Mattel's Barbie is an endlessly fascinating, big tent kind of a brand (and one we've written about a lot here on Deep Glamour). With 50 years under its pink belt and several generations of fans, it's understandable that the people behind the brand would get a little experimental from time to time, especially when it comes to the higher end, limited-edition products.
I wasn't surprised, then, that today's mail included a small catalog called "Plastic Fantastic," including a series of Barbie-themed products designed for the serious collector. The $750 "kitsch and keepsake" print featuring the original Barbie? Makes sense. A refurbished 1978 Barbie Dream House for $2,000? That's cool in a few ways and definitely resonates with the brand.
A limited edition (Only ten made! And only six of those ten are available!), $25,000 "Team Pink" foosball table? I don't get it. For one thing, "Team Pink" equals Victoria's Secret in my mind. While VS has its own brand of glamour, it's not quite the same as Barbie's (or it shouldn't be, in my opinion). Plus, foosball is as frat-housey as beer pong, which doesn't make the game itself wrong, but it doesn't fit with Barbie's wholesome + glamorous image, either.
And most importantly, aren't all those armless Barbies are creepy? Or is the appeal of this "French-designed 'objet d'art'" just going over my head?
Barbie's been busy lately with brand extensions. Just a few weeks ago, we met Video Girl Barbie, with her tiny camera that lets girls see the world through Barbie's eyes. Yesterday, the world through Barbie's eyes got a little saucier, when Mattel announced its plans to produce four Barbie dolls based on characters from the TV show Mad Men.
These dolls aren't really designed for kids, of course - they're part of the Barbie Fashion Model Collection and will sell for $74.95 each. But it will be interesting to see if the show's entry into toyland has an effect. Will little girls start dressing their Target-bought Kens and Barbies in natty suits and tiny Betty Draper-style dresses?
I wonder, though, if the show's complexity makes it difficult to translate its characters into dolls. When I first saw the dolls, I recognized their characters, but focused on the ways they differ from the "real" people (from left to right in the photo, they are: Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling, Don Draper, and Betty Draper). In doll form, Roger looks a bit like Eric Ripert, Joan is a whole lot less Joan, and Don is nowhere near as handsome as Jon Hamm. To be fair, Betty looks pretty good, though her hair is a tad on the poufy side.
In her post about Video Girl Barbie, Ingrid Fetell wrote that girls enjoy playing with Barbie because they can explore glamorous fantasy worlds through the Barbie character. Adults can do the same when they buy a Mad Men suit. I wonder, though, whether the dolls can provide grownups any of the same type of satisfaction. Do they offer a glimpse into a fantasy world? Or are they just slightly stilted artifacts of that fantasy?
Last week, I attended the Princeton conference "Too Cute: American Style and the New Asian Cool" and gave a brief, informal talk about glamour and cuteness. The two rarely coexist, since they entail contradictory qualities. Mix them, and the cuteness tends to win out, canceling out the glamour altogether or producing something disturbing or comical.
In preparing for the conference, I did find a possible exception to this rule, the big-eyed doll called Blythe. An adult-targeted recreation of a doll produced for one year in the early 1970s, Blythe is endlessly customizable. Out of the box, you can change her eye color by pulling a string on her back. You can change her face, her hair, her body, and, of course, her clothes. All of the Blythe dolls below started as the same model.
I took this picture (actually three different pictures) in the studio of photographer and video producer Gina Garan, who rescued Blythe from obscurity, giving her a starring role in a 1999 TV commercial for a Japanese department store and publishing a book of photos, This is Blythe in 2000. Gina's then-agent, Junko Wong, brought Blythe back into production, licensing Asian rights from Hasbro. Today, there is a worldwide network of Blythe fanatics, including many people outside Asia who must rely on secondary markets like eBay to buy the dolls.
