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In Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie,’ Ken’s clothes are his key to emancipation

<i>Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures</i><br/>Gerwig examines how the Ken's have long existed as second-class citizens in Barbie Land.
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Gerwig examines how the Ken's have long existed as second-class citizens in Barbie Land.

By Leah Dolan, CNN

(CNN) — For the last 62 years, Ken has been the original accessory — designed only to match or complement his predestined life partner, Barbie. If Ken is a compass, Barbie is north. According to toy manufacturers Mattel, just one Ken doll is sold for every seven Barbies.

But while this may be his origin story, after the release of Greta Gerwig’s long-awaited “Barbie” movie, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, it is certainly not Ken’s future. (“Barbie” is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, which is also owned by CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.)

‘An accessory to Barbie’s life’

Ken debuted two years after Barbie on March 11, 1961 (a day that Mattel still refers to as his “birthday”), after members of her young fanbase wrote to the company pleading that she be given a boyfriend. An army of Kens has since been unleashed into the world: “Surf City” Ken, “Western Fun” Ken, “Ice Capades” Ken and “Great Shape” Ken, to name just a few. Yet, despite being half an inch taller than Barbie, he has long stood in her shadow.

“Quite honestly, Ken’s fashion when he launched was in relation to Barbie and dressing for the dates they were going on,” Kim Culmone, head of design at Mattel, told CNN in a phone interview. “Everything related back to his role as an additional expression (of) and, frankly, an accessory to Barbie’s life.”

Culmone worked to immerse Gerwig and the movie’s costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, in Barbie and Ken’s storied fashion history. Culmone sifted through Mattel’s archives, hunting for vintage Ken dolls that could be shipped to Durran to study, and provided detailed imagery of his evolving style and career choices (from 1963’s “Doctor” Ken and 1973’s “Pilot” Ken, through to “Lifeguard” Ken in 2019). The result was a selection of costumes that, while not exact replicas, were heavily inspired by Ken’s history. Only a handful of original Mattel looks appear in the movie, including “Palm Beach Sugar Daddy” Ken and “Magic Earring” Ken, as well as “Growing Up Skipper” and “Pregnant” Midge, a doll character played by Emerald Fennell.

“(We wanted to give Durran) all of the foundations, then, to really create and tell her own fashion story for Ken,” Culmone said. “She just got the importance of fashion as a storytelling element.”

The ‘Kenaissance’

Gosling’s Ken begins a voyage of self-discovery after his visit to the “real world” with Barbie becomes a crash course in gender relations. A second-class citizen at home, Ken quickly realizes that, outside Barbie Land, men come out on top. “Men rule the world,” he whispers to himself in disbelief.

Clothes are one of the first ways in which Ken recognizes this newfound influence. The outfits that catch his eye are coded symbols of machismo. He ogles a man strutting across the street wearing a floor-length white mink coat, gazes at a group of businessmen in boxy tailored suits and ponders the sweat-stained ‘80s-style sleeveless vests worn in a nearby gym. In that moment, Ken’s limited understanding of masculine dressing communicates three things: wealth, power and muscle. His life, once defined by his unrequited love for ”Stereotypical” Barbie, as the movie labels Robbie’s character, is given new focus when he discovers the patriarchy.

Ken announces his inner transformation in a way that’s familiar to many of us: through his wardrobe. The crescendo of his freedom occurs when he seizes control of Barbie Land, replacing it with his own manosphere, or “Kendom.”

This somewhat misguided sense of manhood also manifests in his first independently curated outfit: a clumsy amalgamation of his earlier vision of real-world masculinity. To sing his power ballad solo “I’m Just Ken,” (a song whose second line is, “Anywhere Else I’d be a 10”) he dons a long white mink fur coat of his own, two pairs of sunglasses, a jewel-encrusted horse-shoe chain and a fanny pack inscribed with his name in lightning bolts. It’s an ensemble Barbie would never be caught dead in, making it the perfect symbol of his emancipation.

It was Gosling’s personal stylist and “Barbie” costume advisor Mark Avery’s favorite outfit. “To me, it was that feeling of being a kid and just getting to wear whatever you want for the first time,” he said in a phone interview.   “And maybe you choose part of your Halloween costume from that year. And then you choose part of your wardrobe that makes you feel great. It’s when you’re not restricted by the rules of society or what people expect.”

From his underpants’ waistband being embroidered with “Ken” — an idea personally pitched by Gosling — to the three watches he wears (because a stranger once asked him for the time in the real world), there’s a childlike innocence to Ken’s wardrobe choices throughout the film. “Ken does have this ‘Kenaissance’ moment,” said Culmone. “He’s trying to create his own identity, separate from Barbie. The fashion starts to express that, but he isn’t quite there.”

While the “Kendom” doesn’t last long (and neither does his toxic masculinity), there’s little doubt that Ken has become a breakout star in his own right — a reputation Mattel clearly thinks has legs. “He’s always been very respectful of Barbie and her position in the spotlight,” said Culmone. “But I do think that we can spend some time now really exploring him as his own style icon.

“He’s going to be inspirational to a lot of folks in a brand new way during this chapter of Barbie’s history — and of Ken’s history.”

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