In Search of Barbie Couture

Writer Sadie Stein Bares All About Dressing up Like Barbie

Some disturbed individuals aspire to look like Barbie dolls. Valeria Lukyanova, the Ukrainian model who famously underwent hundreds of plastic surgeries, immediately comes to mind. I, for one, have always secretly wanted to dress like one. Not the cheap lamés and peaches-and-cream gowns of my own childhood, which I scorned, but those early, perfect, collectible Charlotte Johnson looks. Ever since I came across a pair of play-scale peddle-pushers in a tag sale rag bag, I’ve dreamed of a wardrobe like this, and when I reached adulthood, I came to a radical decision: I would have an outfit made. If people asked me who I was wearing, I’d say, “Johnson.”

Charlotte Johnson was a fashion instructor at the Chouinard Institute in Los Angeles before Mattel hired her away to be the nascent Barbie’s personal couturière. In the years since her creation, the teen fashion doll has played muse to human-focused designers from Bob Mackie to Christian Dior, but nothing beats the style and quality of those first ensembles. Johnson took inspiration from the season’s collections, and the Chanel-style suits, jauntily printed shifts and New Look crinolines were not only on-trend but beautifully made. Johnson was punctilious about the quality of her garments, persuading Japanese textile manufacturers to sell Mattel fabrics in small batches, and custom-design tiny zippers and buttons.

My mind swirled with looks I loved: Would I replicate Barbie’s “Gay Parisienne” bubble dress? The sporty, pencil-skirted “Roman Holiday?” Or what about the “Busy Gal,” which featured a smart, professional Barbie in glasses and business attire, carrying a portfolio? Each was so perfect, so dainty, so complete!

My plan quickly ran into snags. First, there was the question of material. You couldn’t exactly find apple-printed polished cotton at any fabric store, and reasonable human-scale facsimiles looked somehow coarse and garish—nothing like the gaiety of “Easter Parade!” Then, there was the actual fabrication. It seemed impossible to simply walk into a joint with a blurry picture of a vintage doll, or even a 6-inch swing coat found on eBay, and expect to walk out with a perfect duplicate. Not without looking and appearing insane, at any rate. So I ordered some period paper sewing patterns online. I even found a vintage dress that seemed like a pretty good match, if I could get it copied in the right fabric.

At a certain point, it dawned on me that I was just having a bunch of regular clothes made, at considerable expense, and that I was copying dolls’ outfits that had been copies of human ones. After a lifetime of smug resistance, I had fallen into the Barbie trap: I wanted to be her! Not her as she is now, perhaps, but as I imagined she had been: from a rosy-hued time when each outing had a costume and everything was made with care. But that time is gone, and that aspiration was no more realistic than wanting to live in a dream house. Not everything looks better blown up; in the end, we like miniature things not because they are perfect but because their scale hides flaws.

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