Barbie Paper Dolls. Oh my. How I wanted these! Of course I look back on this grand desire of mine and I wonder why. I ask myself why this wonder woman with the impossible figure, cute clothes, and a long string of suitors so caught my attention . . . but maybe I just answered my own question. Barbie was, and very well might still be, the paragon of Cool and Smart. A model of Beauty and Sophistication. Fun and Adventure.
And she had the cutest clothes and shoes. Maybe it was this that so drew me into her Barbie world of pink Corvettes and hip pool parties. It was only implied that Barbie was wealthy, but how else could a girl be so cool, perpetually-unemployed, always ready to party, and have any boy she wanted. Her Funhouse did not come with a bundle of Barbie-size funny money, but we could all imagine her taking a bath in a tub of $100 bills. In short, Barbie was pretty danged cool to a little girl living in a North Dakota farm town.
In an effort to assist me in my realizing the Barbie Dream, my Big Sisters made us our own homemade paper dolls. These facsimiles may have failed miserably in the Cool Factor, but they made up for it exponentially in the Effort Department. While Mattel was not about to go busting down our door to rob us of our yet-to-be-patented North-Dakotan version of Barbie (a doll that swore freely in Polish, wore galoshes, and whipped up funeral hotdish to take to the church in her Barbie kitchen), the Dakota dolls earned an A+ in creativity and fine craftsmanship.
The dolls were made by meticulously cutting out desirable models featured in magazine advertisements, which were then glued to the equivalent of light poster board. I remember the girls using the light cardboard insert that came packaged with my father’s new shirts or the empty cereal boxes from the kitchen. Gluing the models to the cardboard was cause for concentration. It involved using the just-right amount of glue to prevent bubbling and wrinkling in the wrong places. We’re talking Knock-Off Barbies here with the end goal of Barbie Perfection, and the dolls could not afford an unseemly bubble or wrinkle in an inappropriate place.
After the glue had thoroughly dried, the laborious task ensued of cutting out the outlines of the dolls and the tricky spaces between the arms and the body for those models who held their hands on their hips. This was all done with blunt-tip school scissors and a pair of dull sewing shears that my mother kept by her sewing machine. We could not afford fancy craft knives, and our parents were not about to entrust the Big Girls with a box cutter. They used what they had, and I have to hand it to them for keeping a steady hand. While it would have been easier to have dolls with their arms glued to their sides or completely away from their bodies, the Big Girls were committed to their craft and kept the arms-akimbo models alive in our collection.
Next came the clothes. The dolls were traced to typing paper, and then cute dresses and pant suits were drawn and colored. My sisters had this process down. I suspect that there was a fair measure of failed attempts before they learned to put the doll face down on the paper so that the tracing lines could not be seen in the dress or top. Again, those arms-akimbo spaces had to be cut out carefully from all fashions. I now know why so many of the outfits were sleeveless — thus removing the necessity of cutting those spaces out of fragile paper.
And all I can say is a resounding Chapeau! to my sisters for learning how to place the fold tabs just so, ensuring that the dolls’ outfits would stay put and not just fall off. I am sure that Ken would have appreciated the latter consequence, but the big girls were fashionistas who wanted their designs to remain on the dolls. It was a lesson in critical thinking and trial-and-error, is all that I can think. I remember when one of my big sisters learned that if you cut the fold tabs with an added angle, the clothes stayed on even better. I fully expected this sister to go on and become a Barbie-style engineer, such were her talents with the Barbie clothes. Such was not the case, but she grew into one sharp cookie when it comes to design.
The sisters made faux-mink stoles and evening gowns. Gingham dresses and sweater sets. They made outfits for a picnic and for the repetitive First Dates with Ken. All I can say is Ken must have had a lot of imagination to create the illusion of a first date over and over and over. Either this or Barbie had suffered amnesia as a result of crashing her pink convertible. Still, either option explains why Barbie didn’t stray from Ken. Ken kept the relationship alive.
Ultimately, the dolls cut from the ads became templates for my sisters moving on in the design world and creating their own paper dolls from scratch. These dolls included Barbie’s trademark ponytail swirl and other popular hairdos at the time. They drew faces on the dolls and cleavage that would peek out of an evening gown. Some of the faces represented some of Modigliani’s or Picasso’s earlier work, but I didn’t care. And in spite of knowing that these dolls were a far cry from the delicate-featured authentic Barbie paper dolls, they certainly made me feel included — like I was part of a Girls Club that was all about being creative with what we had and not focusing on what we didn’t have.
Looking back, I wonder if I didn’t intuit and recognize a Deeper Authenticity in the paper dolls that my sisters made. What started out as Barbie knock-offs became their own style, their own brand. I remember them discussing which models from the ads would make a better sample or how to make a more tab-friendly swim suit. Perhaps it was the fashion discussions or watching their faces filled with preoccupation as they cut and traced that drew me in. Perhaps it was the girl-power camaraderie to which they allowed me, littlest sister, entrance.
I remember the dolls’ edges becoming mildly curled from an over-zealous pencil tracing the dolls one too many times for the Fashion Department. Once the edges on a doll began to curl, the clothes didn’t stay on so well . . . so new dolls needed to be made. And I, being the youngest and most lacking in fine motor skills, received the cast-off dolls. Talk about a win-win.
My preference now? What I wouldn’t give to come across some of the paper dolls that my sisters made. Alas, our house suffered a fire after we moved into town from our drafty, roomy, once-upon-a-time boarding house on the prairie. No paper dolls were recovered. But they live in my memory. And in my admiration for my big sisters who knew how to get creative when resources were scanty. I thought I wanted fancy and new and Mattel-sanctioned dolls that every other little girl in the consumer market had . . . but what I really wanted, and received, was the love from the Big Girls who were nice enough to include me in their World of Fashion and Creativity. Thank you, Sissies. I remember your creative kindness. It is the sort of thing that I will always want and treasure.
Barbie Paper Dolls- The 1959 Number One and The 1964 Ponytail Swirl