For thirty-five years, I was at the center of the Barbie universe as a member of Mattel’s design team. It wasn’t a career I had ever envisioned when I was younger, but from that moment in 1962 when I first read Mattel’s advertisement in Women’s Wear Daily, I saw my future, and it thrilled me.
Perhaps that’s because Barbie’s life was the polar opposite of my own: she was the ultimate California girl, while I grew up in Minneapolis, where the winters were gray and seemingly endless. Barbie could take on any profession she desired—she was an astronaut in 1965, four years before the Apollo 11 moon landing—but when I was thinking about a career in the late 1950s, the options available to women largely focused on the “expected” five: nurse, teacher, secretary, shopgirl, and seamstress. I always knew that I wanted more.
One Sunday while reading the newspaper, I spied an ad for a seminar highlighting jobs in the fashion industry. I put on my best interview clothes and my bravest face, and I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. The first speaker was a member of the Fashion Group International, Inc., who discussed the fashion design program at the Minneapolis School of Art. She put two words together that I had never heard of as a vocation: fashion designer. It was as though someone had turned on a light. Before leaving the seminar, I filled out an application—and when I returned home, I still didn’t tell anyone.
I watched the mailbox every day for weeks until an envelope with my name on it finally arrived: I had been accepted! That feeling of wanting more suddenly no longer made me feel restless; instead, it was exhilarating.
Today the Minneapolis School of Art is known as the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and in the early 1950s, I was among just 250 students, many of whom were World War II veterans studying on the GI Bill. On most days, I was able to catch a ride with a former GI who decided to study sculpture after he had worked on the restoration of Mount Rushmore. And instead of the sweater-and-skirt combination that had practically become my high school uniform, in college I wore blue jeans most days—just like the guys.
At the beginning of my senior year of college, a notice was posted that the application process was about to kick off for Mademoiselle magazine’s annual guest-editor contest. While Vogue was considered the epitome of high fashion, Mademoiselle focused more on the lifestyle of smart, independent young women; contributing authors included Joyce Carol Oates and Truman Capote. Meanwhile, the guest-editor program was truly prestigious, with an alumni list that included Sylvia Plath and, from my year, Joan Didion.
Entrants submitted four essays over the course of their senior year; but with more than thirty-seven thousand applicants and only twenty guest editor spaces, did I even have a chance? My first essay won a ten-dollar prize, and I allowed myself to hope. In early May, just prior to graduation, the telegram arrived: “We are delighted to tell you that you have been chosen as a 1955 Guest Editor.”
In June 1955, instead of walking across the stage to receive my diploma, I’d checked into the legendary Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York City, living and working in a city that was overwhelming, but exciting too. While walking on Fifth Avenue, I found myself always looking up—at the green mansard rooftops of the Pierre and the Plaza, or the art deco edifices of Bonwit Teller and Tiffany & Co.
Our class of twenty talented “mademoiselles” was nothing less than a dreamlike experience. We were invited everywhere: to the home of the famed cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein, who devoted an entire room of her penthouse apartment to Salvador Dalí paintings, and to stand at the podium in the General Assembly room at the United Nations, which had opened its headquarters on Manhattan’s East Side just a few years before. We wore our best formals while dancing with West Point cadets in the ballroom on the rooftop of the St. Regis Hotel. And everywhere we went, we were photographed as though we were debutantes or celebrities. It was about as far from Minneapolis as you could get.
My interview with Jerry Fire of Mattel’s human resources department was quite brief. He had heard the story of my dueling résumé submissions, and during this process Mattel evidently had decided I was more than qualified for the job. There were just two hurdles to get past: from that same desk drawer, Jerry took out two Barbie dolls, one blond and the other brunette, both sporting the same bubble-cut hairstyle. With them, he handed me a packet of instructions. I had two weeks to create a set of test fashions; the dolls should be dressed in my finished designs, and I needed to present patterns and sketches. “And be sure to keep track of your time, because we’ll pay you for it,” Jerry added.
Back in my apartment, I put the dolls on my kitchen table and spread out the instructions. The first challenge was how different it would be to design for a doll instead of designing for a child or young woman. Barbie had been created on a onesixth scale of the female form, and while the math for creating patterns was easy enough, finding prints suitable for her smaller size could be difficult; even the smallest, most delicate flower on a child’s dress would seem gigantic on an eleven-and-a-half-inch doll. I also had to take into consideration the perception of Barbie as the quintessential California girl. Whatever I designed needed to evoke that ideal.
Completing the test fashions was merely the first hurdle. My follow-up meeting two weeks later was with the woman who already had become a bona fide legend in the history of Barbie. Charlotte Johnson had been a freelance fashion designer who also taught at what later became known as the California Institute of Arts.
From the book DRESSING BARBIE by Carol Spencer. Copyright © 2023 by Carol Spencer. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.