If you were traveling to Los Angeles—or more specifically, Venice Beach—from someplace far, far away and you desperately wanted to fit in, what would you wear? A pair of rough and rugged denim shorts? An itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow, polka-dot bikini? A floral dress befitting a flower child?
All good thoughts. But if you were Barbie, you would obviously choose a pink country-western vest with matching bell-bottom pants adorned with sparkling stars and a lace-up crotch, all topped with a clean, white cowboy hat and a pink bandana. There’s really no other option.
This was one of the biggest challenges for Jacqueline Durran, the Oscar winner and costume designer of Barbie, as she told Vanity Fair on a recent phone call. How does one understand what a piece of plastic with 60 years of IP to sift through would choose to wear?
“How do you get inside the doll’s head to make a logical [choice]?” Durran mused. “What would she think?”
It took several attempts and conversations with star Margot Robbie before landing on that indelible “country Barbie” look. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” Durran says. “It’s weird how a decision seems obvious once you’ve done it, but not before you’ve done it.”
With Barbie, Durran has added an entirely new skill set to an extraordinarily full career, one that’s included films as varied as Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Anna Karenina (2012), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Spencer (2021), and The Batman (2022). Rather than digging through a time period for clothing and matching appropriate styles to the character at hand, Durran had to design costumes as the world of the film was being built. Barbie, a product of Mattel, has lived through several decades and several style evolutions. Plus, when Durran speaks of Barbie, she is speaking of upward of 20 characters, many of them with unique jobs—like Doctor Barbie and President Barbie, played by the likes of Hari Nef and Issa Rae, respectively. There are endless options.
“Barbie could really wear anything. You need some ground rules,” Durran says. “And one of the ground rules was that [Barbie] would always be perfectly dressed for whatever she was going to do. And it’s also ‘beautiful people in beautiful places doing beautiful things’”—a hat tip to Slim Aarons’s French Riviera in the ’60s.
Durran was also working with director Greta Gerwig for the second time since 2019‘s Little Women. “The immediate idea of what it’s like to work with Greta is that it’s such a lot to do,” Durran says. “At the end of Little Women, [Gerwig] said to me, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry it’s so hard,’” she laughs. “She writes so much. She can often write like three, four, I don’t know how many scenes in a page, and each scene has everybody in it. So you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve done one eighth of a page and we’re nearly dead, and now we’ve got to do the rest.’”
“But I absolutely love working with her because it’s exciting,” Durran adds. “I know that she’s gonna come at any given subject in a new, fresh, interesting way, and that we’re all gonna want to watch.”
Durran and the costume team had 11 weeks to prep before filming Barbie, and she says they ultimately planned the costumes around the same time that set designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer planned the sets. In other words, they were building the Barbie car as they were driving it. Durran would match the pink of Barbie’s clothes to the exact shade of pink used on the set. And when she and her hand-dyer weren’t matching fabric to sets, Durran was attempting to impose some order to that wealth of options. For those crowded beach scenes, for example, Durran “made a board of maybe 15 or 20 three-color combinations, so that every costume that was on the beach had to be one of those color combinations. It couldn’t be just random, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly controlled to the eye.”
The breakneck pace lent itself to some zanier ideas. One of Durran’s earliest costume choices was to put Ryan Gosling, the film’s main Ken, in an ankle-length fur, à la Sylvester Stallone or Joe Namath in the ’70s. Photos of men in fur came up as references in the prep period as the visuals of masculinity that Gosling’s character discovers after he leaves Barbie Land for the real world. Not only was he wearing a mink while otherwise shirtless, but because of the character’s obsession with horses, Durran’s team hand-lined the coat in a horse-pattern fabric.
“It was sort of a leap of faith, but we were working so fast that we almost didn’t have time to think of it,” Durran says. “And at that point, I hadn’t met Ryan and I didn’t really know how far he was going to go with Ken. It was quite a jump to be Ken. I didn’t know whether he would like the fur coat or not, but he was totally up for all of the costume choices, as you can tell.”
There is one small Easter egg, or if not quite an Easter egg, a possible future grail item on eBay: scarves that the Barbies wear to pull their hair back in the third act.
“You can barely see this in the film, but we made a headscarf of Barbie Land for the Barbies to wear, and that was just a really beautiful thing,” Durran said. “All of the Barbies had one.”