The lead designer of the iconic Barbie doll defended Barbie’s widely-criticized — and wildly unrealistic — body shape in an interview with Fast Company posted Monday. Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie at Mattel, argued that Barbie’s proportions are simply a practical necessity to make her tiny clothes fit the right way.
“Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic,” Culmone told Fast Company’s Mark Wilson. “Primarily it’s for function for the little girl, for real life fabrics to be able to be turned and sewn, and have the outfit still fall properly on her body.”
In assuming that Barbie’s shape — deemed anatomically impossible for a real woman — is the only way to make her clothing “fall properly on her body,” Culmone inadvertently provided a glimpse into the odd rationale that goes into crafting a body ideal. Rather than design Barbie’s clothing to fit her body, Mattel seems to have shaped Barbie to fit her outfits.
The attitude that women’s bodies should fit the clothes, and not vice versa, extends past Barbie’s plastic molds. Fashion designers often argue that they must use emaciated models because most women simply won’t fit the outfit the way it was envisioned. The size-zero runway sample has become a rigid standard many models must meet if they want to keep working. As Italian designer Valentino Garavani put it, “Designers have to show for the first time on the runway the clothes that they want to be seen, so automatically if the girls are skinny, the dresses are more attractive. If you put it on a girl and she’s a little heavy, not every dress looks sensational.”
This approach to design permeates the fashion industry from top to bottom. Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman famously complained in a letter to major fashion designers at Prada, Versace, and others that they were sending fashion magazines tiny sample sizes that “don’t comfortably fit even the established star models,” forcing photo shoots to feature extremely skinny women without breasts or hips. These magazines then reinforce the “vicious cycle” of size-zero fashion.
Off the runway, the consumer is held to the same standard as the model. In one telling example, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson responded to complaints that his company’s yoga pants wear out too quickly by claiming that “some women’s bodies just don’t work” for the pants — specifically women whose thighs rub together when they walk.
Leaving aside the impact on the average woman’s body image, this adherence to a single body type stifles creativity and diversity in the fashion industry. Designers are free to ignore the challenge of creating clothing that works for a range of body shapes. The result is the kind of stylistic laziness cuttingly described by actress and writer Mindy Kaling, who has joked about how designers struggle with her “nebulous, quote-unquote, normal American woman size,” often draping her in shawls or ponchos simply so they don’t have to deal with her body.
However, after decades of criticism of fashion industry standards, designers are starting to recognize the potential to set themselves apart from the norm. Designer Rick Owens made a splash at Paris Fashion Week last fall by featuring heavily-muscled step dancers from mainly African American sororities to show off his spring collection. The controversial performance was a radical departure from the typical stream of waif-like white teenagers, and garnered some criticism after models reported that they were instructed to put on angry expressions, playing into stereotypes of black women. But it quickly became the most memorable event of the season. “Rick Owens just won fashion month,” proclaimed the blog Fashionista.
The emergence of more diverse bodies on the red carpet has also challenged designers’ comfort zones and presented new opportunities for acclaim. In her rise to fame, Gabourey Sidibe has endured many a stylist whose most innovative idea is a black T-shirt, but when A-list design house Marchesa finally broke out of its size zero to six range and custom-made a stunning, body-framing dress for the Precious star, the potential for plus-sized fashion was obvious. Vogue editor Anna Wintour personally styled curvy singer Adele for the 2009 Grammys, making designers clamor for the gig. The selected designer partly built her reputation on the “eclectic” versatility displayed in her work for Adele.
Similarly, in the doll world, the appetite for a one-size-fits-all fashion seems to be in jeopardy. Though Culmone insists that Mattel can’t see “an objective to change the proportion of Barbie currently,” Barbie sales continue to plummet. But if more real-life designers start thinking about bodies before putting pen to paper, Barbie’s fashion trends might find fresh inspiration.