From carefully coordinated all-pink looks, to opulent evening outfits made in partnership with Oscar de la Renta, it’s no secret Barbie has long been one of the most fashion-forward toys on the market.
It’s a reputation forged in large part thanks to Carol Spencer, a now 90-year-old fine arts scholar who answered a newspaper job advertisement in 1963 to become Barbie’s fashion designer — a position she held for 36 years until 1999, making her the figure’s longest serving stylist.
“When I joined the company, I worked with Ruth Handler (the inventor of Barbie) who was still at Mattel,” Spencer said in a telephone interview from the 2023 Barbie convention in Orlando. “As soon as I started, I just truly fell in love with this little doll called Barbie and she became my passion.”
But becoming a fashion designer in California was a long way from Spencer’s early life. Born in 1932 in Minneapolis, Spencer said she rejected the common female stereotypes of the day. “I graduated from high school in 1950 and at that time there were basically five jobs for women,” she told Business Insider in 2019. “You could be a teacher, nurse, secretary, clerk or a wife and mother.”
Instead, Spencer enrolled at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to study fine arts with fashion design and, after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1955, Spencer travelled to New York for a “guest editing” internship slot at Mademoiselle Magazine (alongside Joan Didion), before moving to Milwaukee for a job in fashion design.
Seven years later, she landed the job at Mattel and moved across the country to fulfill what she believes was her destiny.
It’s a career celebrated in her recently re-issued book, “Dressing Barbie” (Harper Books), which sees Spencer reflect on some her career highs as a couturier in miniature.
“When you look back at Barbie dolls, they replicate history and show what was what was happening at the time, which is why the 1960s was one of my favorite decades working with Barbie,” she said. “So many things were going on. Fashion was changing, from the ‘couturier period’, where high fashions began in Europe and spread around the world, to a huge youth culture movement, the advent of ‘mod’ fashion and Mary Quant’s wonderful designs. There were wonderful new musicians — Elvis Presley and The Beatles, for example. It was lots of fun to work on Barbie’s changing style alongside that.”