With hundreds of dolls lined on shelves, propped up on wooden stands in glass cases, it would be hard pressed to find anyone who quite loves Barbie more than Caroline Spencer. Thats because Spencer helped design Barbie’s clothes for 35-plus years.
“I fell in love with the Barbie doll when I first started as a designer at Mattel,” Spencer, a Los Angeles resident of more than 50 years, told Yahoo Finance. “I find myself thinking of her as my muse, the little gal that's on my shoulder.”
From 1963 to 1999, Spencer, 86, dressed America’s most famous model. Armed with faux fur, imitation leather, acrylic knits, and nylon tricot — which was used to make parachutes in World War II –– Spencer created some of the U.S.’s favorite fashionable toys, perhaps most notably “Great Shape Barbie” and “Totally Hair Barbie.” The former made it to the silver screen in Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story” franchise. The latter is Mattel’s best-selling Barbie, with roughly $100 million in sales and over 10 million sold worldwide in its debut year of 1992.
“Today, a lot of people think you make a new fashion if you change a sleeve on a garment, so you pick this sleeve or that sleeve and you do this and that and so on, and you've got a whole new design,” Spencer said. “That's not designing, as far as I'm concerned. Designing is creating something from scratch, and not necessarily reusing or moving a pattern piece around to make a new design.”
THE JOURNEY TO BARBIE
Dressed in a light pink jacket, a black turtleneck and a large gold bracelet with the Barbie logo in diamond studs, Spencer told Yahoo Finance she almost didn’t get the designer job.
The Texas native applied for the job back in 1962 when she was living in Milwaukee, but she never heard back. However, Spencer was in need of a change in setting. Instead of staying anchored to Wisconsin, she and her aunt got in her car and drove off to California.
Her trip to the Golden State was not exactly smooth sailing. In the midst of an icy winter, she faced a flat tire in Amarillo, TX, two more in Alamogordo, N.M., and a hole in her muffler in the Green Mountains. But she kept on driving west. The radio on the trip spoke of an axe murderer who escaped from prison and was on the loose near Tucson, Ariz. But she kept driving west.
“I said, ‘Oh, I've got a hammer under the front seat. I'll take care of her!’ I wasn't going to stop for anybody, so I wasn't going to be afraid, but that was my answer,” Spencer said.
When she finally arrived in her future home of Los Angeles, Spencer once again faced another hurdle. The jobs she was applying for all told her she didn’t have the California look.
Then the California Apparel News posted a job with the same requirements from the previous Mattel job she was denied. When she applied for the job this time around, she got it. And so began a nearly 4-decade career dressing America’s favorite model.
NEEDLE AND THREAD
Walking into Mattel’s office was like walking into an Aerospace facility, Spencer told Yahoo Finance, because of all the security protecting the company’s secrets. She worked inside a closed office with Charlotte Johnson, who ran the fashion department, and three other designers she competed with. Rows of fabrics lined the walls. Big tables for cutting and various machines filled the rest of the room.
“No one has everything in the line that they design, but I had a good share in the line,” said Spencer. “When it got to the basic dolls, we always had competition. It had to do with what was going to be unique, what was going to be advertisable, things like that.”
In the early years, Spencer would make 125 outfits and designs a year for Barbie, which would be sold through department stores, catalogs, or the average retailer. Mattel made it a priority for these designers to match reality as much as possible. They didn’t want them to exaggerate and create big, fluffy “doll clothing”. 1950s Fashion taught her that the appropriate proportions for the Barbie was three heads to the waist.
But Barbie and her image have been under fire for a good amount of the 21st century. A lack of diversity in color and size, including an exceptionally restricted 16-inch waist –– which Spencer insists she had in her early days of designing –– is not exactly representative of most people. For example in 2013, people protested the opening of the Barbie “Dreamhouse Experience” doll house in Berlin. Pictures of topless women with black paint on their bodies saying “Life in Plastic is not Fantastic” and burning crucified Barbies outside the hot pink doll mansion symbolized a demonstration against objectification.
“Frankly, I was designing for a doll that was a teenage fashion model, not necessarily a real live person,” said Spencer. “In some of our child tests, we found that no matter what the ethnicity, they look at the doll through a certain type of eye, and they see themselves in the doll.”
Possibly due to the backlash or possibly due to the fact that the company has struggled to generate the same revenues it did back in its heyday, Mattel responded to its lack of diversity and the question of body image in their Barbies with a whole wide range of dolls. Barbie welcomed plus-size models in 2016 and Hijab Barbie in 2017. Spencer, herself, had a hand in bringing into life multiple cultures of Barbie, including Indian, Italian, and Eskimo Barbie.
“As culture, as people started changing and the world was changing, we started putting out various ethnicities of Barbie. All of that went according to the sales. Let's face it, you don't put out a doll that nobody's going to buy. It has to do with the acceptance of the population.”
LIFE AFTER BARBIE
Spencer likes to think back at Barbie’s story as BC and AC: Before Carol and After Carol. The toll from the 35-plus years took a toll on her hands. Last year, the now Westwood resident needed to renew her driver’s license, but ran into a little trouble.
“The man behind the counter came over to me when he saw me trying to get the machine to work. He said, ‘Did you work with your hands?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, all my life.’ He said, ‘Well, we found that to be a fact that your thumbprint is partially worn down, and it doesn't come through for a driver's license,’” she said.
But Spencer does not regret one day working on Barbie. She even is happy to have worked in the days before automation and new retail technology took over in the AC era. To Spencer, barbie is a cultural icon born in the 1980s and born from her hands.
“We're all Barbie,” said Spencer. “No one's the same. None of us are the same. We're all different, and we all see things through different eyes. As a designer, I tried to make something that would be enjoyed by as many people as possible.”
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