Barbie’s Fashion Icon: Meet Carol Spencer, The Designer Behind The Iconic Doll’s Wardrobe

Barbie's Fashion Icon: Meet Carol Spencer, The Designer Behind The Iconic Doll's Wardrobe

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When the Barbie doll launched in 1959, she had a limited collection of outfits. But with her growing popularity, she needed a wardrobe to match her success. Carol Spencer — a now 90-year-old fine arts scholar — came to the rescue. She acted in a newspaper job advertisement in 1963 to become Barbie’s fashion designer or the doll’s personal stylist — a position she held for 36 years until 1999.

“When I joined the company, I worked with Ruth Handler (the inventor of Barbie) who was still at Mattel,” Spencer told CNN in an interview. “As soon as I started, I just truly fell in love with this little doll called Barbie and she became my passion.”

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. “You could be a teacher, nurse, secretary, clerk, or wife and mother.”

Instead, she enrolled in a design program at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, and during her final year in college applied for a month-long guest editor internship position in New York at Mademoiselle (a fashion magazine published from 1935-2001).

Seven years later, she landed a job at Mattel — a career that is celebrated in her book — Dressing Barbie, which reflects on Spencer’s journey as a couturier in miniature.

Throughout her career spanning more than three decades, Spencer stayed on top of global fashion trends to ensure that Barbie remained on-trend. Much of Barbie’s success as one of the most fashion-forward toys on the market can be attributed to Spencer’s genius.

As times changed, so did the design process, Spencer told CNN. While today’s designers work on computers, her design team worked on 3D models of dolls rather than drawings. “The team did everything by hand — from making patterns, cutting them, to sewing the miniature garments — and then we would make adjustments until it looked right on Barbie and in the box,” she said. “Barbie’s scale is roughly 1/6 the scale of a real person, and everything needed to look right.”

When Spencer retired in 1998, Mattel created a Carol Spencer Barbie to commemorate her 35th anniversary as a Mattel designer. The collectible doll sported a pale pink suit, a miniature replica of what is considered to be Spencer’s most iconic look. “I still have the suit,” she told Mpls St. Paul Magazine. “If only it still fit!”

Currently residing in Westwood, California, Spencer’s house is filled with glass cases housing hundreds of Barbie dolls. Among her favorites is the red-haired 1992 Benefit Ball Barbie, donning a chic gold and teal metallic gown and a Golden Jubilee Barbie doll from 1996, embellished with Spencer’s name on the backside. “She’s a favorite of mine. I love her,” she told CNN. “I’m the only designer to have her name printed on a Barbie doll, and it really means a lot.”

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