Like Gina, many Blythe collectors enjoy photographing their dolls, often posing them in scenic real-world environments. Though Blythe has the classic big eyes of a "cute" figure and is often photographed accordingly, she sometimes takes on glamorous personas. Here are three such renditions: Blythe planning a heist, Blythe as a glamorous seaside celebrity, and Blythe on a glider wearing aviator goggles.
Although the dolls are still cute, they manage to pull off glamour without falling into either comedy or weirdness. In part this is because the adults who collect and photograph them treat them as alter egos, not children. In part it is because Blythe is shown as active and adventurous, rather than dependent and vulnerable. And in part it's because glamorous Blythe tends to look to the side or wear shades, giving those giant eyes an essential element of mystery. [She plans the heist! by Flickr user Sugaroni, Celebrity Sighting!!! by Flickr user The Dolly Mama, We'll go flying so high! by Flickr user rockymountainroz, all used with permission.]
There's a new Barbie on the scene, and the rest of the dolls on the shelf aren't quite sure what to make of her. She's got long blond hair and bright blue eyes, just as she always has, and a smooth, tanned, curvaceous body. And just like most Barbies you've known over the years, she loves any color as long as it's pink. But there's something different about this new doll. When you meet her, you might notice there's a special little necklace hanging just over her sternum, or as she turns to leave, that there's a flat panel screen between her scapulae. Meet Video Girl Barbie, presented to the world this week at the International Toy Fair, a kind of Flip camera with a face that Mattel promises will let you look into the world of Barbie.
There's something interesting about this notion of looking into Barbie, or looking through her. Barbie has always been a lens into a different world for girls, a glamorous teenaged or adult world full of fashion, parties, careers, and dream houses. This was, after all, the intention behind the doll as it was invented by Ruth Handler — to give girls a way to act out their fantasies and fears through imaginative play. This premise of projection was also the reason for the most controversial feature of Barbie's physicality — her breasts — because Handler felt a mature physique was essential to allowing girls to envision their future selves. The Barbie business model, with its endless parade of kits containing outfits and accessories, serves as stimulus for these projective fantasies, providing ample conduits to aspirational worlds.
It seems to me that girls have never had trouble looking into Barbie's world. Because the nature of Barbie is such that at any point in time, Barbie's world is at least partially (often mostly) in a girl's head, that world is personal and accessible. Barbie is a sketch, just defined enough to inspire a story. She's an outline to be inhabited, a room to decorate with your own desires. The doll and her things provide the form and the context; you provide motivation and narrative. Talking to friends who played with Barbies as children, the imagined scenes vary wildly, even with the same props. Some girls staged fashion shows in the Dream House while others were hosting dinner parties. Some were getting dolled up for the prom while others were making out with Ken behind the bleachers. Barbie's stories are as varied as our own because her stories are our stories. Maybe not the ones we lived, but the slightly more glamorous or dangerous ones we once wished to live. Girls see through Barbie into these fantasy worlds, and they do it effortlessly.
To think that such a view could enhance the fantasy of Barbie is to assume that Barbie's world is the molded plastic one Mattel produces in its factories, and not the ethereal one in the female consciousness. The most interesting things a girl sees in Barbie are not things she sees with her eyes, but with her mind.
Making the leap to Video Girl Barbie, a doll you look through, seems logical but oddly literal, an Amelia Bedelia kind of goof. What can you see in looking through Barbie like a periscope that you can't see with your own eyes? To think that such a view could enhance the fantasy of Barbie is to assume that Barbie's world is the molded plastic one Mattel produces in its factories, and not the ethereal one in the female consciousness. The most interesting things a girl sees in Barbie are not things she sees with her eyes, but with her mind.
Given that, this seems less a doll than a tech toy, and I imagine it will have big appeal to girls on this level. A video camera is a video camera, and it's fun regardless of the housing, though girls today are probably savvy enough that they don't need technology to be softened up with fashion in a bionic Barbie.
