It’s the third act of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023), and the Kens are embracing their newfound patriarchy, brainwashing the Barbies into being their maids, interrupting Barbie Land’s perfect pink palette with their horse prints and faux minks. Enter Kate McKinnon’s “Weird Barbie,” her puffy pink paint-splattered dress traded in for cargo pants and a bedazzled bomber jacket, and her choppy locks smoothed into a half-buzzed side-swept hairdo.
“I decided to own it,” Weird Barbie declares as she and the small Barbie Resistance climb into their pink sports car and race off to save Barbie Land.
And “own it” she did. Weird Barbie is just one of many clever nods to the way children interact with toys, and a powerful example of the creative ways that clothing helps tell stories on the screen. Weird Barbie is the doll that was played with a little too much (her owner taking artistic license in refashioning her look with a pair of scissors and paints). She can do a split with her legs, and wears a face scribbled over with markers in Picasso-esque shapes.
Though the other Barbies shun her from their polite society, Weird Barbie proves key to their rescue from the Kens’ patriarchy, and by the third act of the film, Weird Barbie has reclaimed her weirdness, wearing new bold fashions with confidence; yup, she’s owning it. Lead actress Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” might get all the instantly iconic looks – looks which also tell a story – but characters like Weird Barbie also wear costumes that at once encapsulate attention to detail, storytelling, and both the power and pure fun of a really great outfit.
Ken: A Costume Case Study
Weird Barbie’s costume change signifies a shift from passivity to activity; she is no longer a toy to be played with by others, but a player in her own right. And she isn’t the only one. Ryan Gosling’s “Ken” sees a massive shift in style throughout the film, moving from pressed shirts and combed hair to fringe, fur, and fun prints. “Stereotypical Barbie” herself gets a wardrobe update at the end of the movie too, taking the opportunity to find her own decidedly non-stereotypical style, by, for example, trading in her high heels for Birkenstocks. But though Margot’s costume changes are more central to the film, Ryan’s are the most overt.
Enter Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who worked on critically acclaimed films such as Atonement, Anna Karenina, Spencer, and Gerwig’s own Little Women. From the very beginning, Jacqueline Durran makes it clear that Ken is nothing more than another one of Stereotypical Barbie’s accessories. This is signaled by Ken’s clothing: pink striped shorts and a button-down to complement Barbie’s pink gingham; matching neon tights and yellow rollerblades; a white disco jumpsuit that lets Barbie’s sequined look really shine.
When Ken finds himself in the real world – in a cowboy getup that matches Barbie’s, of course – he marvels at the sheer breadth of options for men (options he never knew existed). So, when he returns to Barbie Land, Ken begins choosing his own outfits. Acting much like a child himself, Ken takes his first stumbling steps towards individuality. Of course, Ken has no concept of good taste, so he makes some huge fashion faux pas; his first foray into self-expression is a white mink coat with horse-patterned lining! Still, he relishes the ability to choose for himself, seeking a Ken who can exist independently (that is, be Ken – with or without Barbie).
As much as I love the costumes of all the Barbies, it is Ken’s costume progression that I love the most, with an arc of character development clearly outlined. The mink, the belt, the sunglasses, and the sweatband reflect his exposure to and obsession with classic male masculinity as depicted by various pop culture figures like a 70’s-era Sylvester Stallone. The denim pants and sleeveless jacket are a subtle nod to James Dean, and the all-black number channels Grease’s John Travolta.
Deep down, Ken is still very insecure about himself, seeking validation from Barbie even after breaking up with her. In a play on the classic movie breakup scene, Ken throws Barbie’s clothes “out the window” (there is no actual window), claiming her dream house for himself. As each Stereotypical Barbie outfit flies through the air, it freezes in place before hitting the ground, and the characters call out each ensemble by name (an homage to the real-life Barbie’s extensive collection of archival clothing). These are the outfits that define her personality, her character. These are the outfits children want for their own Barbie dolls. But at the end of the film, when Ken throws his mink down to the other Kens, it too freezes in midair; tacky as his white mink coat is, Ken finally has an iconic outfit of his own. He can start to build his character, one piece at a time.
Attention to Detail
Character development aside, I imagine it must’ve been great fun – as well as a huge challenge – to construct the costumes that would become Barbie’s iconic looks. As Barbie begins, viewers might notice that Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie outfits are themed by the day: the first day features three looks in checkered pink & white, whereas the second day’s palette is navy blue & white (with a nautical motif). With a new line of dolls released alongside the film, outfits like Barbie’s pink gingham dress, her star-spangled cowgirl getup, and her sequined disco pantsuit have now been immortalized in miniature.
Barbie Land is all about aesthetic, and we – in the audience – can’t stop gushing over it. When Barbie and Ken travel to the real world, the montage sees them sporting matching sets depending on their backdrop (puffy spacesuits for outer space, striped sailing shirts and caps for the high seas, and 50’s casual kerchiefs and capris for the camper van). As Barbie and Ken move through colorful dioramas, their costumes always conform to their surroundings.
Of course, this film features costumes that are pleasing to the eye; a visual treat for the viewer, they bring out our nostalgia with nods to Barbie’s real-life sixty-decade-spanning wardrobe. Barbie deliberately opens with a giant Margot Robbie clothed in the iconic black and white swimsuit sported by the very first Barbie doll released in 1959. And Greta Gerwig and Jacqueline Durran allow us to indulge in the joy of a crisp, colorful ensemble, however impractical it might be for the task at hand. If you’ve got a great-fitting – albeit flashy – rollerblading leotard, why not hit the boardwalk and let people see?
The Empowerment of Clothing
Much like the toys themselves, Barbie’s Barbies are perfectly dressed for everything they do, and that gives them a sort of power. Of course, you don’t need a killer wardrobe in order to feel like you belong in the position you earned – whether that be a waitress, a doctor, or the President of the United States – but it can certainly help. A pair of jeans or a cute top that you love can make all the difference in boosting your confidence. In a piece I wrote on jewelry in conversation with story, culture, and the self, I talked about how jewelry can help its wearer channel an aura of power, femininity, protection, or grit. Take Queen Elizabeth, who “used jewelry to create a spectacle, a centerpiece, layering strings of pearls around her neck and covering her fingers in large glittering rings. She established an image for herself that was opulent, grand, and almost immortal, challenging any man to defy her.”
Depending on what we make of it, clothing can either hide us from the world or show us off to the world. Weird Barbie herself – in her bomber jacket and jagged hair – is a testament to the conviction that as long as you feel good in the clothes you’re wearing, you’ll look great every single time.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (8/27/23) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read more posts by members of our FF2 team about Jacqueline Durran’s Oscar-nominated work on the costume design for Anna Karenina (2012), Beauty & The Beast (2017), Little Women (2019) and Cyrano (2021).
Learn “What’s Inside Ken’s Coat…” in an interview with Jacqueline Durran herself on her costumes for Barbie (2023).
Read my 2021 post on Melanie Grant’s book Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry (2020) for more of my thoughts on jewelry design.
CREDITS AND PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Kate McKinnon as “Weird Barbie” (with Margot Robbie) in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BARBIE.”
Bottom Photo: Ryan Gosling as “Ken” (with Margot Robbie) in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BARBIE.”
“BARBIE” is a Warner Bros Pictures release. Images Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.