Weird History

Barbie Was Originally Based On An Extremely Risqué German Doll

Young girls in America grew up with the squeaky-clean image of Barbie, but the truth is that the history of Barbie and Europe's Bild Lilli doll go hand in hand. Bild Lilli is a doll with heavy makeup, a fierce backstory, and a curvy body eerily similar to Barbie's and some have described her as "Barbie’s ballsy European precursor." 

Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler first encountered Bild Lilli in Switzerland in the mid-1950s, and saw the doll's potential for American consumers. But Lilli was a very different kind of doll than what Barbie eventually became. Lilli began as a cartoon, in which she had a lucrative career as an escort. The dolls weren't for little girls; rather, they were considered sexy trinkets for grown men. But the idea of Lilli, with her many outfits and posable body, appealed to Handler.

"My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be," Handler said. "Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices." With Lilli, there were some career choices many parents would have wanted their daughters to avoid. Barbie may have ditched her risqué past and inspired young ladies to be vets, dancers, or artists, but Bild Lilli will forever be part of the fabric of her history.