But the bionic nature of this doll — a strange mashup of hard tech and feminine physicality — does raise a different set of interesting questions. As we move closer to an era of post-human body modification, what kinds of new body types will emerge as aspirational? If in the past five decades Barbie has represented a standard of beauty that can be blamed with a rise in body modifications ranging from breast implants to blond highlights to anorexia to tanning, how will she evolve as a standard in a world where the available modifications are increasingly technological? Will Barbie offer a new viewpoint on the form and function of the female body as the lines between man and machine are increasingly blurred?
If these sound like imaginary inquiries better left to the world of futuristic sci-fi films, think again. Already, the field of wearable technologies is electrifying fashion, exploring ways our clothes can behave or react like smarter, more beautiful skins. Designer Hussein Chalayan is known for his avant garde work with wearables, exploring how robotic elements can create extraordinary displays of movement and light. Joanna Berzowska of XS Labs is another designer working in this space, fusing fiber and wire to create striking interactive garment-sculptures. Often these designs suggest new functions our bodies might take on in the future, like increased sensory capabilities or protective response mechanisms. The subtle displays of Ying Gao's Walking City dresses, for example, function like hypersensitive second skins, unfurling and rustling in reaction to the proximity of others. Powering many of these innovative designs is the LilyPad Arduino, a washable microcontroller that can be fully integrated into clothing, developed by Leah Buechley at MIT's Media Lab.
These are technologies worn on the body, without requiring any intrusion or permanent modification. But those innovations are coming too. Discussions of augmented-reality contact lenses are in the offing, and just this week, the New York Times reported on the development of piezoelectric body implants that would allow us to convert our bodily movements into energy that can be used to power our electronics. Already we see people who seem chained to their iPods or mobile devices — imagine if one day we actually plugged them into our skin to recharge them. Or stopped by the Apple Genius Bar for a surgical battery change?
If these potential innovations sound eerie, think about how breast implants sounded the first time you heard of them. Body modification is always unsettling, sometimes even long after it has become widespread. But all of these designs, whether worn on the body or inserted within it, are pioneering new possibilities in the shape and performance of the human physique. As we gain more power to control how our bodies look and what they do, which of these designed bodies will move towards the mainstream? Which will become new aspirational models? Will techno-bodies ever be sexy?
I don't propose that Video Girl Barbie is in any way an attempt on the part of Mattel to forge a new post-human female ideal. (The violence of the mashup — Barbie's viscera removed and replaced with a TV — would make that a vision more appropriate for R-rated horror films than Toys 'R Us.) But the juxtaposition has made me wonder what the Barbie of 2029 looks like. Will Barbie at 70 be a stunning cyborg? If we saw her today, would we think she's beautiful? Or, in an ironic twist, will Barbie's plastic figure seem nostalgically natural in comparison with our own bodies of the future?
New year, new decade. Reflecting back on the holiday season I realized that The Nutcracker had come up several times in conversation. One family had taken their children, another person’s best friend had been once been cast as Clara, and so on.
The Nutcracker is glamorous on many levels. Ballet itself is one of the most glamorous forms of dance, as has been discussed here before. The orchestra, especially as used by a composer like Tchaikovsky, can be a glamorous sound machine (more on that in a moment). And the costumes and stagings of this ballet are often captivating.
The Nutcracker plot joyously celebrates aspects of the winter season that are often denigrated because they seem more pagan than religious. Some historians argue that Christmas is celebrated on December 25 because that was the Roman date for the winter solstice, a tradition time for celebrating the return of the sun and longer days. The Nutcracker acknowledges that festive parties, colorful decorations, and receiving gifts are memorable and exciting, especially to a child, whatever the reason for celebrating.
The ballet’s central character Clara is an adolescent poised between childhood and young adulthood, and she has desires and longings in both domains. Boys remain mischievous and clueless about her dreams of the future. But in this ballet’s dream a prince arrives and transports her into a magical world. No wonder that countless young ballet students dream of being cast as Clara, and that mothers take their daughters to see this timeless fantasy.
