While we’ve never received an RP pitch for a Barbie post (*ahem* get cracking) we have, over the years, featured many amazing and insightful posts on beauty standards, cosmetics, makeup regimes, and the art of gender. Our authors have shown decisively that beauty standards have changed over time, and that while these beauty rules often encourage people to enact idealised versions of femininity and masculinity, individual people — the women and men who populated the past — have interpreted, adopted, furthered, and rejected these standards in their own individual ways.
When I began thinking about this Barbie post, I had a lot to choose from: Alana Martini’s “What’s in an Ancient Egyptian Makeup Bag”; Eugenia Lean‘s “Recipes for the Inner Chamber: Vernacular Manufacturing in early 20th century China,” on the creation of home beauty remedies in modern China; Mobeen Hussain‘s “The Kitchen, Courtyard, and Bazaar: Meditations of ‘Natural’ Health and Beauty,” on the ways that women in interwar India balanced ready-made, commercially-available beauty products with their own homemade cosmetics; and so many more. The RP even did a fabulous special series on Beauty Recipes in 2014, led by my co-editor Jess Clark.
But the post that spoke to me most strongly was this one, written by Daisy Payling in 2019: “Beauty and the Beaumont Magazine: Transgender Make-Up.” Payling blends insights from Trans activists, such as Charlie Craggs, with sources from the past that illuminate the lives, struggles, and triumphs of Trans women and men. In particular Payling focused on the Beaumont Society, the longest running support organisation for the Transgender community, and the past issues of the society’s publication, The Beaumont Magazine. The post shows how organisations and publications like these could be a helpful source of advice, while also offering senses of community, care, and support to members and readers.
This brings us to this vintage 1966 advertisement for “Hair Fair” Barbie.
The quote that Payling uses to open her piece, from Charlie Craggs herself, speaks provocatively to the ad for “Hair Fair” Barbie, above. Craggs talks about makeup as a crucial tool, a powerful mechanism by which to shape identity and self-presentation. It is something to be respected, celebrated, and treated with care. This is something that comes across clearly in “Hair Fair” Barbie, whose close-cropped head can be covered with any number of elaborate wigs. Appearing in 1966, in the midst of the second wave, this advertising campaign celebrates beauty choice and variety. Changing this Barbie’s hair, the ad says, is just as deliberate, desirable, and possible as changing her clothes.
Of course the ad has its limitations, many of which are serious. Everyone in the spot is white, from dolls to humans. Nearly everyone is blonde. There aren’t any boys playing with Barbie. And this Barbie’s look is stereotypically and traditionally feminine, all skirts and dresses — although she does sport a pretty groovy pair of tights around 0:22.
So while we should be cautious about celebrating “Hair Fair” Barbie uncritically, she does have one thing in common with Margot Robbie’s interpretation of the iconic woman-who-does-it-all: she owns her sense of style. The tools of fashion, which can include makeup, hair styles, accessories, clothing, and anything else that we use to decorate, shape, and adorn our bodies, all have, as Payling suggests, “a transformative power.” How we own those transformations is up to us.