Barbie takes tea in High Point

by Amy Kingsley

On a quiet Saturday afternoon in High Point, a rectangular room near the back of the Angela Peterson Doll & Miniature Museum approaches standing room capacity.

In the warm and peachy space stand more than two dozen women and one man, each of whom plunked down $15 to spend the afternoon with Bradley Justice, one of North Carolina’s foremost doll experts and the catalyst behind the exhibit Barbie 1959. Justice idly fingers doll clothes and old fashion magazines while he waits for the last of the stragglers to sit.

“I started collecting Barbie when I was thirteen,” he says, “and I’ve been twenty-nine for eight years now. So I’ve been collecting for twenty-five years.”

Justice, a cheerful blond who wears a sweater vest and slacks, entertains the crowd for more than an hour with a disquisition on Barbie, beginning, of course, with her rather unsavory origins. Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator, was touring Europe when she discovered the Lilli doll, a miniature plastic sexpot marketed at truckers and appropriated almost wholesale by Handler’s company Mattel. The company hired former weapons designer Jack Ryan to take Lilli and turn her into the doll now known as Barbie.

“Those of you who follow Hollywood know that he was Zsa Zsa Gabor’s sixth husband,” Justice says. “So he knows a couple of things about missiles and leggy blondes.”

It’s not so much Barbie – or her notorious proportions – that attracted young Justice to collecting. A fashion student in college, Justice lusted after the doll’s clothes, which were high fashion outfits made in miniature.

“You have to remember that this had never been done before,” Justice says. “These were not doll clothes but people clothes for a doll.”

Clothing designers refitted Parisian fashions for the 11½ -inch Barbie by eliminating side seams and cutting on the bias. A display Barbie models one of Justice’s favorite oufits – the rare Roman Holiday – complete with clutch, sunglasses, tricot gloves and pearl necklace.

Between Justice’s lecture and guided tour, participants help themselves to hot tea and a buffet of finger snacks: cheese straws, cookies, bon bons, pecans, green grapes, crackers and pillowy homemade peppermints. Matching cups and saucers are set out on a table next to a glass case housing the museum’s impressive collection of Shirley Temple dolls.

Justice is, unsurprisingly, something of a Barbie apologist.

“Barbie to me is an icon,” Justice says. “She has always reflected the fashion of the time. One woman asked me ‘Why does Barbie dress up like a tramp? She’s a bad role model.’ Well, Barbie isn’t a role model, she’s a doll, and she’s going to dress like a teenager.”

He’s found a sympathetic crowd, which includes casual collectors fishing for information and pure enthusiasts.

“How much have those ugly little Bratz dolls affected the market?” asks one woman.

The crowd murmurs in agreement.

“Unfortunately, a lot,” Justice laments.

Barbie, you see, has had some hard times of late. But not her collectors, who’ve come out in droves to support the exhibition, Justice says.

Justice is a member of Piedmont Doll Club, the Triad chapter of the United Federation of Doll Clubs, and sits on the doll museum’s board. Dealing is a full-time job for him, and he operates an online business out of his home in Durham.

“It used to be that you had to go to either a doll show or a flea market,” Justice said, “and sometimes it would take years to find something. Now that we have eBay I can just turn on my computer and find it.”

He turned to dealing early and sold much of his early collection to fund his college education. But the dolls haven’t disappeared from his life. A friend bought his prize possession, a number 1 Barbie in cotton casual, and returned it to Justice for the exhibit.

There she sits, dressed in a stylish black-and-white one piece under preservative glass, looking much as she did some 50 years ago, when her natural habitat was the humble toy store.

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