I do not mean to slight men here. The ballet was created by men. The ballet is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, and the story adaptation, original choreography, and music were all done by men. In Hoffman’s original story the heroine is named Marie and the nutcracker is Drosselmeyer’s nephew. How he came to be a nutcracker is a complex story involving magic spells, and Marie’s love for him eventually lifts the curse and he becomes himself again.
In the ballet Drosselmeyer’s ability to create life-size mechanical dolls makes him seem a kind of magician, and sets the stage for dreams of giant mice and toys that come alive to battle them. Scenes like this are bound to delight children.
Yet Clara’s trip to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a dream of transformation into adulthood, and in that land Clara becomes a woman and a prince becomes her escort. In her dream Clara becomes a princess-to-be whose life is filled with fancy costumes, elaborate entertainments, and dances that show her perfect poise as a adult.
Tchaikovsky’s music plays a major role in the success of the ballet. Tchaikovsky had a keen ability to create musical textures that can stimulate a listener’s imagination. At the same time his ballet music is easy enough to follow that we have mental room left to take in the dancing. This same openness also leaves room for his ballet music to interact with our imagination, allowing us to project auras such as “mystery” and “longing” onto what we are hearing. (Densely intellectual musical textures such as fugues seldom allow this.)
In creating ballet music that seems glamorous, Tchaikovsky became a kind of conjurer. By developing an awareness of how particulars sounds and musical textures could stimulate a listener's imagination, he used that awareness to create music that encourages listeners to generate imaginative illusions.
In the following Pas de Deux between Clara and her prince (Bolshoi Ballet production), no words need be spoken. Clara’s prince becomes her ideal consort. He is there for her whenever she needs support to display her poise. Tchaikovsky’s music supports them both. One of his friends bet Tchaikovsky that he couldn’t compose the theme for a pas de deux with a scale. Tchaikovsky asked if the scale could go downward. When that was allowed, Tchaikovsky took the bet, and won with the main theme of this music. Tchaikovsky’s ability to create something extraordinarily evocative out of simple material demonstrates his deep understanding of what works as ballet music. His music captivates our hearing, but leaves enough room in our minds to appreciate the staging and dancing, and even to imagine that we are feeling something similar to what these dancers are feeling. And that is a beautiful illusion to experience.
[Clara’s Gift photo by adjustafresh. Pas de Deux photo by violscraper. Both used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]
Overeager makeover artists, devilish little brothers, and occasional Dexter fans have long enjoyed dismembering the world’s favorite doll. By contrast, Brooklyn artist Margaux Lange, 30, describes herself as “an Art jeweler who re-Members Barbie fondly.” She doesn’t tear up dolls for the sake of destruction, or for anti-Barbie social commentary. Rather, she reassembles Barbie parts into joyful jewelry: heart pendants made of Barbie busts, earrings from eyes or smiles.
New Yorkers can visit Margaux's studio this Saturday night, September 26, as part of the Morgan Arts Building Open Studio event featuring more than 25 artists (and an open bar). For details see Margaux's blog.
DG: You credit Barbie with fueling your creative life growing up—an unusually positive way of writing about an often-controversial plaything. What did Barbie mean to you as a child?
Margaux Lange: I used to be obsessed with Barbie dolls as a kid. They played a pivotal role in my development as a tool for acting out and exploring the human relationships in my own life, as well as the fantasy lives I imagined. My experience with Barbie was uniquely positive in this way. Barbie can be a source of empowerment through exploration and imagination. Each child's experience with the doll is unique and I believe there's a value in that.
I would spend hours crafting many precious details for my Barbie dolls and their miniature worlds, such as: pillows, stone fireplaces, food items, clothing, accessories, etc. Playing with Barbie dolls helped to develop my dexterity and strengthened my attention to small detail: skills imperative to the art of jewelry making.
DG: How did you get started “fondly re-membering” Barbies?
