She served as chief designer for more than 30 years!
The new BARBIE film starring Issa Rae, Margot Robbie, and Ryan Gosling just hit theaters this past week and while everyone has entered the Barbie-verse, we want to take some time to reflect on the creator of the first-ever Black Barbie, Louvenia “Kitty” Black Perkins.
A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Black Perkins grew up in an era where the only dolls she had the opportunity to play with were white, Insider reports. Starting her career in fashion directly after college, her passion for clothes carried her into an unlikely career as a toy designer. When she was 28-years-old, Black Perkins landed an interview with Mattel, purchasing her first Barbie Doll from Toys R Us with the task of bringing it back to the employers designed with a new wardrobe. Black Perkins returned with a hand-sewn floral jumpsuit featuring tiered legs and puff sleeves. Accessories included a matching wide-brimmed hat for the doll. Impressed with the outfit, Mattel hired Black Perkins to design clothes for the Barbie dolls.
Debuting in 1959, Barbie became an instant best-seller but the dolls weren’t known for their diversity. In the beginning, the dolls featured a sea of thin, white toys, something critics complained about, especially during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1969, the toy company released Barbie’s new friend, “Talking Christie,” the first Black doll under the company, however, she wasn’t a Barbie. In 1978, Black Perkins became the principal designer for Barbie and in 1979, she was tasked with designing for the first-ever Black Barbie.
The first Black Barbie was created by Spartanburg, South Carolina native Kitty Black Perkins in 1980. She was also the first Black designer for Barbie when she was hired at 28. She rose in the company after a decade, hiring more Black designers pic.twitter.com/E5stTTpiXF— Black-Owned SC (@blackownedsc) July 24, 2023
The Black Barbie came with packaging that announced, “She’s Black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” Black Perkins made sure to give the doll a design that matched that energy, creating a stunning red bodysuit with a wrap disco styled skirt, modern necklace and hoop earrings. It was a historic moment, and one that Black Perkins would continue to create over her three decades with Mattel. Taking inspiration from magazines, fashion shows, and her own personal experiences, Black Perkins was tasked with creating more than 100 designs annually as chief designer for Barbie. From the Astronaut Barbie released by Mattel in 1985 to the game changing Brandy Barbie Dolls first released in the late ‘90s in the likeness of singer Brandy Norwood, and the Black Bath time Barbie, inspired by Black Perkins’ daughter’s propensity to take her dolls in the water when she was taking a bath.
“My first week [at Mattel] I would just sit and brush Barbie’s hair. It would give me ideas and it was a thinking process for me. As I was stroking the hair, ideas would just come,” she previously told reporters.
Her impact on the culture is undeniable and her bold and fearless work in diversifying one of America’s most popular toys helped revolutionize the industry and transformed the way little Black girls everywhere saw themselves. Black Perkins received numerous awards and accolades for her work, inducted into the Black Hall of Fame in 2001 before her retirement from Mattel in 2002.
does anyone remember the brandy barbie? it was my first barbie and i loved her so much pic.twitter.com/gE2jEXYDA0— nia (@blackverucasalt) July 24, 2023
Today, Black Perkins’ imprint on Barbie is alive and well, with hundreds of Black Barbie dolls having been produced, including ones that pay homage to real-life trailblazers like Olympic track star Flo-Jo, Maya Angelou, Madam C.J. Walker, actress Yara Shahidi, and tennis phenom Naomi Osaka.
Florence Griffith Joyner with some beautiful little girls with their barbie!! pic.twitter.com/P24xZcUfuj— 444 | magazine (@guttergirl444) July 25, 2023
The advent of the Black Barbie not only transformed the toy industry, it created representation for generations of girls who hadn’t always seen themselves in that way. With all of the fanfare around the new film and the nostalgia of Barbie for girls everywhere, there was a reemergence of the conversation around the importance of the Black Barbie, creatives like D.C. based artist Cierra Lynn curating their own Barbie inspired events, empowering young Black girls to become their own version of Barbie and driving home the importance of representation.
It’s the same point that the film tries to drive home, bringing an evolved version of the iconic doll to today’s generation, casting a diverse array of Barbies, including star Issa Rae, who admits, even she didn’t know if she fit into the Barbie prototype before shooting the movie. Rae says she was affirmed that she was in fact, just perfect as a Barbie when she got to set.
“I got the call to do BARBIE and was like, ‘Oh, no, I am not Barbie-shape ready.’ But then I realized [director Greta Gerwig]‘s Barbie world consists of all body types. So, while I was still on my fitness journey, I felt less insecure about my Barbie body or lack thereof…That was something that I was concerned about too — who are the other Barbies, and what do they look like? I saw that immediately on my first day when I was doing the dance sequence rehearsal. There were so many different types of Barbies, and so many different types of Kens. Some able-bodied, ages, genders. Greta did her best to try to include everybody,” Rae told People.
It’s a praxis of inclusivity pioneered long ago by Black Perkins’ creation of the first Black Barbie. One that Mattel has committed to for more than four decades and one the toy company hopes to continue in perpetuity. So when we think about the magic of Barbie and just how far the brand has come in terms of diversity, let us never forget the contributions of Black history makers like Kitty Black Perkins. Because of her, we can!
Cover photo: Meet Kitty Black Perkins, the creator of the first-ever Black Barbie/Photos Courtesy of South Carolina Foundation for Education Leadership/Mattel/Twitter