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Why costuming in 'Barbie' was triumphant – 'cause pink just looks so good on us'

The elaborately detailed costumes in “Barbie” turned Margot Robbie into a life-sized version of the doll we all know and love. – Photo by @SolaceCinema /

In an interview with British Vogue about her work for Greta Gerwig's "Barbie," Academy Award winner and costume designer Jaqueline Durran said, "Barbie really is interlinked with fashion because how you play with her is by dressing her. Clothes are her form of expression."

As someone who played with all sorts of dolls, from Monster High to Liv Dolls, clothing and fashion never mattered as much as they did with Barbie. Every Barbie doll you bought usually came with the cutest clothes and their matching accessories (not including Ken). For holidays, I'd always beg my parents for new Barbie clothes, and I'd usually get a few new outfits or, if I was lucky, enough for an entire closet.

Everyone knows the clothes matter just as much as the doll, arguably even more. When I think about Barbie's 1959 debut, I immediately think about her iconic black and white striped bathing suit before her face is even fully formed in my mind. The challenge for Durran was paramount, but I think she more than succeeded in bringing our favorite doll's closet to life.

If you're not big into movie costuming, Durran's name may not be familiar to you, but she's a legend in the film and fashion world. Durran designed some of my favorite period-inaccurate but nonetheless incredible costumes in films like "Pride and Prejudice," "Anna Karenina" and "Little Women."

Durran's also the genius behind the famous green dress in "Atonement." Basically, she's an expert at dressing Kiera Knightly in a period dress.

One of the biggest challenges Durran faced in terms of costuming was finding a way to mesh together all of the different eras of Barbie fashion into one cohesive film. The beginning outfits act as a sort of timeline for the first few decades of Barbie and her costuming. 

Margot Robbie's first outfit as the titular character (besides the almost exact copy of the debut swimsuit in the opening scene) is a gingham pink and white a-line dress with petticoats underneath. It's, of course, reminiscent of 1950s fashion, exactly the mainstream style when Barbie dolls were first on shelves.

Barbie then changes into a 60s-inspired sort of Beach Boys seaside ensemble, later followed by the glittery disco jumpsuit in the now iconic dance scene. Something I love about these period-inspired outfits is that they so clearly remind the viewer of those times while still fitting so well within the modern day and the movie itself. Meanwhile, characters like Midge or Alan are so quintessentially of their time, having been discontinued, that they stick out like sore thumbs in Barbieland.

Another impressive feat on behalf of the costuming department was that they managed to make the costumes look perfect and so doll-like. I'm convinced that if I could reach into the screen and rifle through Barbie's closet, I'd come back with a handful of doll-sized clothes. 

The designs, the details and even the physics of the outfits feel so much like the toy-sized fabrics Mattel puts on shelves. It forces any former Barbie lover to remember the flashy and colorful pieces they used to dress their dolls in and allows us to connect with the film on a deeper level.

It's a bit ironic that while researching and writing this article, I nearly forgot about Ken and his outfits completely. But they're genuinely one of the best uses of narrative costuming I've ever seen. For at least the first act of the film, Ken and his outfits live in Barbie's shadow. They serve to match her while they're in Barbieland but are careful not to outshine her.

The pink and black cowboy outfits are some of my favorite pieces in the film, not only due to how fabulous they are but also because they represent the changing power dynamics between Ken and Barbie.

If you've seen the film, you know that Ken forms a fascination with horses as he thinks they run the real world alongside men. These Western themes, though, just seem to represent the patriarchal ideology he brings home with him. 

Ken leading this outfit change — as cowboys are more his thing than Barbie's — represents the power he gains over her as he violently fights to escape her spotlight and create his own, bigger and brighter. Barbie then becomes an accessory to Ken, and Durran and her team beautifully demonstrate this shift in their relationship. 

The first scene they're not matching is when Ken has fully taken over, and he's seen in a pimp-like ensemble while Barbie wears a more put-together, tea-appropriate dress. Overall, after their matching Western outfits in the real world, we start to see Ken and Barbie go in completely different style directions. 

She dresses realistically and more simply for the first time in the film, wearing clothes that wouldn't get her a second glance in the real world. Ken's outfits, though, become more and more outlandish as he comes into his own in Barbieland and is clearly experimenting with his individuality. Once fashion twins, they become polar opposites, demonstrating their drift and the fact that they're no longer fated to be together (most clearly seen with Barbie's simple, yellow dress paired with Ken's outrageous fringe vest jacket).

Barbie's last dress may seem unremarkable to most audiences as it doesn't look that different from something you may purchase off the rack at any department store. But that's exactly the point Durran was trying to make. People may overlook this dress due to its simplicity, but I, for one, adore how Barbie dons this yellow dress while still in Barbieland, surrounded by other Barbies wearing all sorts of complicated and elaborate outfits. 

Stereotypical Barbie once stood out like a sore thumb in the real world in her vibrantly colored skating outfit and costume-like cowgirl pantsuit, but this dress makes clear that she no longer belongs in Barbieland. It poignantly demonstrates her character arc and her desire to be a real woman despite all the costs and imperfections that may come with that transformation.

Finally, we see Barbie in her most normal outfit (jeans, a blazer and Birkenstocks) as she perfectly fits into the real world and is a real woman for the first time in the film. Based on the costume progression over the course of the film, this last outfit is an easy slam dunk on Durran's behalf, as the casual attire fully realizes Barbie's narrative arc. 

Though costuming in film is often taken for granted as a seemingly natural and effortless process, the creativity and efforts that went into "Barbie" are astounding. The outfits aren't just incredible to look at, they tell the film's story so well you could just see Barbie's costume progression in pictures and likely be able to guess the ending. And I would bet a lot of money that were it not for Durran's brilliant costuming, Barbie wouldn't be half as successful as it turned out to be.

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