Paola Di Trocchio is a leading fashion curator, writer and speaker. In her 20-year career at the National Gallery of Victoria, she curated and co-curated 22 fashion and textiles  and was coordinating co-curator for The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier from the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. She is currently writing freelance, speaking at public forums on fashion, culture and history as well as completing her doctoral thesis exploring the application of curatorial principles outside the museum which includes a close study of fashion journalist and style maverick Anna Piaggi.

Conceived by Ruth Handler in 1959, Barbie was intentionally envisioned without a preconceived personality [1]. Instead, Handler wanted the child who played with Barbie to develop her own perception of what Barbie should be through play [2]. Therefore, Barbie’s clothing and accessories were created with a wide range of possibilities in mind to facilitate such invention. For example, through dress, Barbie could be a fashion designer, cheerleader, singer, or college graduate. Available as blond or brunette, the endless choices were up to the doll’s owner.

Consequently, Barbie is a figure defined by her interactions with fashion and dress, effectively wearing her identities. Taken beyond the doll, her experiences with fashion can be seen as reflective of women at play in the world, with their wardrobes being used to negotiate roles and identities through ensembles. The study of these experiences of personal dressing, known as wardrobe studies, focuses on communicating who one wants to be, or who one feels they should be in a given situation [3]. Dressing becomes an act of preparing the body for the social world, making it appropriate, acceptable, and possibly desirable through socially constructed practices of dress. The system of fashion can also play a role in the contents of the wardrobe and its presentation [4]. For Barbie, fashion is key, with her wardrobe intentionally high fashion from its inception, initially following the haute couture fashions of Balenciaga and Dior and then the mod fashions of Mary Quant and others [5]. Dressing for function combined with high fashion gave her enormous appeal among children as well as adults. Fashion, and how Barbie’s wardrobe is used, was therefore key to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023).

Collage drawn from three issues of Australian Vogue, September 2022, August 2023, and September 2023, one of which (August 2023) featured Margot Robbie on the cover along with a conversation between Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig as a feature. Aside from Margot Robbie, the other featured figure in the collage is Margot Robbie's makeup artist, Pati Dubroff.  

In the film, costume designer Jacqueline Durran mined Barbie’s archival wardrobe for her costumes and references. This served several functions: firstly, to visually communicate the figure of Barbie through iconic and recognizable outfits, often overtly pink and feminine. Secondly, to communicate and identify with audiences of various ages who may have played with Barbie in different eras from 1959 to the present day [6] and recognize Barbie’s longevity and continued presence in popular culture. Also tracing the history of Barbie from 1959 to the present day, was the 2016 exhibition at Les Arts Decoratifs de la Mode et du Textiles, Paris, which presented a thesis not dissimilar to the film’s—of Barbie as a feminist role model for young girls through her numerous careers and iterations.

An additional reference through the film’s ensembles was to the director’s own childhood. Durran stated that any ensembles that were directly from the 1980s had the strongest resonance with Gerwig [7], who was born in 1983, and would have played with the doll in the 1980s, an era when the rising individualism in North American political culture was reflected in cultural expressions of endless possibility for all. As Durran states: ‘The defining characteristic of what [Barbie] wears is where she’s going and what she’s doing… it’s about being dressed for your job or task’ [8]. Her costume changes allow her to change tasks, jobs, roles, and identities and reflect the ways in which women experience and interact with fashion, often as a means of role play for requisite functions.

This is portrayed in Barbie’s film wardrobe where the doors are clear Perspex, mimicking the plastic sheet over the pink box Barbie is purchased in, and inside outfits and accompanying accessories are perfectly laid out. Barbie simply looks at her outfit, spins, and is magically dressed. Afterwards, her outfit for the next day is sitting behind it, perfectly coordinated for the role that she is about to play.

Whilst the external source who chooses her outfits might be the child, this external source also appears reflective of the fashion system, where ensembles are presented for consumption in full. Barbie engages with the broadest offering of the fashion system, participating in all its myriad options, the way many individuals do, choosing different looks for different functions or roles they are required to play. Yet, they are each customised to her, either emblazoned with an oversized B or customised to her specific figure.

