Ah, Barbie: The 20th century's signature doll. Just under 12 inches tall, equipped withthe mythic porportions of 36-19-35, Barbie will celebrate her 35th birthday next March. En Route, she has perhaps attracted more attention and more analysis than any other toy in recent memory.
This week, 600 Barbie collectors from Europe, Japan, Australia and the Unied States will gather at the Hyatt Hotel in Baltimore to enjoy Barbie's annual convention. Titled "You've Come A Long Way, Barbie," The four-day event will offer fashion competitions, lectures by Mattel designers, a parade of collectors modeling human-sized Barbie fashions and a slew of dealers selling vintage Barbies for as high as several thousand dollars each.
Barbie has proven to be one of the most successful toys of all time: More than 700 million Barbie dolls and her family members have been sold since 1959. The typical American girl now oens an average of eight Barbie dolls, according to Mattel Toys. It's a statistic that rankles feminists, who say that Barbie has created impossible physical standards for women, and moralists, who think the doll represents the untimate Material Girl.
But wherever you stand on the subject of Barbie, one thing is certain: A lot of people take this doll seriously. Sometimes too seriously, says 41-year-old convention chairman and collector Mark Ouellette.
"Barbie started out as an innocent play-toy for kids. The media and other public watchdogs have put controversy on her from the beginning, whether it be for her physique or for her supposed lack of being a good role model. I don't think a doll should be a role model," he says.
That's essentially what he and his Barbie-collecting colleague Linda Mason told a group of Barbie-phobes recently when they appeared on the "Phil Donahue Show" to discuss their collecting hobby.
"Barbie is a miniature mannequin," Ms. Mason says. "When she was made, the concept was a paper doll in 3-D. If you look at the earlier paper dolls, like Rita Hayworth, they had adult figures, too
. . . Barbie is all about fashion."
A good investment
She's all about money, too. For some collectors, investing in Mondo Barbie has become more reliable than many money market funds.
Ms. Mason, 39, who recently pared down her Barbie collection to pay for graduate school, says a vintage Barbie she bought 12 years ago for $40 now sells for $500.
A pristine early set of Barbie paper dolls, originally 29 cents, now brings $100.
A No. 1 1959 Barbie, still in its box, brings more than $4,000. It originally sold for $3.
It's not unusual for serious Barbie collectors -- those with dolls and fashions dating back to 1959 -- to have insured collections worth $100,000 says Mr. Ouellette.
"I think people are most amazed about Barbie collectors when they start to realize that we're not a group of adults sitting around and playing with our dolls," says Mr. Ouellette. "I look at it first as a pleasurable hobby, but I'm also being very cognizant of the fact that I have a major investment here."
A commercial and interior designer for Urban Country in Bethesda, Mr. Ouellette is president of the Baltimore Barbie Doll Collector Club of Maryland, the 15-member group sponsoring the convention. BBC members meet every month to share collecting tips, make clothes and accessories and to fashion doll hair. Sometimes a session will focus on such "sub-collectible" fields as Barbie paper dolls or Barbie Viewmasters.
A recent program, for instance, acquainted collectors with those accessories most likely to have disappeared into the vacuum cleaners of the '60s.
"One of the rarest is the tiny brass compact with the powder puff that came with the 1959 Roman Holiday outfit," Mr. Ouellette says. "That set also came with tiny sunglasses and a tiny pink sunglasses case. But if someone was cleaning the house at the time and came across these, they'd probably just vacuum them up or say, 'What's this?' and throw them away."
Most things about Barbie, after all, have been replaceable: This doll has had more than her share of cars, boats, condos, dream houses, swimming pools, horses . . . weddings.
Becky Asher, BBC president-elect, sports a necklace with a stunning Barbie accessory: A solid gold high-heeled mule. A Barbie fanatic for almost 10 years, she remembers that her first grown-up Barbie buy was a senior prom dress, a blue and green '60s number; she bought the doll later. Mrs. Asher figures her Arnold home holds about 500 or 600 Barbies.
"It's a little embarrassing, so we don't count," says her husband Tom, who runs Eurotoys, a business for toy collectors.
Some collectors don't mind counting, however. Anna and Marie Cluster of Glen Burnie figure they own at least 1,000 dolls. Ruth Cronk, vice-president of the convention's national steering committee, owns about 5,000 Barbies; now she collects red-heads exclusively.
"I think the doll strikes an emotional chord in most people. Female or male. Whether they're collectors or not," says Mr. Ouellette. "I've had friends with no interest see my collection and say, 'I remember my mother had an outfit just like that.' With the early Barbies, there was that meticulous attention to detail that makes almost each outfit and accessory an individual work of art."
Over the years, Barbie has acquired a certain documentary value. Never a trend setter, her various hairstyles, careers and fashions recorded what you might consider Seventeen's view of young womanhood.
