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Barbie has always been a controversial figure. There was the whole bit about her being so impossibly proportioned that she couldn’t menstruate if she were real — never mind her wrecking the self-confidence of young women everywhere with her male-fantasy beauty. Just look what happened when Barbie played poor Karen Carpenter in Todd Haynes’ Superstar. And let’s not even talk about Mattel’s Oreo Barbie fiasco. But L.A.-based accessories designer Tarina Tarantino thinks the doll has been dealt a bum rap. She’s not only raising her N.O.W. fist for Barbie, she’s accessorizing with the doll’s image too.
Tarantino grew up with Barbie — lots of Barbies. Even before she was born, a Barbie collection was being built in her name by her mother, who was living out a childhood fantasy that had been nurtured since the doll first hit the shelves at Bullocks Downtown. Back then, the bathing-suited plaything was thought to be vulgar by certain members of society, including Tarantino’s grandmother, who said the doll was “racy and inappropriate” and bought a more demure Madame Alexander doll for Tarantino’s mom instead. And so, deprived of Barbie as a child, Tarantino’s mother was forced to live vicariously through her daughter. Tarantino didn’t disappoint — she loved Barbie as much as her mother, and now Tarantino’s two young daughters, 3 and 5, love Barbie too. This goes three generations deep.
So when Mattel approached the grown-up Tarantino to do a grown-up woman’s line for Barbie, she immediately said yes — on one condition. She wanted the work to be unique, not obvious; she’d already done Hello Kitty designs for Sanrio and didn’t want to repeat herself. Mattel responded with an offer Tarantino couldn’t refuse — a visit to the Barbie archives.
Inside the Barbie vaults, Tarantino discovered a veritable museum of American style, as the doll known to some as Barbara Millicent Roberts was seen adapting to and reflecting several decades’ worth of fashion.
“She always looked like she stepped off the page of a magazine,” Tarantino fondly says of Barbie. “She was the original fashion plate. If there was a trend, Barbie was wearing it.”
But Tarantino points out that Barbie wasn’t only reflecting fashion trends. She went to work before most American women did, progressing over the years from stewardess to commercial airline pilot.
“She was the first doll that was a career doll,” Tarantino says. “The first doll to say to girls, ‘Hey, you don’t have to stay at home, you can have a career.’ Barbie’s been an astronaut, a doctor, a model; she’s bought her own Corvette — and a dream house.”
This is why Tarantino calls Barbie “one of the first feminist icons.” As she came up with her Barbie designs, Tarantino used artwork from the Mattel archives that included some never-before-seen incarnations of Barbie. She took several Barbie portraits — a classic pink-and-black silhouette; a 1965 Barbie who looks very Jackie O., with pearls and bobbed hair; an unreleased Butterfly Barbie designed in 1968 with very groovy long locks and a Mother Nature/flower-child vibe; plus Barbie 1985 with heavy ’80s blush and Sun-in hair — and incorporated the images in lucite necklaces, bracelets, belts and hair clips. There are also plenty of pearls — pink, cream and lavender ones — along with crystal rings and shiny plastic bracelets that look like they’re made of Jolly Ranchers. This certainly isn’t jewelry for 6-year-olds. You’re more likely to see Tarantino’s necklaces in Hollywood nightclubs than at some kid’s birthday party.
You might consider Tarantino’s work part of the ongoing movement by some to reconsider Barbie’s place in the cultural cosmos. She’s gone beyond the “perfect doll” image, insists Tarantino. “They have every kind of Barbie you can imagine now. They have plus-size Barbie. She has become Everywoman.”
Barbie jewelry by Tarina Tarantino is available at the Tarina Tarantino Boutique, 7957 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 651-5155, and at www.tarinatarantino.com