Barbie Turns 50, Celebrates by Having Some Work Done, Dropping Price to '59 Levels

For 50 years, a certain American blonde with the figure of a Playboy bunny, the hair-do of a USC cheerleader, and the arches of a Conde Nast editor has been channeling the zeitgeist and fashioning her wardrobe accordingly.

She wore a pillbox when Jackie Kennedy was in the White House, and a mini dress when Twiggy was rocking Cool Britannia. Bob Mackie, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein all lobbied to dress her. But the girl wasn’t just a bubble-headed fashionista. She had ambition, growing from gigs as a Candy Striper and flight attendant, into serious roles as an astronaut, NBA star, and Presidential candidate.

And she was as peripatetic as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times in her pursuit of seminal news events, suiting up for a European Summit meeting, donning togs for celebrating glasnost, and rifling through her wardrobe for just the right look for the fall of the Berlin Wall.

She is, of course, that princess of plastic, Barbie. The iconic doll, both revered and reviled since her introduction in 1959 (wearing a black and white striped bathing suit), is celebrating her 50th birthday today. Can a Cougar Barbie be far behind?

The doll, based on a German sex toy called Bild Lilli, which itself was based on a foul-mouthed promiscuous newspaper cartoon character, was originally created by Ruth Handler, a co-founder of Mattel, and nicknamed after her daughter.

The little vixen with the almond-shaped blue eyes and the Dynel hair, originally sold for $3. One of the originals, in mint condition, fetched $27,450 at auction in 2006. Mattel estimates that it has produced a billion fashions for Barbie and friends since 1959, using 105 million yards of fabric – making it one of the world’s largest apparel manufacturers.

In honor of her birthday, today, Mattel is releasing the new Bathing Suit Barbie® doll, a modernized version of the original 1959 doll that pays homage to Barbie’s original 1959 price by offering the new doll for $3 during the doll’s birthday week (March 9-14 at participating retailers).




The doll features a new face with a more natural look, including a thinner jaw line, more almond-shaped eyes, fuller lips and a softer makeup palette, with shimmery pink lip shades and neutral eye colors.  The new doll sports a two-piece black-and-white bikini trimmed with Barbie’s signature color pink (PMS 219), pink hoop earrings, a ponytail and, given how trendy she always is, a cell phone.

For all her popularity, Barbie has always been something of a celebrity hound, over the years channeling the likes of Lucille Ball, Priscilla Presley, and Cher, even in her most embarrassing exhibitionistic years.




And while she’s a worldwide sensation, with outfits ranging from geisha girl kimonos to Kenyan kente cloth, she’s been embraced about as lovingly as Dick Cheney in the Middle East. In 2003, the Saudis outlawed sales of Barbie, saying she was in conflict with the ideals of Islam. The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stated "Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West." The idea that Barbie is Jewish would probably come as a surprise to most people, who probably think she was modeled on a homecoming queen from SMU.




Still, as a cultural icon, Barbie has done better than many other American diplomatic initiatives. Some 18 million global users are registered on, and there are 1,000 YouTube channels devoted to the ubiquitous doll, which is the #1 worldwide property in the traditional toy industry.

So, happy birthday, Barbie. We can’t wait to see your next incarnation (FDIC Barbie?) For 50 years old, you’re still one foxy dame.

Browse the 50 Years of Barbie slideshow

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  • Linda Tischler

    So, where's the snark? Saying she looks like an SMU homecoming queen? I mean, really. You folks should switch to decaf. The post is solid reporting. You can look it up.

  • Erik Swanson

    You gotta love that snark! I hope Linda Tischler has to clean up vomit at a bulimia clinic when her writing career ends. So, like, mid-April.