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The creator of the first Black Barbie grew up in segregated South Carolina and went on to become principal designer for Mattel

The creator of the first Black Barbie grew up in segregated South Carolina and went on to become principal designer for Mattel
  • Kitty Black Perkins led an illustrious career designing outfits for Barbie dolls, creating over 100 fashions a year.

  • She designed Mattel's first-ever Black Barbie in 1979.

  • Black Perkins was instrumental in diversifying the popular dolls.

Kitty Black Perkins is renowned in the toy industry for designing the first-ever Black Barbie, and was a pioneer who helped diversify the mega-popular doll franchise.

Kitty Black Perkins
Kitty Black Perkins.Courtesy of South Carolina Foundation for Education Leadership

Born in racially-segregated Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1948, Black Perkins grew up playing with white dolls gifted by her mother's employers. She went on to work in the fashion industry after graduating from college.

White dolls circa 1950
Many of the dolls produced in the 1950s were white.Erich Andres/United Archives via Getty Images

Black Perkins grew up admiring her dapper father, who was "the most spectacular dresser," she told Greenville News in 2019.


Source: National Museum of Play; Greenville News

Black Perkins bought her first Barbie doll from Toys R Us when she was 28 years old to prepare for an interview with Mattel. The company asked her to take a Barbie home and to bring it back in a week with a new wardrobe.

Barbie costumes
Barbie's many outfits.Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Black Perkins hand-sewed a floral jumpsuit with tiered legs and puff sleeves, along with a matching wide-brimmed hat for her Barbie. Though Mattel found the outfit too elaborate for mass production, they hired Black Perkins to design clothes for Barbie.

Sources: Toledo Blade Newspaper; National Museum of Play

Since it was unveiled in 1959, Barbie became an instant best-seller. But critics chided Mattel for failing to represent the diversity of America, especially as the country was in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement.

The 50th anniversary of Barbie is commemorated by a lineup of Barbie dolls from different eras, starting with the original in a black and white swim suit, right, in a display by Mattel at the Javits Center in New York where Toy Fair 2009 is set to take place, Friday, Feb. 13, 2009.
Early Barbie dolls were thin, white, and blonde.Craig Ruttle/AP Photo

Source: National Museum of Play

In 1969, Barbie got a friend, Talking Christie. Christie would be the first Black doll under the franchise, even if she wasn't a Barbie.

Talking Christie doll
The Talking Christie doll.New-York Historical Society

Source: National Museum of Play

In 1979, Black Perkins, who had become Barbie's principal designer the year before, was tasked with creating an outfit for the first-ever Black Barbie. "She's Black! She's beautiful! She's dynamite!" the doll's box said.

Black Barbie
A heritage edition of the My Favorite Barbie: Black Barbie doll.Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Black Perkins created a bold, red bodysuit with a wrap-and-snap disco skirt, a modernist necklace, and hoop and dangle earrings.

Source: National Museum of Play

Black Perkins took inspiration from magazines, stores, and couture shows in Europe. She was also inspired by her daughter, who had 60 Barbie dolls as a child.

Bathtime Fun Barbie
Bathtime Fun Barbie.Courtesy of Toy Sisters

"My first week [at Mattel] I would just sit and brush Barbie's hair," Black Perkins told Greenville News in 2019. "It would give me ideas and it was a thinking process for me. As I was stroking the hair, ideas would just come."

One day, Black Perkins noticed her daughter, Erika, loved taking Barbie into her bath. In 1991, Mattel released a "Bathtime Barbie."

Sources: Toledo Blade Newspaper; Greenville News

Black Perkins was responsible for over 100 designs a year as chief designer for Barbie, a position she held for nearly 30 years. She received several prestigious awards for her work.

Barbie doll drawings
Barbie doll designs and drawings at a Paris Fashion Week exhibit, 2016.Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Black Perkins received the Mattel's Chairman's Award, the highest recognition bestowed upon a Mattel employee, twice in 1985 and 1987. She also received the doll industry's highest honor, the Doll of the Year Award, and was inducted into the Black Hall of Fame in 2001. Black Perkins retired from Mattel in 2002.

Sources: Los Angeles Times; National Museum of Play

The Brandy dolls, MC Hammer doll, and the Shani & Friends dolls — Mattel's first exclusive line of Black dolls — are among Black Perkins' other notable designs.

Brandy Barbie dolls
Pop singer Brandy was represented in a new line of celebrity dolls created by Mattel in September 2000.Online USA/Getty Images

Source: National Museum of Play

Black Perkins' legacy is shown in the diversified range of Barbie dolls now available around the world.

Barbie dolls
Barbie dolls on display during the "Barbie, Life of an Icon" exhibition in 2016.Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Read the original article on Insider