ML: Barbie made her debut in my artwork in high school and then again in various incarnations throughout college where I studied fine Art (The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD.) I started to focus more on jewelry making during my junior year, and I became interested in incorporating found objects into my metal work. Because I had done artwork with Barbie in the past (drawings, sculptures, etc) it felt natural to try her out in the jewelry realm. It was an unusual idea with a strong personal connection for me, so it felt right. The Plastic Body Series Jewelry Collection continued to grow from there.
DG: How has your relationship with Barbie changed since you played with her as a child?
ML: I had no desire to cut up all my Barbies as a kid, thatʼs for sure! So that has certainly changed. As a child, I would look at a doll and she would instantly transform in my mind into the imaginary personality I had dreamed up for her.
Now I look at a doll as I would any other material: I think about how that piece of plastic is going to be transformed in an interesting, wearable way.
Iʼm also able to intellectually step back and examine the impact Barbie has had on our society from all angles now. I certainly didnʼt think about any of that as a child so of course that has changed as well.
DG: What do you think makes Barbie glamorous?
Barbie is a quintessential icon of glamour. Sheʼs intriguing and appealing on many levels, not to mention she owns the biggest wardrobe on the planet, has a multitude of cars, shoes and accessories, and has had every possible career you can imagine. I think that makes her pretty glamorous.
DG: How has the changing face of Barbie over the years influenced your work? When Mattel alters Barbieʼs face or body, do you relate to Barbie in a different way?
ML: No, I wouldnʼt say that the way I relate to Barbie changes when Mattel rolls out a new style, but it does change my work. For example, Mattel made some major changes to Barbieʼs body in the year 2000 when they introduced the new “belly-button models” which had wider hips, a more shapely bum, and for the first time, a belly button and a smaller chest. Because her new bust size was smaller than the original Barbieʼs, it happened to be the perfect size and shape for making my Have-a-Heart Necklaces, which are now a prominent piece in my production line.
DG: Barbie is the quintessential blue-eyed blonde, but some of your pieces (the bust hearts, for instance) play with different skin tones. Is Barbie actually more varied than we think of her?
Barbie is a lot more varied than people assume. There is quite a lot of difference in skin tones, body styles, hair colors and facial features as well. Itʼs interesting however, that when we think of “Barbie: the icon” an image of blonde hair and blue eyes is what comes to mind.
DG: When talking about your work, you mention the vast impact that Barbie has had on our society. What do you think is the most important impact Barbie has had over the last 50 years? Do you think her impact has been more positive or negative?
The most important impact she has had has probably been on the millions of little girls who have been drawn to Barbie as a way to understand, what is to them, a very abstract notion of “Womanhood.” Barbie is very unlike us as little girls, and yet under our complete control to manipulate and project onto her “adult-hood” in whatever way we wish. There is enormous power in that type of imaginary play.
However, thatʼs not to say thereʼs nothing to examine regarding Barbie as an ideology. Barbieʼs life of excess has certainly had its negative implications. Particularly the dollʼs emphasis on materialism, beauty, and fashion. We are a nation obsessed with beauty and youth, and Barbie is a direct reflection of our cultural impulses in this way. Plastic and forever youthful, she remains relevant and in-vogue. With each generation, she is re-invented as we see fit to define her. I wouldnʼt be surprised if she sticks around for another 50 years because of this.
DG: Other artists have made Barbie-inspired work, particularly work that deconstructs or takes Barbie apart, often in violent ways. Why do you think we have this urge to deconstruct Barbie?
Barbie is the most beloved and maligned of playthings. Rarely do we feel indifferent about her. I think the urge to destroy Barbie comes from this polarization. To some, she represents oppression in the form of unattainable perfection and unrealistic beauty standards. Thereʼs something cathartic about deconstructing a symbol of those ideals.
At times, my work has dealt with utilizing the doll as an archetype for critiquing beauty, materialism, and prescribed gender roles often associated with women in our society. Sometimes I aim to distance myself and critically evaluate pop culture in this way, and other times I wish to engage and participate in it. Much like my own experience with womanhood as a feminist: a series of rejecting and embracing.