Like the prior collage, this one was drawn from three issues of Australian Vogue, September 2022, August 2023 and September 2023, one of which (September 2023) featured an article The 90s Supers return. Their strong statuesque forms, high glamour and broad smiles had aligned with a number of characteristics of Barbie.

Comedy occurs when there is a misalignment, particularly in the Real World where conditions are unpredictable. For example, the western ensembles chosen by Barbie and Ken are comical for the misalignment with the functions that they are required to perform. At the same time, the fluorescent yellow and pink 1980s rollerblading ensembles they wear are also comical for intentionally being out-of-fashion, and jarring with their contemporary surroundings.

The critic within the film is in the figure of Gloria, the mother from the Real World, who states that all she wants is a top that is comfortable and flattering. This is what she requires for her function in the Real World. The coordinated ensembles, the perfection of the look that Barbie adorns, is difficult to achieve in a modern reality, yet this remains a consistent expectation of women that they have to negotiate each day.

The impossible standards for women are a strong theme, but fashion is central to who Barbie is. In an interview, Greta Gerwig expressed that she wanted everything in the film to be beautiful [9]. This is one of the attractive features of Barbie. Her coordination, her ability to be perfectly presented, her myriad ensembles that ensure she is perfectly presented for the role, lending the assumption that she can do it (also known as ‘Fake it till you make it’). To don a postal uniform sets up the expectation in the viewer of the role the individual will perform. Therefore, the mutability of her outfits opens up a spectrum of possibilities for the roles the individual can play. In a world where identity if not fixed, there are a host of fashion choices available where that negotiation can occur.

One of Barbie’s final ensembles is a yellow dress, reflective of the most popular Barbie outfit purchased in the last five to ten years. Contemporary consumers are not drawn to the hot pink that is characteristic of the 1980s. Just like women of today, Barbie has evolved beyond the stereotypical and communicates something softer and more malleable. But that is just another costume, too. Another role to play. Another ensemble to try on. In Barbie’s mutability and in her requirement to adopt costumes as roles, she is perhaps more reflective of women’s experience of contemporary culture than we’d like to admit. But there is joy in that ability to shift, change, and transform too.

The structured houndstooth suit felt highly Barbie, with its accompanying handbag, gloves, bracelet, sunglasses, earrings and shoes. She is elegant, classy and put together. The tabs I created at the side refer to the paper cut out doll. I found that as I was sourcing images for these collages, the types of garments that felt right were the ones with defined silhouettes, clear form and a lack of evidence of movement. Soft drape doesn't feel terribly Barbie, neither do creases. It has been insightful to think about the particular forms that can be used to represent Barbie. There is a clear visual language evident through the issues I used even though they weren't selected with this in mind. I selected the August 2023 issue as it featured Margot Robbie on the cover, though little evidence of Barbie-core. I found myself looking at contemporary fashion imagery and asking, Would Barbie Wear That?

Notes: She’s More Like Us Than We Think

[1] Fennick, Janine, 1996, The Collectible Barbie Doll: An Illustrated Guide to her Dreamy World, Quintet Publishing Ltd, Collingwood.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Guy, Alison, Eileen Green & Maura Banim, 2003, Through the wardrobe: Women's relationships with their clothes, Berg, Oxford, New York.

[4] Svendsen, Lars & John Irons, 2006 Fashion: A philosophy, Reaktion Books, London.

[5] Fennick, 1996.

[6] Phillips, Hedy, 2003 ‘Barbie’ Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran Says She Wanted the Wardrobe to Feel ‘Timeless’ (Exclusive)’ People, 5 August, 2023 accessed 1 October 2023

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mukhtar, Amel, 2023, ‘Exclusive: Barbie Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran On Vintage Chanel, Ken’s Pants and Styling The Film Of The Summer, British Vogue, 12 June 2023, accessed 1 October 2023

[9] Allen, Kelly, 2003, ‘Everything We Know About the Barbie Sets and Filming Locations’, House Beautiful, 25 July 2023 accessed 1 October 2023

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics
Issue 12 ︎︎︎ Border Garments: Fashion, Feminisms, & Disobedience

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement
Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement

Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016