From Barbie's beginnings in 1959, little girls clothed their Barbie dolls in a range of ensembles. No less than 22 outfits were offered in that introductory year, from a collarless Chanel-style jacket with matching sheath skirt to a satin-and-tulle bridal gown. Indeed, fashion was such an important aspect of the doll's marketing that noted clothing designer Charlotte Johnson was hired away from her teaching post at Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles to complete this critical task.
Most of the outfits offered in 1959 were still available in 1960, making the three that were discontinued (Easter Parade, Gay Parisienne, and Roman Holiday) extremely collectible. Of the six new outfits added in 1960, Friday Night Date was one of the best sellers, thanks to its charming blue corduroy jumper with felt appliqués, pair of soda glasses with cotton standing in for actual fizz, and a black serving tray bearing the Barbie logo. The straws that accompany each fizzing soda glass, two tiny pieces of solid white plastic, are particularly valued among enthusiasts for their rarity.
After that initial year, Barbie’s style changed annually and came to represent a living catalog of the most popular fashion trends of the second half of the 20th century. Her clothes came and went, and in the early years were often out of production before orders could be shipped to some regions of the U.S., which made ensembles such as Plantation Belle and Busy Gal (complete with striped blouse, black rimmed glasses, and fashion portfolio) difficult to obtain.
Barbie’s first run of outfits designated each piece with a name and a series number. From 1959 to 1963, the 900 series (901, 902, 903, etc.) accompanied each descriptive title. Beginning in 1964, Mattel switched to a 1600 series. Though newer, the 1600 outfit series is actually just as difficult for collectors to track down as the original—fewer quantities of each outfit were produced. Among the rarest of the 1600 series are Satin ’N Rose, White Magic, and Skaters Waltz, a wintry ensemble of nylon tights, pink felt ruffle skirt, and fuzzy white mittens.
More than anything, the condition of the Mattel label determines the value of a vintage Barbie outfit. Made from a selvaged white ribbon with black thread spelling ‘Mattel’, and held together by a weak adhesive that did not stand up well against children’s play, labels deteriorated easily. What’s more, Mattel placed the label wherever Barbie’s outfit provided the most visibility for the brand, which was usually a highly vulnerable location.
From the 1960s on, the production of Barbie outfits and accessories exploded. Outfits for every imaginable contemporary situation accompanied the doll, so long as it was wholesome. In 1962, the introduction of separately sold fashion packs, which provided color-coded accessories ranging from a pearl necklace to red slippers, made even more combinations of in-vogue ensembles possible. Barbie also started taking vacations that required exotic dress, including the Barbie in Mexico and Barbie in Switzerland models, complete with black mantilla and white eyelet lace bonnet, respectively.
Vintage Barbie and her clothing line went out of production in 1966. In 1967, Mattel introduced Mod Barbie, a decidedly more hip version of its predecessor that did away with the...
One of the more iconic versions of Barbie from this period is 1971’s Malibu Barbie, which utilized the face of Stacey, Barbie’s new friend from Great Britain. Malibu Barbie’s first outfit included a powder-blue one-piece swimsuit with a yellow-lined high neck and a yellow beach towel. The original Malibu Barbie was produced from 1971 through 1977, and is the final Barbie considered truly vintage by collectors.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the influence of celebrities and pop culture distracted from Mattel’s focus on fashion and style, as seen in the Superstar Barbies. But in recent years, Mattel has returned the doll to her high-fashion roots, as fashion designers as esteemed as Betsey Johnson, Isaac Mizrahi, Kate Spade, and Christian Louboutin have created everything from handbags to pumps for Barbie.