Valentine’s Day Special: Ken & Barbie, The Ivy Years

For devotees of The Ivy League Look who live in 2017 but who aspire to buy clothes in 1957, there are two pieces of technology that can help. While the best option is a time machine, it is unfortunate that they are still notoriously unreliable, as any number of movies illustrate. The second option is eBay.

Living in London has many advantages, but finding clothes that could have been sold by the Harvard Co-op during the Eisenhower Administration is not one of them. Thus regular eBay searches are necessary, and I recently came across a jacket that ticked all the Ivy boxes; made in the early 1960s, corduroy, three-button, olive green, patch pockets, natural shoulders, no darts. Sadly, the size was wrong: it was a six-inch chest.

Turned out that it was an early piece of clothing for Barbie’s eternal boyfriend, Ken.

Ken and Barbie were perhaps the first manufactured celebrity couple, but they were still less plastic than are many modern stars. Barbie was described as a “Teen-age fashion model,” while boyfriend Ken’s tagline was “he’s a doll,” a nice joke by the Mad Men which a few of the more sophisticated kids may have appreciated.

The Wikipedia page for Ken reveals that the Mattel toy company had first produced Kenneth Carson in 1961, three years after they had introduced Barbie. This made me curious: would Ken have dressed in the Ivy League Look in the early ’60s? An Internet search very quickly produced the website and the answer was yes. In his first five years, Mattel gave Ken several outfits that could have come from Brooks, Press or any campus outfitter of the time.

I do not know if Ken was marketed for boys (as GI Joe was two years later) or for girls or for both, but it is wonderful to think that there was a time when you could sell dolls’ clothes to children by stressing a natural-shoulder suit or a tie in “Ivy stripes.”

In this outfit, “Ken chooses Ivy colours for a Sunday drive in the country with Barbie.” I am not sure about black oxfords with that outfit, but he is still better dressed than most men are today.

In 1964, Ken is a Big Man on Campus in his corduroy suit.

Ken is still a student in 1965, now sporting a jacket that could be madras.

Still in 1965, Ken is a journalist and his dress is a little more groovy, but not offensively so.

By 1963, Barbie and Ken’s popularity resulted in the production of paper cut out dolls with a wide choice of outfits. Here, Ken can change out of his camel topcoat, sack suit and pinned club collar and put on his impeccable summer tuxedo.

In his essay “The Rise And Fall Of The Ivy League Look,” Christian Chensvold assigns 1967 as an arbitrary date for the end of Ivy. Ken’s clothing choices back up this statement entirely, as a look at some of the outfits that Mattel gave him in 1966 shows.

If there is a narrative to go with Ken’s 1966 outfits, perhaps it is that he graduates from college and tours Europe, seeing the sights while wearing his tweed jacket. He returns home and dons his gray poplin suit for a summer job, perhaps as an intern at The Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. By the winter he is a full-time employee, warm in his navy blue tweed topcoat as he strides up Madison Avenue. However, the beginning of the end of Ken’s Ivy period is signalled by Ken-A- Go-Go, presumably Mattel’s belated response to the Beatles Invasion two years earlier.

As the 1960s started to swing, Ken seemed to go into a period of reflection. According to a remarkable list of everything that he ever wore on, no new fashion clothing was produced for him in 1967 and 1968. There was never a Hippie Ken (shoes not included) or an Anti-Vietnam War Protester Ken complete with inflammable draft card.

By 1969 however, Ken was shopping for clothes again, but by now his purchases were Austin Powers rather than Ivy League, as evidenced by that year’s shagtastic Guruvy Formal outfit. Kenneth Carson’s Ivy period was well and truly over.

Ken’s post-Ivy years saw both his personal and sartorial life in a constant state of flux. On the emotional side, it seems that he could not commit to Barbie. Not possessing genitals may have been a factor, but, even if he had the appropriate equipment (perhaps sold as a separate accessory), Barbie had a similar condition, thus producing an impenetrable problem.

Happily, by 2011 things had come full circle. To celebrate his fiftieth year with Mattel, the company went into the back of Ken’s very full closet and found his 1964 Victory Dance blue blazer outfit which they rereleased together with a doll moulded in a 1961 style body, though some felt that a more realistic older man physique would have been appropriate.

Sadly, Ken’s return to Ivy was not to last, and at the present time he is as addicted as he ever was to changing popular culture and high fashion, while his relationship with Barbie remains unclear. However, it is difficult not to admire a man who was born in the 1940s but who can today be part of a boy band and get into his fifty-year-old blazer. Go Ken! — TIM KOCH

26 Comments on "Valentine’s Day Special: Ken & Barbie, The Ivy Years"

  1. Great contribution to pop Ivy history, Tim.

  2. I don’t like the crest on 1961 Ken’s blazer.

    I thought Ivy was supposed to be anti-elitist. Sporting an exclusive club crest in public smacks of snobbery.

  3. I was there at the time, and I can tell you that Ken was definitely not marketed to boys. Girls bought Ken to complete their Barbie sets.

    Indeed, when GI Joe was launched a few years later (to immediate popularity), there were worried debates among the adults about whether it was appropriate to buy dolls for boys. My eight-year-old answer at the time was, “It’s not a doll!” which seemed to settle the matter.

  4. I know that replica glasses of liquor would have been out of line even then, but tell me they sold officially licensed miniature cigarettes that could attach to Ken’s hand. Oh please tell me they did.

  5. Charlottesville | February 14, 2017 at 11:38 am |

    Terrific post. Well written and funny. I had no conception of all of the Ivy options open to Ken, although I had a cousin who had most of the available Barbie paraphernalia, including Ken, a pink sports car and, I think, a house. However, like @tmjm, I insisted that my GI Joe was not a doll. He was, as the TV jingle plainly stated, a “fighting man from head to toe.”

