Spencer looks back at her 35-year-career at Mattel in a new book, Dressing Barbie

By Colleen Kratofil and Aili Nahas
March 06, 2019 09:00 AM
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Barbie’s wardrobe has been expanding with stylish and colorful clothing for decades and many of the doll’s most memorable looks are thanks to one woman — Carol Spencer, Barbie’s longest-running fashion designer.

Throughout her 35-year career at Mattel, Spencer designed thousands of outfits for the doll, many of which are on display in her L.A. home to this day. “I’ve lost track of how many I have,” Spencer, 86, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue on stands Friday. “But it’s a lot. ”

Credit: Christopher Polk/Polk Imaging

In honor of Barbie’s 60th anniversary, Spencer is reflecting on her time working for the toy giant in a new book, Dressing Barbie, and opens up to PEOPLE about her career highlights.

Credit: Peter Zambouros

In high school, after becoming irritated by the idea of sticking to gender roles and feeling uninspired to pursue the “expected five” career opportunities available for women (nurse, teacher, secretary, shopgirl and seamstress) Spencer set out to express her creativity in fashion. “I scraped money together to buy fabric, and I started making my own clothes,” she writes in the book.

Credit: dennis dilaura/mattel, inc. From the book DRESSING BARBIE: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them by Carol Spencer. C 2019 by Caroline M. Spencer. Reprinted by permission of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Spencer worked at various fashion houses after graduation and eventually landed a gig at Mattel, four years after Barbie was released. She went on to create some of the doll’s most iconic looks, including the Jackie Kennedy inspired Crisp ‘N Cool ensemble, her first official design, in 1963.

Credit: dennis dilaura/mattel, inc. From the book DRESSING BARBIE: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them by Carol Spencer. C 2019 by Caroline M. Spencer. Reprinted by permission of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

In the ’70s, the doll and her male counterpart received a Hollywood makeover from Spencer with SuperStar Ken and Barbie, inspired by Robert Redford and Farrah Fawcett.

And in the ’80s, Spencer was the mastermind behind Great Shape Barbie’s blue workout tank and leggings. This was the Barbie that was featured in the Toy Story films. “I was pleased as punch,” says Spencer of seeing here work in the hit Pixar franchise.

Credit: dennis dilaura/mattel, inc. From the book DRESSING BARBIE: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them by Carol Spencer. C 2019 by Caroline M. Spencer. Reprinted by permission of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

In 1992, she conceived of the idea for Totally Hair Barbie (clad in a Pucci inspired minidress!), who would go on to be the best-selling Barbie of all time.

Throughout her career, Spencer says she made sure to keep abreast of what was happening in fashion and in the world around her.

“If I wanted inspiration I could go to Beverly Hills, window shop, walk through the stores, look at what people were wearing,” she explains. “I would even get inspiration from my own closet!”

Credit: dennis dilaura/mattel, inc. From the book DRESSING BARBIE: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them by Carol Spencer. C 2019 by Caroline M. Spencer. Reprinted by permission of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

After 35 years on the job, Spencer retired in 1998; nineteen years later, she won the prestigious 2017 Women in Toys Emeritus Award, a fitting tribute to an impressive career.

Still, Spencer still carries with her the physical toll of working with her hands for decades.

“I went to get my driver’s license and they couldn’t get a thumbprint — I don’t have all the grooves on the tip of my finger from all the years,” she shares. “There are aches and pains too, and my knuckles are big. But it’s life.”

And it’s a life she enjoyed thoroughly. “I really loved what I was doing,” she says about her tenure at Mattel. “I loved what I was doing. It was my home.”

Designing for a woman as busy and evolving as Barbie gave Spencer more than just a 9-to-5 job — it gave her a richer life as multifaceted as the doll herself.

“As a little girl in Minnesota, we used to dig in the dirt trying to get to China,” she says with a laugh. “Well, I got myself to China, and all over the world. Barbie changed my life.”