Terry Burant is a professor and Director of Teacher Education at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona in Teaching and Teacher Education. She’s also a lifeguard, a mermaid, and an instigator of theme parties.

Barbie in lights by the pool.

Picture 60+ Barbies and Kens floating in an outdoor swimming pool on colorful floaties shaped like flamingos, pineapples, and palm trees. There’s a DJ spinning the Barbie movie soundtrack. Free drinks. A food truck and a Barbie cake. A Barbie and Ken look-alike contest that includes a promenade around the pool deck. A lifeguard shed covered in pink, with Barbie, Ken, and Taylor Swift peering out of windows, and the deck trimmed with pink lights. The water in the pool dyed a vibrant pink. A crowd of over 250 people, many dressed for the occasion and in the most festive of moods.

The dressing room with one of the lifeguards making fashion decisions.
Yes, ours is an offbeat and atypical apartment complex pool: most days you will find people of all kinds reading, floating, grilling out, socializing, sleeping, drinking, flirting, and sometimes actually swimming. There’s a vibe like no other: it’s not fancy, but it feels like luxury to those who love it. It grounds people. Brings people together. This summer’s Barbie party, however, took our community to a whole new level of passion, togetherness, and love like I’ve not seen in my 16 years of lifeguarding at this pool. And the Barbie joy wasn’t limited to the day of the party: the vibes appeared weeks before the party and continued to flourish right up to closing day in late September. Why was this the most magical of events?

Costume contest and promenade

First, our Barbie party brought our people together around a nearly universal theme. While swimming pools in the United States have complicated racial and gendered histories, with segregation occurring across different lines of division depending on the time and geographic location, our pool is one of the most diverse in the city of Milwaukee, representing nearly every facet of human categorization. [1] The residents of our 600+ unit apartment complex consist of people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s who have lived there for 40+ years; young professionals just starting out in the city and taking advantage of relatively affordable rent and underground parking, along with easy pedestrian and street car access to all the downtown and lakefront; engineering students from a nearby engineering school; families from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and the Middle East making a home in the US for the first time; middle-aged adults, often arriving here after ending relationships or choosing our complex as a transitional space for their post-suburban lives. Every type of human living in our community showed up for the Barbie party, with at least 50 of them participating in our costume parade and contest.

Baywatch Barbies and the pool party boss; Vintage Barbies and Ken

“This Barbie party wasn’t put on by staff for residents; it was hosted by our community for our community, and it took on a life of its own.”

Next, the planning and execution of this event was a shared affair that took us weeks to organize and prepare. Every single maintenance staff member weighed in on how to best affix the Barbies and Kens to their floaties (we landed on the use of thick rubber bands). They purchased and hung pink lights with care (they were hung so beautifully that we left them up for the rest of the summer). Residents took it upon themselves to decorate the lifeguard shed pink. They made signs, designating the pool area “Willows, Wisconsin” (Barbie’s birthplace). One resident offered up movie posters and tickets to the Barbie movie donated by his employer as prizes for our costume contest. Multiple guards recruited residents to dress the Barbies and Kens and blow up the floaties. Each creative idea launched a dozen more and people talked about the upcoming party every day, building anticipation. This Barbie party wasn’t put on by staff for residents; it was hosted by our community for our community, and it took on a life of its own.

Partygoers in the parade.
Watching people of all ages interact with the Barbies and Kens in the pool was one of my favorite things about our poolside Barbie summer. For weeks leading up to the event, during every guard shift, I floated a few Barbies and Kens in the pool, and I also attached a Baywatch Barbie and Ken to our lifeguard stand, subtly generating interest. Without fail, if a Barbie or Ken floated past a swimmer in the pool, that swimmer played with the doll, either by smoothing its hair, straightening its outfit, or full-on acting out a scene or dancing with it. At the party, with so many dolls in the pool, along with glowing unicorns, flamingos, and disco balls, the dolls joined a dance party of in-the-water revelers and real life Barbies and Kens.
Top: Night pool vibes taking in the scene.
Bottom: Setting up the Barbies and Kens.
Finally, the outfits and the participation in the costume parade spanned every Barbie and Ken era and age and the audience watching the promenade went wild! Residents from less than a year old to their mid-70s strutted their stuff in the parade and did some serious voguing, posing, and dancing. There were vintage Barbies and Kens, an 80s Ken, princess Barbies, weird Barbies, a sexy lifeguard Ken and all variations in between.

Top: 80s Ken winner of the costume contest.
Second from top: Parade crowd cheering!
Second from bottom: Lifeguard stand antics with movie Barbie and Ken.
Bottom: Barbie DreamHouse pool shed.
After the music stopped, the last beer cans were recycled, the chairs were straightened, and the pool water faded back to its normal blue, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we will never have a party quite like this one again. Thanks, Barbie.

Notes: Let’s Have a Pool Party

[1] Wiltse, J. (2010). Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. University of North Carolina Press.

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