DG: Who buys your work and why?
The Plastic Body Series is sought after by Art Jewelry collectors, Barbie nostalgics, and bold individuals who arenʼt afraid to wear jewelry that sparks a conversation. Some people respond to its humor and think itʼs clever and fun, or it feeds a sense of nostalgia for them. Some wear it as a feminist statement and others simply appreciate it because itʼs bizarre and unique.
I love that everyone brings his or her own baggage and reaction to the work. Itʼs indicative of their own relationship with, or feelings about the icon, as well as how an individual defines wearable jewelry. My goal has been to create Art that a broad range of people can relate to and I feel Iʼve been successful with this.
A background in fine Art gave me the foundation necessary for conceptual exploration in my jewelry work, however, it is my personal connection with Barbie that I credit for the success of this series. It's ironic that what I adored as a child has become the focus of my career as an adult.
DG: Where do you get your components? Do you buy used Barbies? New Barbies in bulk?
ML: I acquire all the dolls as second-hand objects; usually from yard sales, thrift stores, and Ebay. I also have a few friends across the country that are always on the lookout for me. I have thousands of “previously owned” Barbie dolls and parts in my studio from which to choose. It’s important to me that the dolls have had a previous life in the hands of a child. It's a crucial part of the story, the love, and the conceptual basis for the work. I also really like the idea that the dolls are being repurposed after they’re discarded and are contributing to Art, not landfills.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour?
Glamour is something or someone that exudes a particular allure, an air of confidence, style, uniqueness, distinction, beauty, and grace.
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?
Besides Barbie? My grandmother was always very glamourous to me growing up. For instance, she would never dream of putting a carton of milk on the table as is, it always went into a “proper” carafe or something first. This seemed very glamorous to me.
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Luxury.
4) Favorite glamorous movie? I canʼt think of any... I tend to like horror flicks and indie films. Amelie is a favorite movie of mine, and glamorous in its own unique way I think, perhaps because itʼs French.
My engagement ring! Itʼs made with raw diamonds and yellow gold. Itʼs totally glamorous because thereʼs a big cluster of diamonds on the top and yet because raw diamonds look rough when theyʼre not faceted, it feels humble at the same time, almost like large grains of sparkling sand. Itʼs so unusual, and so me, I just love it.
7) Most glamorous place? Mendocino, California. I went there with my fiancé and we stayed in this amazing bed & breakfast overlooking the ocean. It was incredibly romantic and glamorous for us!
8) Most glamorous job?
Oh dear, I could provide you with a very long list of all the non-glamorous jobs Iʼve had! Picking the most glamorous is a bit harder. I guess Iʼd have to say that being a self-employed artist has been the most glamorous. Even though itʼs difficult at times, I love what I do and I know Iʼm really fortunate to be able to pursue my passion full time.
9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you donʼt? Smoking. Yuck!
10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized? A jewelry artist who is also a dear friend of mine, Kate Cusack: www.katecusack.com
11) Can glamour survive? I think there will always be glamour, although I think the way each generation defines it will continue to shift and change.
12) Is glamour something you're born with? No, of course not. All weʼre born with is our birthday suit!
Barbie was never meant to be naked, anyway. The countless accessory packs filled with every imaginable wardrobe need affirmed that the point of the doll was the clothes, and not the other way around. Fashion provided the details that gave life to Barbie’s world, inspiring girls’ play with scenarios of lavish shopping excursions and elegant cocktail parties. The molded stiletto sandals, fur-trimmed sleeves, and velvet pocketbooks all suggested, but didn’t proscribe, starting points for a fantasy.
The tiny clothes were glamorous in their own right, modeled on the real-life wardrobes of icons like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Jackie Kennedy. It helped that they were designed by a fashion designer and hand-sewn by Japanese home-workers under her supervision. Paris’s haute couture was the inspiration through the early 60s, with designs modeled after those by Hubert Givenchy, Coco Chanel, and Cristobal Balenciaga. Paris was supplanted by London mod later that decade, and the Twiggy look was a natural fit for Barbie. She had more casual outfits as well, but they were tailored and adult, never too girlish.
