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Barbie exhibition report: The development of the doll at the Design Museum

You don't have to be a Barbie fan to enjoy the Design Museum's latest exhibition, which celebrates the doll's 65th birthday (she looks really good for her age, by the way). This major new show delves deep into the doll's design evolution, from its first release in 1959 to the present day, charting her evolving appearance in relation to cultural shifts and her ability to capture the spirit of the times. With more than 250 objects on display, highlights include a rare first edition Barbie, a unique prototype talking Barbie, the best-selling Totally Hair Barbie and the Barbie sent into space by Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, on public display for the first time.

Barbie at the Design Museum

(Image credit: Jo Underhill, courtesy of the Design Museum)

The exhibition was designed by London-based studio Sam Jacob, who have worked on projects for institutions such as the Science Museum, V&A, RIBA and Somerset House. The setting is bright and bold in candy-coloured pinks, blues and greens, like entering a giant Barbie house. The show opens with a hand-painted first edition Barbie in a black and white swimsuit, a highly sought-after model by collectors. A timeline presents key moments in Barbie's eventful life, a flashback that includes Oscar de la Renta as the first couturier to design her outfits (1985) and being painted by Andy Warhol (1986), and there are behind-the-scenes glimpses of Mattel's design and production processes.

Exhibition view of Barbie at the Design Museum, London

(Image credit: Jo Underhill, courtesy of the Design Museum)

More than 180 unique dolls will be on display, tracing Barbie's evolution in form, style, innovation, diversity and representation. Highlights include Twist 'n' Turn Barbie (the waist could be twisted back and forth), Sunset Malibu Barbie, Bead Blast Barbie and Yves Saint Laurent Barbie (in the designer's iconic Mondrian dress), while the groundbreaking Day to Night Barbie wears a pink work suit that transforms into a chic evening gown. There are examples of the first black, Hispanic and Asian dolls to bear the Barbie name, as well as the first Barbie with Down syndrome, the first in a wheelchair, the first with a “curvy” body shape and pregnant Barbie. And there's a bit of Kenergy too, with one wall showcasing six decades of Ken dolls since its launch in 1961.

The Barbie icon: 1959 to today

Exhibition view of Barbie at the Design Museum, London

(Image credit: Jo Underhill, courtesy of the Design Museum)

The Barbie doll was introduced in 1959 thanks to Ruth Handler, co-founder and first president of toy manufacturer Mattel, who saw a gap in the market for a doll that resembled a woman rather than a baby. Handler realized that a doll with an adult body and a glamorous, “grown-up” wardrobe could offer children a new and more flexible way to play. Her initial popularity surprised the toy industry: over 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold in 1959 alone. But Mattel was always keen to build brand awareness and continued to develop the doll to adapt to the changing cultural environment. The company created new versions and accessories and added merchandise to the toys, from novels and comic books to thermoses and record players.

Exhibition view of Barbie at the Design Museum, London

(Image credit: Jo Underhill, courtesy of the Design Museum)

In 2023, Barbie made Forbes' list of the world's most powerful women. That's not surprising considering that when she was launched in 1959, women couldn't borrow money from a bank or even open an account without a husband or father's signature. Barbie has now worked in more than 260 professions, including architect, surgeon, astronaut and presidential candidate, and a high-end wardrobe that reflects six decades of fashion. She was meant to be a thoroughly modern woman who could both reflect and inspire aspirations, teaching a new generation of girls to aspire to a life and career beyond marriage and raising children.

Barbie “from the designer’s perspective”

Exhibition view of Barbie at the Design Museum, London

(Image credit: Jo Underhill, courtesy of the Design Museum)

Not only did Barbie have a great wardrobe, she had a great lifestyle, and the showstopping moment of the exhibit comes when you enter the Barbie universe filled with her homes, vacation cabins, cars, RVs, pools, furniture and more. A rare example of the very first Dreamhouse, released in 1962, made from cardboard and featuring the era's distinctly modernist design, signals an early allegiance to Wallpaper*'s aesthetic, with Barbie clearly influenced by the likes of Florence Knoll and Herman Miller. Later incarnations ramp up the pink, but a recent collaboration with Kartell, which reproduced five Philippe Starck chairs in Barbie's distinctive bubblegum colors, is a nod to her love of design innovation.

Exhibition view of Barbie at the Design Museum, London

(Image credit: Jo Underhill, courtesy of the Design Museum)

“This exhibition tells Barbie's story from the designer's perspective, including fashion, architecture, furniture and automotive design, all areas in which she has shaped culture during her 65-year career,” said Kim Culmone, head of doll design at Mattel. “We can't wait for fans and audiences to experience this exhibition as Barbie continues to inspire conversation, creativity and self-expression around the world.”

And she does. The final part of the show looks at Barbie's continued role as a cultural icon. Billie Eilish wore a life-size replica of her 1965 Poodle Parade dress to this year's Grammys, she was on the cover of Time magazine, and she was the subject of a box office hit (an original costume worn by Margot Robbie in the film is featured in the show). So take a trip to the Design Museum's Barbie World. It's fantastic.

Exhibition view of Barbie at the Design Museum, London

(Image credit: Jo Underhill, courtesy of the Design Museum)

Barbie®: The exhibition will be on display at the Design Museum from July 5, 2024 to February 23, 2025.