The new Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie has sparked fresh interest in all things Barbie, including collectibles. Mattel, Barbie’s maker, estimates there are well over 100,000 active collectors, many of whom attend the annual Barbie convention (held in early July this year in Orlando).
When Barbie was introduced in 1959, I was 10 — too old, I thought, to play with dolls. Then, in 1995, I saw photos of a No. 1 Barbie and a trunkful of clothes found in an abandoned storage locker. I was hooked.
As I began collecting vintage dolls, it was interesting to see how Barbie’s hairstyles evolved in her early years — from a ponytail and curly bangs in the Elvis era, to a bouffant “bubblecut” when Jackie Kennedy was first lady to a sleek pageboy in the mid-‘60s and then to the long straight hair of the hippie and Mod generation.
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It was the clothes, though, that were truly captivating, hand-sewn couture fashions made of exquisite fabrics with metal snaps and zippers. At her peak of elegance in 1965, Barbie wore satin evening gowns, gold lame sheaths and tweed suits trimmed with real fur. Outfits had names like Shimmering Magic and Debutante Ball. And oh, the accessories — tiny compacts, pearl necklaces, even a portfolio with fashion sketches.
The oldest and generally most sought-after dolls were made in Japan. As that country became wealthier and labor costs rose, Barbie’s story tracked that of the world’s emerging markets — production moved to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mexico, Malaysia, Indonesia and China.
With Barbie aging (albeit beautifully), prices for some of the earliest dolls have soared. At Marl and B, a Bradenton shop specializing in vintage Barbies, a No. 1 doll was recently listed at $15,000 and some bubblecuts as much as $1,500. (Prices on eBay tend to be less.) Condition is key. Bad hair, missing fingers and toes and the dreaded green ear — caused by metal earring posts interacting with the plastic in the doll’s head — dramatically affect value. As for the clothes, one way to spot the earliest ones is by their black-and-white embroidered tags. Accessories — often lost or sucked up in vacuum cleaners — can be scarcer and more valuable than the clothes.
In anticipation of the Barbie movie, a friend and I got out our vintage dolls. Maybe I was too old for Barbie at 10, but not anymore.