can see just how important she is."

Among the designers chosen to create outfits for the doll were the famed pair Sofia Casares and Alejandra Albarran, creative directors of the brand Alessa Casati.

"Mattel selected designers that are established and have made an impact on fashion in Mexico," said Casares, who along with Albarran has dressed the likes of Eva Longoria and Liv Tyler. "To us, Barbie is an icon of every woman's childhood and femininity, so it was nothing but fun designing for the doll. I felt like a little girl all over again."

Casares and Albarran, whose clothing can be found at Saks Fifth Avenue in Mexico, chose to design intricately patterned pale pink dresses for Barbie.

Dalia Pascal, a designer born in Uruguay who gained fame in Mexico for her jewelry and accessories, designed a long dress with ethnic jewelry for the showcase.

"The truth is that the experience of creating an outfit for Barbie was something other people may think is trivial, but for me it was wonderful," she said. "I felt so honored to be selected and I'm very proud of the work that I've done for the doll."

It was not until the 1970s, Frank said, that Mattel began to realize the importance of children recognizing their roots through their toys.

"So they started to focus on creating dolls so that black and Latina and Chinese and whatever race of girls all over the world could identify with their own race and who they are at a young age," Frank said.

Frank said that Mattel selected from designers who've been featured in department store collections all the way up to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

"These aren't just any designers, but Latino designers, so we should be proud," Frank said. "They are the designers and fashion icons of our people and of our generation."

(Davis graduated this month from Penn State University. This article was reported from Mexico City for a class in international journalism.)

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