This aspirational adulthood at the core of Barbie’s glamour started to fade in the 1970s, a direct result of evolution in the design of the doll and her accessories. Barbie started going in for regular plastic surgery as early as 1961, and the result was that she got younger and younger looking over time. Looking back, Barbie #1 was probably too old (“the face of a 40 year-old woman whose seen a lot of action” in the words of one collector), but as they say, cosmetic procedures can be addictive, and by now Barbie has had so many that she looks barely 15. Likewise, her fashion sense has gotten more casual, more girly, and less couture over time. No doubt this movement reflected trends in real-world fashion, but it made Barbie less of an elegant model. Mattel amped up the youthful girlishness with the introduction of liberal doses of pink, which though now ubiquitous was never a major influence until the 70s.
This younger, brasher form of femininity made Barbie more relatable but less aspirational, and her audience has steadily down-aged with her. Ruth Handler originally intended the doll for girls aged 8-13, but for a 13 year-old, there’s nothing glamorous about a doll that’s pretty much just like your older sister. Now girls are done with Barbie by age 6.
The other essential aspect of Barbie’s glamour was a certain aura of mystery that allowed you to fill in the details of her life in whatever wonderful ways you pleased. But Barbie got a little less mysterious in 1972, when designers traded her classic downward gaze for a direct stare. This made her more open and less enigmatic, and I think that had to change the relationship girls had with her. Now Barbie engaged with you; she was a friend and a playmate, like your favorite babysitter rather than an icon from the movies or TV.
Lately, Mattel has taken Barbie into uncharted territory — the realm of pure fantasy — which crosses the line from aspirational into imaginary. With dolls like Barbie Fairytopia and Mermaidia (complete with mermaid tail), they contradict her original purpose of working through real-life desires by projection, and offer something more akin to fairy tales. Other Barbies, such as Birthday Barbie, seem to have absorbed this influence, and are starting to look a lot like Disney characters. This may make them magical and enchanting to her now very young audience, but the loss of a connection to reality makes this least glamorous evolution so far.
Of course, none of this is to say that any one incarnation of Barbie is better than any other, or that glamour is necessarily even still relevant to Barbie’s role in American girl culture. After all, I came of age in an era when glamour was largely gone from the brand, and yet I loved my campy Barbie in her hot pink spandex and her fuschia dream house. But while my loyalty to 80s Barbie is unquestionable, there is little part of me that can’t help but wish for a renaissance of that old-school Barbie, the kind of doll that would grace the pages of the The Sartorialist, rather than the aisles of Forever 21.
When I bought this ballerina doll in Florence, as a present for my niece, she seemed almost like an artifact from a lost era, and not just because she's made of porcelain. In the age of Bratz and Disney Princesses, do ballerinas still represent a glamorous ideal in the minds of little girls? Or has the childhood glamour of ballet faded as the grownup version has lost some of its cultural salience?
I do occasionally see little girls lining up for dance classes in those classic pale-pink leotards. But what about kids who don't actually dance themselves? In my childhood, a ballerina music box was the standard jewelry chest for even graceless nerds like me. Now, at least judging from the Amazon reviews, it's a "a nice gift alternative"--a clever and unusual, rather than a standard part of childhood. But maybe that's a comment on music boxes rather than ballerinas. You can, after all, still buy ballerina Barbies.
I had intended to speculate on why ballerinas were no longer as prominent representatives of ideal, grownup femininity as they once were. But perhaps my premise is wrong. What do you think? Do little girls still dream of pirouettes and toe shoes?
