Despite complaints she heard from feminists of her generation, 63-year-old Debbie Klein never saw the Barbie doll as the root of body dysmorphia. Nor did she see her as an oppressive plastic priestess dictating that a woman’s place was in a dream house with Ken.
Instead, what Klein saw in Barbie was a jetsetter. A woman who didn’t need a man to have a life filled with a satisfying career, travel, and especially tasteful fashion.
Klein and Fort Point photographer Joel Benjamin have collaborated on a fashion exhibit to show the proto-feminist side of the enduring Mattel toy. There’s nothing ironic or post-modern about the photo show, called “Debbie’s Barbies.” It highlights the vintage fashion once worn by four of Klein’s childhood dolls, purchased between 1958 and 1963. During that period, a young Klein daydreamed about Barbie’s thrilling life.
“She wasn’t a baby doll, and she wasn’t a bride,” Klein says. “It was a teenage fashion doll. She had clothes and she was doing all this great stuff. She got to fly around the world and ski Aspen. That’s what I wanted. It wasn’t her measurements that I aspired to.”
The photographs, on display at the School of Fashion Design through Dec. 31, came about when Klein was cleaning out a storage locker in her home state of Florida and found her dolls. The Barbies, along with her friend Midge, looked a bit battered. Still, they brought back memories, reminding Klein that Barbie “had all the hallmarks of a bad girl.”
“Her eyeshadow was bright blue, she was wearing tons of mascara, and she was wearing high-heeled mules with her strapless, zebra-stripe swimsuit,” Klein says.
Barbie not only represented an escapist figure for Klein, but also for her mother. The two would pour over fashion magazines, and Klein’s mother, Mabel Wilcox, made more than 30 outfits for her daughter’s dolls. But they weren’t shapeless house dresses. Wilcox designed chic clothes. She took to her sewing machine and made miniscule apparel, including a silk-lined tweed jacket with wood buttons and a matching skirt, complete with kick pleat.
“The store-bought outfits cost $2.98 each,” Klein says. “We couldn’t afford them. But my mother loved clothes and she loved to sew. She could create the kinds of things that she really couldn’t wear in rural Florida.”
Klein, who now works at Bard College in Red Hook, N.Y., first met Benjamin when the two worked together at the Boston Phoenix. While the exhibit brought back fond memories for Klein, Barbie brought up different feelings for Benjamin.
“I have a history with Barbie,” said the photographer, 52. “When I was 4 years old I was told not to play with her. That stuck with me. I wasn’t scolded. Just taught a lesson that stuck with me up until today.”
Even when Benjamin began shooting pictures for the show, he still felt slightly guilty that he was playing with Barbie. That passed as he and Klein started styling the dolls. In some cases, the years had not been kind to Barbie. Benjamin had no hesitation photographing the less-than-perfect toys, saying that the decay, coupled with her blank stare, made the photos more compelling.
Benjamin found a book of vintage wallpaper samples that he purchased at a flea market 15 years ago and used them as a backdrop for his models, while Klein went rummaging through the box of ensembles to outfit the dolls.
“Barbie ruined me,” said Klein jokingly. “I always wanted her life, but I never quite got to live the same way. I’m still thoroughly jealous.”
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