  6. Fantastic post & links.

    While his relationship with Barbie remains unclear, what of his relationship with “Allan”?

  7. The “guitar” in the Ken A Go Go outfit looks more like a ukulele.

  8. Never thought I’d find sartorial inspirtation in a girl’s doll.

  9. Maybe because I’m a writer, I loved my soldiers and spacemen in my gendernormative childhood.

  10. It’s a good thing Ken doesn’t wear Ivy clothing anymore because he’d be setting an unfair sartorial standard for men. Besides, his modern clothes are far superior to fuddy-duddy Ivy style:

  11. Charlottesville – if this was in the 1960s, your cousin’s Barbie Sports Car was modeled after the Austin-Healey 100-6. Though originally pink, the survivors have turned into a peach color as the plastic aged.

    Speaking of G.I. Joe, I am sure many of you know that Jerry Seinfeld is a big fan. The action figure was mentioned in one episode, played with in another, and occasionally mentioned in his stand-up routine.

    My sister did not have a Barbie, nor did I have a G.I. Joe, but I did enjoy playing a few rounds of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots.

  12. I went straight to G.I. Joe accompanied by TV shows Combat and Gallant Men. Ballad of the Green Berets was topping the charts.

  13. “like @tmjm, I insisted that my GI Joe was not a doll. He was, as the TV jingle plainly stated, a “fighting man from head to toe.””

    Boys to NOT play with dolls. Boys play with “action figures”. Two completely different things.

    Just like men’s cologne is not actually perfume, is it? 🙂

  14. Ken actually disappeared in 1967, finally returning in 1969 with a different head and a more beefy body (the result of plastic surgery?), and yes, his new Guruvy Formal Nehru jacket and accessories. Ken was a slave to the fashion trends of the time, and it’s difficult to imagine Mod Hair Ken or Now-Look Ken ever having worn a natural shoulder suit on a Saturday dress date with Barbie.

    And what of Ken’s buddy, Allan? Mattel was proud that Ken and Allan shared all their clothes, but Allan disappeared in 1965 and wasn’t seen again for nearly 30 years, when it was announced that he was marrying Barbie’s friend Midge. Allan and Midge actually had some children, but both soon disappeared again, with Midge having reappeared only in recent years, but without the children and denying every having been married to Allan. What caused Midge and Allan’s marriage to fail isn’t known.

  15. I never had a GI Joe, or any “action figure doll”. I did play with miniature toy soldiers, mostly WW2 type, for most of my boyhood. I actually played occasionally with them until I was drafted into the US Army.

    Threw them away after that. I wanted no part of the military.

  16. Eric Twardzik | February 15, 2017 at 10:44 am |

    Thank you, Tim, this was wonderful. I’d love to see more pickings from your brain.

    I’m also a bit curious on “Allan”- did have more years of trad style in him?


  17. I think I had a Stretch Armstrong as a boy. My time was spent trying to give Tammy and Susie Shinker rides on my Ross bicycle with a banana set.

  18. Thank you to those who were kind enough to complement me on my ‘Ivy Ken’ piece, my first post for ‘Ivy Style’. I hope to produce others in the future. I contribute on a more regular basis to ‘Hear The Boat Sing’, a website ostensibly about rowing (particularly the history of the sport) but which, very much like Ivy Style, includes features on associated sartorial, artistic, literately, social, cultural and political aspects – however tenuous. The fact that rowing (or ‘crew’, though this is not thought a verb where I come from) is regarded as perhaps the ultimate Ivy sport is a bonus. In July, I will write a feature on Henley Royal Regatta, the only place left in the world where a man can wear an ascot (‘cravat’ in British English) without suffering ridicule.

  19. Remember the lamented Ken doll that was introduced in the late 80’s or early 90’s and was supposed to be fashionable. He got labeled the Homosexual / Metrosexual Ken. I guess that 30’ish years on, the idea of a male “companion” for Barbie who was fashionable just didn’t go over well. Great collector value if you can find him. Thankfully, we haven’t seen a new Ken “action figure” in a shruken suit with no socks yet.

  20. Henry Contestwinner | July 11, 2017 at 9:51 pm |

    Paul, your question reveals your modern-day mentality: in the 1960s, homosexuality simply wasn’t on people’s mental radar, and no one, other than perverts (as defined at the time), would have thought anything untoward about Ken and Allan.

  21. Without a doubt, one of the most unusual and original contributions in the history of the site. Bravo, Mr. Koch.

  22. Cool clothes, but, “Math is hard!”

    Best Regards,


  23. I reinforce tmjm’s comment that Ken was NOT marketed for boys. No normal boy would want such a thing. I’d venture to say most girls had a Barbie doll back then.

    In the early 1990’s, my preteen nieces would pose their Barbies in extremely suggestive positions, while filming them with early video recorders. (I’m not making this up.) The wife suggested some abnormality existed in their personalities. Don’t know about that; they grew up relatively normal, although they seemed to marry poorly. (As their late maternal Granny commented, “It was their father’s fault.”)

    To paraphrase Elaine Benes, “Granny hated men, but was not a lesbian.”

  24. Back in the day, the only Barbie doll I wanted, Barbie Benton.


  25. Barbie and Ken agreed to disagree when Ken moved to the West Village and shared an apartment with his friend Allan. Ken and Allan later opened an antique store and design business together. They all remained good friends, and Ken was Barbie’s first call when she needed a designer for her new “Dream House”. He later re-entered the public spotlight in the 90’s as a truer version of himself.

  26. F%ing good old days

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