by Suzanne Labry
Last summer, I had the opportunity of seeing a remarkable exhibition in Paris, France, at the Decorative Arts Museum, a curatorial department of the Louvre.
Image promoting the Barbie exhibition at Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of the museum.Entitled simply “Barbie,” the exhibit was a retrospective of
the Mattel Corporation’s iconic doll, exploring her evolution from her creation in 1959 up to the present day. I was fascinated by the way the displays appealed
to both young and old alike from different perspectives, in that children could enjoy over 700 Barbie dolls and associated paraphernalia simply as toys
to play with, while at the same time adults could be enlightened as to the truly astonishing historical and sociological impact of the Barbie doll on modern culture, fashion, design, marketing, and merchandising.
Ruth Handler, one of Mattel’s founders and Barbie’s creator, determined to make a three-dimensional fashion doll that girls could dress after she noticed that her daughter, Barbara, and her friends were not interested in baby dolls but only paper dolls representing women.
As described in the exhibition’s documentation, “More than just a toy, Barbie has mirrored a culture and its evolution. She began by embodying the ‘American way of life’ before adapting to social, political and cultural changes and taking on a more universal dimension. Evolving with every new modern comfort, embracing new causes and challenging stereotypes, she has been loathed for her embodiment of the idealized woman and yet, always autonomous and independent, she has adopted all the new dreams and ambitions of contemporary life.”
Given her iconic standing, it is no surprise that Barbie has also been the subject of quilts and quilters, and from the mid-1960s to today, it has not been difficult to find fabrics that were directly or indirectly influenced by Barbie. Not long after Barbie was created, fabrics started being produced with her image on them.
My Barbie Quilt by Nancy Bekofske. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Mattel has been licensing Barbie-themed fabrics since at least 1965, and a number of textile manufacturers have produced licensed Barbie fabrics through the years. Cyndi Hershey, Creative Manager for Quilting Treasurers/Ink & Arrow Fabrics, states that the fabrics are created from style guides produced by Mattel.
“We’ve been contracting with Mattel to create licensed Barbie fabrics for about seven years,” she says. “Mattel provides us with images that we are allowed to use and they also approve any design decisions for fabrics made from them.”
Michigan-based quilter Nancy Bekofske has made a series of Barbie-themed quilts. She grew up playing with Barbie dolls and for her (proving Ruth Handler’s vision), it was all about the clothes.
“I remember when I first met Barbie. I was visiting my grandparents and I always played with the girl next door. It was 1959, and she had a marvelous new doll, a Barbie doll,” Nancy recalls. “I had no love for my Tiny Tears, baby dolls left me uninterested, and the Madame Alexander dolls were not to be played with. I liked the cheap dolls Mom got at the supermarket, but they were brittle plastic and broke, and you could not change their dresses. I wanted—I needed a Barbie. She had all those great clothes! I loved those dresses. I amassed enough to fill a large wardrobe case.”
Barbie Portraits, by Nancy Bekofske. Photo courtesy of the artist.Nancy’s mother eventually gave all her Barbie stuff away, but Nancy revisited her love affair with the doll years later when making a quilt for her quilt guild’s ugly fabric challenge. She scanned images of Barbie dolls onto fabric and then dressed the dolls using fabrics from the challenge. She embellished the quilt using real Barbie clothes and accessories that she found at garage sales. The finished quilt received an award at the local level and was juried into a national show.
Nancy’s other Barbie quilts are just as much fun and she has enjoyed reconnecting with her younger, doll-dressing self, especially via quilts. “It is great to play with dolls, at any age,” she said.