"Barbie has always been a barometer of the times, a very stable barometer," Mr. Ouellette says. "She never gets to the boiling point or the freezing point. If you took all the good and bad fashion elements of one year and shook it up, in it you would find the Barbie line of that year. She's the median of whatever was happening. . . . I think that's why people gravitate toward dolls like Barbies, cultural [artifacts] without the hard edges. She's the mid-'60s to the mid '70s -- without Vietnam."
Mr. Ouellette began collecting Barbies eight years ago and has become recognized for designing one-of-a-kind costumes, re-creating Mae West's velvet gown from "My Little Chickadee" and the outfit Audrey Hepburn wore to Ascot in "My Fair Lady" -- for Barbie to wear, of course.
"Collecting has been an incredible stress reliever," he says. "I never really had a hobby before. Now, if I get very, very, very aggravated, I can always go in and rearrange part of my collection. There's something mind-numbing about moving small things around."
Mr. Ouellette's favorite Barbie is a vintage doll from 1960. "She is the epitome of Barbie: Full red lips, just a hint of cheek color, bright blue eye color, black ponytail."
He says dealers have developed their own vocabulary to describe Barbie dolls to potential clients.
" 'Lucy Lips' has become a very desirable lip shape to have. The upper lip is very, very full and pulled in tighter on dolls made in '61, '62, '63, reminiscent of Lucille Ball. For the most part, collectors tend to gravitate toward high color: If a doll has deep pink lips, then it's a raspberry pink rather than a pink pink."
Not too long ago, many antique doll collectors looked down on Barbie, he says. Barbie was too modern, too plastic, too Mattel.
"I think all that changed with the advent of baby boomers trying to find their childhood toys."
Local Barbie dealer and collector Libby Chresso, 44, says Barbie helped put her two children through parochial school. She has 1,000 dolls, some displayed in the Federal Hill Shoppe, the vintage (and new) Barbie store and collectible shop which belongs to Mrs. Chresso's friend and fellow Barbie dealer Shirley Summers. Both women belong to the Queen Elizabeth Barbie Doll Club of Greater Baltimore.
By the numbers
As Mrs. Chresso introduces her early Barbies, it seems an historic experience.
Meet Doll No. 1: The 1959 Barbie, wearing a Gay Parisian outfit. She's fresh and white-eyed -- the first Barbies didn't have eye color -- and looks quite perky. Her outfit, in mint condition, is worth about $1,600.
No. 3 Barbie, a brunette, is wearing filmy peach lingerie, a garter belt and stockings. Mint, in the box, this doll, sans lingerie, would fetch $600.
Her favorite Barbie is the red-headed Barbie of 1964. The ponytailed model, not the bubble cut one.
Shop owner Mrs. Summers says she is partial to Barbie's best friend, Midge.
"Last year, you loved Skipper," Ms. Chresso points out.
"Yeah, but now it's Midge. I think she's so cute."
And Mrs. Summers doesn't mind parading her affections.
"I can still see Shirley at the Barbie convention in Dallas," recalls Ms. Chresso, "dressed up as Skipper in the pink gingham dress I made for her. There she was, marching down the runway wearing an orange fashion wig and her little white shoes. She's the perfect Skipper size."
Mrs. Summers volunteers that she's 4-foot-11. "And I carried a Barbie doll with me that was wearing the exact same dress."
So what's so special about this doll who has her own Hall of Fame Museum (in Palo Alto, Calf.) and her very own boutique at F.A.O. Schwarz in Manhattan?
Mrs. Summers may speak for millions:
"Because she has all these little shoes and underwear -- her underwear is perfection, absolute perfection -- and cars and horses and girlfriends and boyfriends. It's all like this wonderful pretend family and pretend world. It would be so nice if life were like that!"
Oh, you doll
Barbie debuted at the New York Toy Fair in March 1959. Although her measurements have remained virtually the same, her fame and fortune have been compounding ever since:
* During the past five years, Barbie sales around the world roughly doubled. Last year's sales reached nearly $1 billion, according to Mattel Toys.
* Every second, two Barbie dolls are sold somewhere in the world.
* Mattel has sold more than 900 million fashions and one billion pairs of shoes.
* Roughly 90 different Barbie dolls and 120 new outfits are sold each year.
* Over the years, animal-loving Barbie has acquired 15 dogs, nine horses, three cats, a parrot, a chimpanzee, a panda, a lion cub, a giraffe and a zebra.
* Barbie has had more than 500 professional make-overs.
* Since 1959, Mattel has sold more than 700 million Barbie dolls and family members, enough to circle the earth more than three and a half times if placed head to toe.
* The top-selling Barbie doll -- roughly 10 million dolls so far -- is 1992's Totally Hair Barbie. This doll has hair reaching down to its feet.
* Barbie has pursued almost 50 different careers. In 1992, her outfits identified her as a sergeant in the Marine Corps, a rap musician, a teacher, a chef, a business woman, a doctor and a presidential candidate.
