Barbie as a cougar pretty hot for a 50-year-old

by Brian Clarey

She says she likes surprises, so I don’t tell her exactly where we’re going, just that it’s a museum that specializes in dolls — which, at four years old, are a very big part of her life — and that it is in High Point, which seems to her like a very exotic place indeed. As we drive through the downtown furniture showrooms, vacant this time of year, she looks at them out the car window like it’s the Emerald City. “This is a different world with different things,” she declares. The secret is up when we park by the door to the Doll & Miniature Museum of High Point and she sees the sign taped to the glass door bearing a familiar logo. “Barbies!” she exclaims. “It’s Barbies!” In honor of the legendary figurine’s 50 th birthday — yes, Barbie is now offcially a cougar — the High Point Doll Museum has amassed a solid collection of the doll, her playmates and their accessories through the ages, going back to the very first Barbie, which was introduced in 1959 and has black eyes, a zebra-striped swimsuit and holes in her feet to allow for the fitting of fancy, high-heeled shoes. The museum’s original Barbie, taken as is most of the exhibit from the personal collection of North Carolina enthusiast and vendor Bradley Justice, has raven tresses, though she was also available as a blonde. They also show a copy of Barbie No. 3, which came out in 1960 with revamped blue eyes, a bit rounder to make her look more American. “The dolls were made in China,” museum Manager Berniece Deal explains. But my little lady cares not for anthropological particulars on this day. She’s bolted through the museum’s main foyer, through the exhibit hall that houses a fascinating retrospective of Shirley Temple dolls, and now has her nose pressed up against the glass in the corner of the facility devoted to the most famous blonde in the world. “Look at those!” she gasps. “Look at these! I love this one!” She is rapt. There is much to look at in this timeline of Barbie through the years. Her first Dream House, introduced in 1962, is a swanky, open pad designed to fold into a briefcase. Here in the museum she stands in her living room wearing a bubble cut, sharing the space with her freckled friend Midge, introduced in 1963, while Ken, who made the scene in 1961, idles outside in the very first Dream Car — a pink convertible, naturally. Many of Barbie’s friends make appearances in the exhibit scenes: Her kid sister Skipper, wheelchair-bound Becky, her various African-American friends and assorted paramours. But the best of the lot are the many incarnations of Barbie herself, the improbably proportioned heroine of this enduring mythology. Barbie has worn swimsuits, been a super hero, traveled to space, fought in the armed services (Paratrooper Barbie wore camouflage hot pants), been a flight attendant, a teacher, several kinds of doctors and a lifeguard. She’s run for president, rode a horse (the exhibit features her horse, Dancer, and its original packaging), partied on Carnaby Street and driven everything from Corvettes to Volkswagen Beetles. And she’s been dressed by A-list fashion designers like Billyboy, Bob Mackie, Oscar de la Renta and Vera Wang. And though there are those who say Barbie is not a realistic role model for young girls, I’ve got one right here who is thrilled, enrapt by the exploits and incarnations of this leggy blonde. Even as we exit the museum she is caught up in the Plasticine sunshine and flighty optimism of this perennial beauty — until she catches a glimpse of some serious and dour Victorian-era dolls in a glass case that give her cause to make a remark. “Look Daddy,” she says. “They have mean dolls here, too.”

The exhibit Barbie — 50 and Fabulous runs through Jan. 15, 2010 Doll & Miniature Museum of High Point; 101 W. Green Drive, High Point; 336.885.3655;

The original 1959 Barbie (foreground) came as a burnette or ablonde. Barbie No. 3 (background) was the first with blue eyes. (photoby Brian Clarey)