NEW YORK — The fashion industry honored itself Monday night with a glittery gala that celebrated the work of designers challenging our concept of beauty, elevating enduring style over fads and working to forge a future that is respectful to the environment.
It also honored Barbie.
At its annual awards ceremony at the Brooklyn Museum, the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave the doll its Board of Directors’ Tribute, which in recent years has gone to former first lady Michelle Obama, equal rights advocate Gloria Steinem, entertainer and activist Janelle Monáe and former head of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards.
To be clear, the CFDA did not give a posthumous award to Ruth Handler, the woman who created Barbie in 1959, or to Lisa McKnight, the woman who today oversees the Barbie brand. The tribute, presented by actress Yara Shahidi, went to the doll itself — a doll that has delighted children, infuriated feminists, inspired designers, confounded critics and launched a thick body of think pieces from would-be women’s studies lecturers who have lamented the doll’s impact on everything from children’s body image to female identity.
The timing of the award coincides with the doll’s 60th anniversary. Because of her over-the-top representation of femininity, Barbie is also camp, which is the subject of the current Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Indeed, the singer Kacey Musgraves showed up at the exhibition’s camp-themed opening gala last month dressed as a life-size version of the buxom, blond doll. And while, the CFDA made it clear that Barbie — or more accurately, the doll’s manufacturer, Mattel — was not one of the sponsors of the awards evening, the toymaker and the fashion industry have a long history of cross-promotional collaborations.
The award, as its name suggests, was determined by the trade organization’s board, which includes brand names such as Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Prabal Gurung and Tracy Reese. The enthusiasm for Barbie was not unanimous. But no matter.
“It’s not a sin,” said Diane von Furstenberg, the outgoing chairman of the CFDA. (She passed the torch to her successor Tom Ford Monday night.)
The Barbie award is not biblical in its wrongheadedness, but it doesn’t do the fashion industry any favors. When design houses are wrestling with social ills related to diversity, women’s advancement and treatment in the workplace and fashion’s role in the broader culture, celebrating the fact that a doll company is finally doing what a doll company should have been doing all along is a sign of an industry that doesn’t seem to grasp the depth and breadth of its responsibility — and, more important, its potential.
McKnight, the senior vice president of Barbie and Dolls, accepted the award, and highlighted the brand’s Dream Gap program, which is meant to help girls set their aspirations as high as possible. McKnight underscored the increased diversity in the range of dolls, noting there was an astronaut Barbie and President Barbie long before there were real women in space and before an actual woman won the popular vote for president.
Barbie “is a platform for ideas and stands for girls’ empowerment,” said McKnight in an interview before the awards. But even that bit of corporate cheerleading seems disconnected from the awards. After all, there’s no CFDA category for best childrenswear designer.
Over the years the fashion industry has given awards to products and ideas. It has celebrated Hush Puppies, the Gap and Instagram. It has honored brands, such as Supreme, that some might argue have done more to dampen fashion’s creativity than energize it. But for the most part, fashion has kept its focus on entities that have set the industry on a new path, whether it be how products are sold and marketed or how sportswear and luxury are defined. An industry that is overwhelmingly for and about women has focused on celebrating those who have advocated on behalf of women — on behalf of their right to control their body, define themselves on the public stage and delight in the pleasures of beauty and craftsmanship without being ridiculed as shallow or frivolous.
McKnight said Barbie has 90 percent name awareness globally, which is one of those free-floating statistics that comes detached from any details: Awareness among girls? What age? Which countries? And what exactly does “awareness” mean? The problem with bestowing a CFDA award on Barbie is not about popularity. It’s not that Barbie is bad. It’s this: Barbie, despite all the marketing and platform-blah-blah-blah, is still a doll. And women are not. They are not objects or infantile or without agency.
That might be an obvious distinction, but it’s one with which the culture — some men, many legislatures — still struggles. It’s one reason many women remain uncomfortable discussing how they use fashion to communicate an idea, a mood or opinion. Critics argue any acknowledgment of a woman’s fashion is demeaning to her. But that’s only true if fashion is seen as a game of dress-up and the women who enjoy it as having only as much thoughtfulness as a doll.
It’s jarring to see the industry honor Barbie in the same way it did Obama. The former first lady underscored fashion’s usefulness as a form of diplomatic communication and as a symbol of national pride. And that is one of the main reasons an entire social media dialogue can erupt over the Dolce & Gabbana white suit with navy trim and the coordinating hat by Hervé Pierre that Melania Trump wore in London Monday. Was it too Princess Di? Too “My Fair Lady?” Or was it simply Trump favoring the designers, the silhouette and a color that makes her feel comfortable and appropriate? After all, Trump wore a white suit and hat to welcome French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, to the White House in 2018. People ask what Trump’s clothes mean because we understand that clothes speak even when the wearer does not.
Honoring Barbie is a celebration of fashion as aesthetics rather than fashion as a considered extension of identity — and the latter definition is the reason we care so deeply about how we are seen, treated and depicted by Seventh Avenue. It’s an understanding for which the industry has fought. And that profound satisfaction of feeling recognized and heard on one’s own visual terms was a common refrain throughout the evening.
As the Fashion Icon of the year, entertainer Jennifer Lopez delivered a heartfelt thank-you to an industry that embraced her curves and invited her into its inner circle. And in telling the story of her fashion evolution, from hip-hop girl to red carpet star, Lopez offered a reminder that fashion is not simply about clothes on a body, but about the way that we want to be understood by the world.
New designers and veterans were also honored: costumer Bob Mackie, along with Brandon Maxwell, Rick Owens and the Row’s Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen. Emily Adams Bode was best emerging designer. Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton received the International Award, newly underwritten by Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti. And other honorees included writer Lynn Yaeger, editor Carine Roitfeld and fashion sustainability trailblazer Eileen Fisher.
Each winner offered a reminder of how designers make fashion look deceptively easy. “I’m so charged to be in an industry where we wake up every day to make women feel good,” said Maxwell in his thank-you remarks.
But doing fashion well means engaging in the challenging, complicated work of reaching far below the surface to get at our shared humanity. Fashion is not always successful in that endeavor. But that’s the essence of its mission.
A doll has meaning. A doll can stand as an impactful symbol. But it should never stand in for the woman in all of her intelligent, grown-up, stylish complexity.