April 5, 2011

Catching Up With Ken®

By Pat Henry, Editor of Fashion Doll Quarterly

This is the first in a ongoing series of posts on BarbieCollector.com by “celebrity” voices in the doll collecting community! Every so often, you’ll find new articles from special guest bloggers, on topics including history, pop culture, collecting, personal reminiscences, and so much more. They’ll all have something in common, though – undying love for their favorite fashion icon and her ultimate boyfriend. Read on!

When a guy gives a girl pink cupcakes, that's sweet. When a guy appears on billboards in New York and LA asking for back, that's larger than life. All the more impressive considering the guy in question is only 12-inches tall. Personally, I am thrilled that Ken is still around, and that Mattel has cleverly made his half-century mark a newsworthy milestone, buoyed by the latest development in his on-again/off-again relationship with his beloved Barbie.

Ken’s comeback began, appropriately enough, with a movie role. Toy Story 3 gave us Ken as a man of his own. And similar to the official history of Ken and Barbie's first meeting during a television commercial, it seemed just right that Ken would meet Barbie now in the 21st century, on a big Hollywood movie set.

To my surprise, Ken is a bigger part of the story than Barbie. She is portrayed as giggly and perky, as one would imagine, but Michael Keaton’s take on Ken as petulant, slightly defensive, goofy and vain, was a fun characterization, and made for a very entertaining film.

“I am not a girl’s toy!” Ken insisted, making the line all the more amusing as he stood in his sublet Dream House with a room full of clothes that could only be called costumes. Pixar handled Ken with kid gloves and made him likeable and complex, even while wearing a neckerchief and animal print shirt.

While I enjoyed this appearance–along with his latest incarnation as a hunky young blond who “shaves,” “talks,” and woos Barbie on Twitter and Facebook– I happen to prefer my Ken “old school.” We sometimes forget that the amazing designers at Mattel were creating tiny feats of sartorial splendor for Mr. Carson just as impressive as their miniature couture for Barbie. When Ken arrived in 1961, he had an impressive array of sport coats, suits, uniforms and accessories that would be the envy of any avid Esquire reader. His lean body and short-cropped hair did not make him look scrawny or fey, but very much the modern man of his time, not unlike Don Draper. Even in his bathing suit, he resembled the handsome “Moondoggie” of the Gidget films, as played by James Darren (look it up if you are much younger than Ken) – tall, dark and handsome, not at all meaty, or “buff” as we would say now.

As a fashion stylist who did a lot of menswear (I had an entire separate portfolio of menswear styling), I found Ken and his buddy Allan just as collectible as Barbie and Midge, and have had great fun finding vintage outfits and missing pieces of football uniforms and tiny socks. To me Ken holds an important place in the history of fashion dolls and he should be duly feted this year, and so Fashion Doll Quarterly will be distributing an all-Ken special issue at convention time this summer. In order to do this, I flew out to Los Angeles to spend some time at the Mattel studios and participate in an exciting reunion of Ken’s best looks through his tenure as Barbie’s best beau.

Up Next: A “Kentourage” for posterity. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, share your Ken-tastic comments here!

Pat Henry is the publisher and editor of Fashion Doll Quarterly. She is a former fashion stylist and Adjunct Assistant Professor at New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology in the Photography Department. Pat lives in NYC with her husband Hal and their fox terrier, Bo, and a large assortment of fashion dolls and action figures.

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