During the 1950s Ruth Handler, one of the owners of the Mattel Toy Company, noticed her daughter putting dresses on her paper dolls and got the idea for making a three-dimensional fashion doll that girls could dress and undress. Mattel introduced their new doll, named Barbie after Ruth Handler's daughter, at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City. Barbie was popular with girls right away, though some parents worried that she looked too sexy for a child's toy. The first Barbie came wearing a black and white striped bathing suit. Soon, dozens of outfits were available for her, including a bridal gown, tennis dress, and ballerina costume. Although Barbie was marketed as a "teenage fashion model," she had many of the clothes of the ideal 1950s housewife, such as a crisp party apron for cooking and entertaining, and a fashionable Paris gown. Within the next few years, Mattel introduced Ken, Barbie's boyfriend; Midge, her best friend; and Skipper, her little sister. Each had a variety of fashionable outfits.

Barbie's image has changed frequently over the years, in an effort to keep up with changing clothing styles and the changing image of womanhood. During the 1960s she wore stylish designer suits like those worn by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929–1994), as well as miniskirts and white go-go boots. During the 1970s the clothes for "Barbie and Ken Superstars" fit right in with the glitz and glamour of the decade. By the 1980s women's liberation had affected society's view of women, and girls could choose from a wide variety of careers for Barbie, such as doctor, police officer, or astronaut, all with appropriate outfits. The eighties also saw the introduction of ethnic Barbies, such as Black, Latin, and Asian Barbie dolls. Feminists grew angry with Barbie again in the 1990s when "Teen Talk" Barbie said things like, "Math is tough," which seemingly insulted the intelligence of a woman.

Even Barbie's face and body have changed with the styles. The first Barbie dolls had heavily made-up eyes that looked to the side, but by 1961 she had a more natural look, and her big, blue eyes looked straight out. Early Barbie dolls had feet molded in permanent tiptoes for wearing high heels, but by the 1980s a Barbie with more natural feet was available. Many people had criticized Barbie's figure as being impossible for a real woman, so in 1999 Mattel introduced a doll with a more realistic shape. Like the changes in her fashions, these changes reflected the changing look of women through the decades, evolving from the made-up and glamorous look of the 1950s to the more natural look of the 1990s.

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