I asked Pat Henry, founder and editor of Fashion Doll Quarterly, for her comments on the post below and the glamour of doll collecting in general. In response, she sent the following email (most links added):
Doll collecting is like art collecting; there are those who collect modern art, and some who like the Expressionists. In my experience, people collect for all sorts of reasons. Some like the fashions, some have nostalgia for dolls they had as children. Others collect because they didn't have dolls as children. One could argue in this bleak economy these are little luxuries. How many Americans really dress up and go out? How many have ever been on a red carpet for any reason? This is the chance to have a piece of that glamour. Recently, the Tonner Doll Company released a Joan Crawford doll and then a Bette Davis doll. Despite both ladies being long deceased, there is still a desire for a bit of that old Hollywood glamour.
Some artists enhance and repaint dolls to look like famous stars, and these dolls go for thousands on eBay. For others, they are drawn to the Asian BJDs [ball-jointed dolls] because they are endlessly customizable and the collector can use the doll as muse to be creative. Some just want to dress like the dolls, but can't afford it or can't wear the type of clothes they would like to wear.
Jason Wu recently debuted a doll wearing a miniature version of a gown from his Fall 2008 collection. Since a small percentage of the population can actually afford or even wear his clothes, this doll is a small totem of the world of high fashion and glamour they don't have in their daily lives.
Beyond the dolls themselves, the communities that develop because of the dolls bring these people together over common interests. There is an event in California this summer, "Hollywood Ahoy" on the Queen Mary that is themed on old Hollywood. Guest speakers include several authors including Christian Esquevin, author of Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label. Collectors can then share their favorite dolls, movie stars and fashion interests in person as well as learn something and be entertained.
My apologies; that would be the long answer! The short answer is– yes, this is about having glamour in your life, even if it has to be in a smaller scale.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on May 04, 2009 in
I've long been fascinated by the culture of dolls for adults: Who collects them, and why? What longings does their obvious glamour appeal to?
Little girls may like dolls because they yearn to grow up, but adults are wishing for something else. Some of the appeal is not that different from that of fashion magazines--beautiful faces and beautiful clothes and the pleasures of imagining yourself in them. (Jason Wu, who designed Michelle Obama's inaugural gown, is best known as a doll designer.) Some comes from having the doll you always dreamed of as a child. Some comes from having the child you always dreamed of in a doll.
But the appeal is not always that simple. Take Delilah Noir, whose website describes her as "Honor Student by Day, Shadowy Siren by Night." Here's a bit of her backstory:
Sometimes, I would just like to forget about the future and dream. A world without rules, structure, and pressure...
Yeah, freedom to be me....just for a little while.
The night excites me. There is something about the darkness that stirs my soul. I can't explain it. The street lights are lit, the stars peek out and the rays of the moon glow through a cloudy sky. I find comfort in the embrace of a buzzing city night.
The cool air that bites at my heels makes me want to dance. Stiletto lace ups are my passion. Corsets and coattails are only some of the clothes stashed away in the back of my closet. Red velvet, black lace, purple silk take my breath away....
I admit to finding this Gothic Lolita positioning a little kinky and assuming that she'd appeal to the sexual fantasies of those turned on by school uniforms. But, as is so often the case, the desire she appeals to is not the desire to possess her but the desire to (momentarily at least) be her. Her glamour, like glamour in general, is all about escape and transformation--made quite explicit in her self-description.
She makes me think of that side of me I never explored as a young person, because I was just too scared to. But it was always there. It’s still there, that darker side, but I know where it inevitably leads, and I don’t want to go there. So, I chose the light and the Lord where I know I’ll always be safe. But I admire young Delilah for exploring the freedom and excitement of the night - if only for a little while. She seems to be a girl who knows her time there will be limited, which is a good thing, for to linger in the night too long would mean eventually getting sucked into it to the point of no return. And that’s just some thoughts about the duality of man this doll brings to mind.
This post on dolls as therapy picks up the idea of projection in another way. For adults (and possibly for children as well), playing with dolls can take you out of yourself, allowing you to escape the troubles of the moment by focusing on an imagined other person whose desires you can fulfill. It's an escapism based on empathy.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on April 30, 2009 in