To celebrate her 509th Anniversary as Barbie's fashion designer, Carol Spencer chooses her "Dream Dozen" from over 300 dolls and 5000 ensembles she created in more than 35 years of Livin' La Vida Barbie.
A graduate of Minneapolis College of Art & Design, Spencer was a sportswear designer when she put in an application with a Chicago recruiter and then went to Los Angeles to try her luck at Mattel headquarters. Which is how she got an interview appointment on the same day at the same time in two different cities. The rest is Barbie history.
#1 "Crisp & Cool" (1964)
Carol started at Mattel in 1963 when "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan was hot off the press. "We were working towards breaking through the glass ceiling." Her first design combines "Couture" with breezy sophistication a la Jackie Kennedy.
#2 "Wild N' Wonderful" (1968)
This Mod outfit sports knee-high cut out boots with gold beads – just like Carol has in real life! "I rarely designed anything for Barbie inspired by my own wardrobe. But I made an exception in this case! Yes – I still have mine."
#3 "Pink Premiere" (1969)
Spencer spun Barbie gold with a pink and white confection that would turn heads on the red carpet today. "It was important to keep up with the times." And not just in fashion. Innovation was key. "This was the first Talking Barbie Doll."
#4 "Maxi ‘N Mini" (1970)
"Metallic fabrics that had just been invented. Today it's a collector favorite."
#5 Hot Pants Busy Talking Barbie (1972)
"The Youth Movement was taking off with wonderful ‘Flower Girl' fashions. " The "Busy" Doll had hands that could hold a record player or a phone.
#6 Great Shape Barbie (1984)
"Aerobics was all the rage." Spencer appreciates that it was her job to "get a feel for what was happening in the world " and reflect it through Barbie at work, at home and at play.
#7 Astronaut Barbie (1986)
"We discovered in hands-on testing that children preferred fantasy at the time. " Eventually kids got used to the idea of real space travel. Spencer's designs were constantly evolving in this way. Nurse Barbie led to Dr. Barbie - with a pink stethoscope, naturally.
#8 Totally Hair Barbie (1992)
The all-time record holder at 10 million sold! "I came up with this concept when we had technical difficulties with other designs up against a deadline for Toy Fair. I said, "Let's just dress her in her hair!"
"At FAO Schwarz in New York there was a photo of Barbie with hair 30 feet long as you went up the escalator. An awesome sight."
#9 Benefit Ball Barbie (1992)
The first doll to feature the designer's name was a sensation. "We were considered a secret weapon for years. I was taken aback by the wonderful response. At the Collector Convention I was signing dolls at 3 AM! I ended up going on a signing tour," one of Spencer's many "firsts."
#10 Flapper Barbie (1993)
Projects like "The Great Eras" called for historical research even as Spencer was learning new methods. "This pattern was the first I created on a computer and printed directly onto fabric." Mattel supported continuing education. "I was always searching for something new and different. It was all part of bettering myself to chip away at that glass ceiling."
#11 Golden Jubilee Barbie (1994)
Spencer always draped fabric right on the doll. "You couldn't tell from a sketch what would look right." For Barbie's 35th Anniversary she went so far as to "sew the beads by hand into a Modern Art pattern." The crown jewel of her success, this is the only official Mattel doll ever issued with the designer's signature.
#12 "Cafe Society" (1998)
"I never saw myself as Barbie. She was my model. " But for her last design, Carol chose auburn hair like hers for the doll, a fitting gesture given her role in Barbie's success and vice versa.
When Ruth Handler created the doll in 1956 the horizons for women were limited. Girls were expected to play with baby dolls that emphasized caretaking.
Barbie represented independence from the start. "We were looking to expand the role of women." Perhaps that's even more controversial than the fantasy of the doll's glamorous appearance?
"Research proves a child can project through role play. Barbie was working, doing things in the world. We featured careers or scenarios that would stretch the child's imagination. So many people come up to me to tell me they got their start from playing with Barbie."
Spencer is living proof. From the Paris fashion shows to running the Hong Kong Design Group in the 1980's, "I've been around the world with Barbie." Spencer even "climbed the Great Wall of China." Not bad for a Midwestern girl who came of age when there were few options besides secretary.
Now retired, Spencer has made significant donations to the United Federation of Doll Clubs and Free Arts For Abused Children, a therapy group for children removed from their homes.
And Barbie's longest running designer is very much in demand with legions of fans. Carol presents the "Best Friend Award" at the annual Barbie Convention to someone who contributes to the hobby of collecting.
In keeping with this tradition, here's an exclusive sneak peek at the one of a kind gown Spencer created to mark the 50th Anniversary of Barbie's best friend, complete with a stole in her signature turquoise. "Midge borrows lots of Barbie's clothes, as best friends do. Now Midge has something special of her own on her 50th Anniversary – and mine."