She was born in 1959. She’s one of the most famous women in the world and is an incredible polymath, having tried her hand at dozens of careers. Among the jobs she’s had are: patissiere, zoologist, dog-walker, cheerleader, princess, nurse, doctor, surgeon, vet, detective and mermaid. She can scuba dive. She can roller skate. In 2005 she was the winner of the French version of the X Factor – La Nouvelle Star.
She’s had 14 faces, four body types, 18 eye colours, 23 hair colours and eight skin colours.
Her name is Barbara. But you might know her better as Barbie.
Closing on 18 September is the incredible exhibition at Le Musee des Arts Decoratifs on rue de Rivoli, the first of its kind in France and featuring over 700 Barbie dolls. Now, I’m not a fan of dolls. I had a few He-Man action figures when I was about six years old but that was a very long time ago. I’m not sure what drew me to visit the Barbie show but I am glad I did. She is, after all, a cultural icon and her journey through the decades is fascinating.
Barbie’s creator was Ruth Handler, a mother who had watched her daughter Barbara play with paper fashion dolls and noticed that Barbara and her friends were overwhelmingly interested in dolls of adult women, and becoming less interested in the traditional dolls for American girls, which until then had been infants. She suggested a 3D adult woman fashion doll to the team at Mattel but they declined until they saw, in 1956, a doll called Lilli which had been released in Switzerland. They found a manufacturer in Asia and went into production with their own version, releasing the iconic first Barbie in the black and white swimming costume.
The exhibition traces Ruth Handler’s creation as it grew from an initial production order of 20,000 to the marketing and manufacturing behemoth it is today.
There are hundreds of dolls featured in the show, displayed alongside packaging, calendars, magazines, annuals and all the Barbie accessories a ten-year-old girl might dream of. Who knew that Barbie and Ken had their own rickshaw? They are great skiers, wonderful ice dancers and energetic roller-skaters. In the exhibition you meet the wider Barbie family, her first friend, Midge, Midge’s husband Allen and their children. Even the animals of the Barbie universe are featured.
At the end of the show a fascinating section is dedicated to the behind-the-scenes work put into marketing the Barbie magic. We are given the chance to see some incredibly detailed sets on which Barbie and her extended family are photographed and filmed for ad campaigns.
Then we are taken to a ‘special editions’ display, where we can see the dolls which have been produced for specific occasions or events. There are Barbie versions of Prince William and Duchess Catherine on their wedding day. And the royal couple sit in a vitrine alongside Batman, Superman and Diana Ross. It’s fantastic.
At the end of the show the curators include a section on the influence Barbie has had on the art world, displaying pieces where Barbie has been used as either inspiration, muse or material; there are four dolls dressed as religious icons including Saint Genevieve and Joan of Arc by Marianella Perelli and Pool Paolini. There’s portrait of Barbie by Andy Warhol and there’s a revolving runway show featuring Barbie outfits designed by Karl Lagerfeld, Diane von Furstenberg, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix to name but a few.
Overall it’s a show well worth going to see, whether you’re a Mattel fan or not. It’s hugely impressive to see the journey of how one basic plastic doll has been constantly refreshed and revamped to match ever-changing audiences and I particularly enjoyed the audio-visual elements, including everybody’s favourite song from 1996, Aqua’s Barbie Girl.
The exhibition is on at Le Musee des Arts Decoratifs until 18 September 2016 and costs 11€ at full price (the 11€ ticket allows you to access the entire Museum, including the current Roger Tallon exhibit and the permanent collection). There are student, young people and other concessions available but do visit the museum’s website for complete details.