1. Who are Barbie and Ken named after?
2. What are their full names?
3. How long have Barbie and Ken been dating?
4. Which of these sports has Barbie yet to try? Free weights, croquet, bowling, skin-diving.
5. If you lined up all the Barbie dolls ever sold head to toe, how many times would they circle the earth?
6. Who sells more Corvettes: Mattel Toys or General Motors?
7. Which Barbie had tan lines?
8. When was Black Barbie introduced?
9. When was Black Ken introduced?
10. Which of Barbie's pets wore a hat?
11. When did Midge disappear and reappear?
12. Which Olympics did Barbie participate in?
13. What were the names of Barbie's ranch horses?
14. Which of these lines did Talking Barbie not say? "Let's getogether for dinner"; "I think I'll call Ken"; "I have nothing to wear"; "Help me fix my hair."
15. Which line was not in Talking Ken's repertoire? "P.J.'s having a party -- let's go"; "Am I tan enough yet?"; "Put some records on, and let's dance"; "I'm taking the girls shopping -- wanna go?"
16. What is the going rate for MIB No. 1 1959 Barbie Doll? (That's mint condition, in original box, with two-prong pedestal.)
17. When did Barbie get a computer?
18. Does Barbie wear nail polish?
19. When did Ken change his baby-faced look?
20. Has Skipper ever had a boyfriend?
Scoring: 15 plus -- Barbie expert; 10 plus -- hip to Barbie; 5 plus --
aware of Barbie; 0 -- who's Barbie?
1. The children of Mattel Toy founders Elliot and Ruth Handler.
2. Barbie Millicent Roberts and Ken Carson.
3. Since 1961.
4. Bowling (Ken does, Barbie doesn't)
5. 3 1/2 times
6. Mattel Toys
7. Sun Lovin' Malibu (1979)
10. Prince the Poodle (1985)
11. 1967, 1988
13. Dancer (1971), Dallas (1981-84), Midnight (1982-84), and colt
14. "I have nothing to wear."
15. "Am I tan enough yet?"
16. According to Barbie authority Glenn Mandeville, a brunet No. 1 doll is worth at least $2,500 and a blond at least $2,000.
17. In 1985 for her Home & Office
19. In 1969 as Talking Ken ("New good-lookin' Ken speaks in a husky baritone," says the 1969 Mattel Toy catalog)
Yes, Scott (1980 only)
Reprinted with permission of Barbie magazine.
The Barbie Family Tree
Skipper 1964 (Barbie's little sister)
Ginger 1976 only
Scott 1980 only
Kevin 1990 (Skipper's boyfriend)
Honey 1983 (pony)
Butterfly 1993 (pony)
Chelsie 1993 (pony)
Francie 1966-76 (Barbie's modern cousin)
Jazzie 1989 (Barbie's cousin)
Tutti 1966-71 (Barbie's tiny twin sister)
Todd 1966-68, 1991 (Barbie's tiny twin brother)
Stacie 1992 (Barbie's little sister)
Allan 1964-65, 1991 (Midge's boyfriend)
Curtis 1975 only (Cara's boyfriend)
Todd 1983 (Tracy's fiance)
Steven 1988 (Christie's boyfriend)
Midge 1963-67, 1988 (Barbie's best friend)
Christie 1968 (Black)
Stacey 1968-70 (Barbie's British chum)
FTC Kelley 1973-76
Cara 1975-78 (Black)
Diva 1986 (Barbie & The Rockers)
Dee Dee 1986 (Barbie & The Rockers)
Dana 1986 (Barbie & The Rockers)
Bopsy 1988 (Barbie & The Sensations)
Belinda 1988 (Barbie & The Sensations)
Becky 1988 (Barbie & The Sensations)
Teresa 1988 (Hispanic)
Kayla 1989 (Dance Club)
Devon 1989 (Dance Club)
Kira 1990 (Asian)
Nia (American Indian) 1990 (Western Fun)
M.C. Hammer 1991 (celebrity friend)
Tara Lynn 1993 (Western Stampin')
Dancer 1971-1972 (horse)
Beauty 1980-83 (Afghan)
Beauty and Pups 1982-83
Dallas 1981 (horse)
Midnight 1982 (horse)Dixie 1984 (baby palomino)
Prancer 1984 (Arabian stallion)Fluff 1983 (kitten)
Prince 1985 (Poodle)
Blinking Beauty 1988 (white horse)
Sun Runner 1990 (horse)
All American 1991 (horse)
Sachi 1992 (puppy)
Honey 1992 (kitten)
Rosebud 1992 (horse)
Tag Along Wags 1993 (puppy)
Tag Along Tiffy 1993 (kitty)
Stomper 1993 (horse)
The national convention of Barbie Doll collectors will run Wednesday through Aug. 29 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at the Inner Harbor. All events are closed to the public with the exception of the dealers' sales gallery, which will offer more than 130 tables of vintage Barbies, Barbie accessories and one-of-a-kind fashions. This sales area is open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Admission: $3.
Those interested in finding out more about the Baltimore Barbie Doll Collector Club of Maryland should send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to BBC, P.O. Box 16, Strasburg, Pa. 17579.