From Lilli to Barbie
Lilli plays a significant role in the fashion doll history and the toy industry. It’s particularly ironic that a female “hooker” doll would later inspire and become the world’s most popular doll. Even though by 1958, big, early life-size dolls such as Patty Play Pal, Betsy McCall etc. were the main thrust of a commercial doll fad, and there was a great choice of both large and small fashion dolls to choose from in a variety of fashion and social messages, the slim fashion doll was just about to come fully into its own.
Out of the so-called “procuration of the rights” to "Bild" Lilli (a “contractual settlement for the rights of Lilli," according to Beverly Cannady, previous director of licensing for Mattel in the Barbie News Network magazine, vol. 2, no. 4 as well as in personal conversations), Mattel Toy Corporation would evolve the Barbie doll. Even though she was slightly, and I do mean slightly, facially adjusted for the American market, Barbie would project a new personality into the slim doll. It was the famous Jack Ryan, star marketing man and co-ordinator at Mattel Toys ( for whom this author wrote his official obituary for The London Standard) who made these slight changes to the doll and conceptualized her marketing in the USA.
The adjustments to the original "Bild" Lilli included the removing of her asterisk-shaped flower earrings from the mould as well as the removal of the moulded-on shoes. In one article on the Internet recently, they claimed her “nipples” were filed off with a Swiss army knife, this being pure gossip since “Bild” Lilli never had anything as flagrant as nipples. The painting of lips changed but that is probably because for real women it had also changed. The original head, made in two pieces in order to insert from the back the mohair ponytail and spit curl, would be transformed into a single piece head in heavy vinyl material as the hair on Barbie Doll was rooted and without a spit curl but with a full set of curly bangs -very Gidget looking.
Everything else was identically the same. In examining the first Barbie prototypes, there were a few various tries to improve the Lilli doll construction (these prototype Barbie dolls are not injection-moulded in the same way as the real product and do not have the markings of the distributed doll, making her even closer to the original unmarked "Bild" Lilli doll). However, the Lilli dolls’ construction was ultimately the best way to form the doll and thus was kept the same for the Barbie doll. Barbie, however, was injection-moulded high-quality vinyl which did not require stringing as Lilli did.
Something for every type of middle-class taste.
Barbie also would have a more haute couture-oriented wardrobe, that is with ensembles directly inspired by French and Italian high fashion, which was interspersed among Barbie’s otherwise suburban tastes. Less sleazy and, according to the advertising, “fully-lined," Barbie’s clothes would soften the “ice-bitch” goddess look (one Barbie doll collector’s description of her personality), she had as a hold-over from her German incarnation. Cold and glacial, Barbie was presented with what the designers at Mattel thought was, according to Mrs. Handler, the woman behind the first Barbie doll, a “blank” expression “so that little girls could project their fantasies into the doll”. Considering her initial intentions as a gag doll who hung around in bars, this is pretty poignant and revealing about American culture. It surely could not imply that little American girls had fantasies about being big-chested, svelte call girls, or could it?
Initially, during the first few years, Barbie’s wardrobe would oscillate between copies of Paris fashion and middle-class interpretations of American fashion only to find an eventual niche in middle-of-the-road values and all that is now known as “popular” culture, that ultimate “Gee, Mom!” way of life. The basic idea was that in the complete wardrobe, there was something for every type of middle-class taste. A few outfits were extremely fashionable, others simply considered the era’s idea of good taste, and still others specifically for teenage, sports, and household activities.
The Barbie Ensemble Pak's complete high fashion outfits” by 1965 had a number of real haute couture tendencies reflected in the wardrobe, but the majority looked like American suburban ready-to-wear. Shelley Winters as the wife of Humbert Humbert, the lecherous and overtly villainous step-daddy in the eternally poignant film Lolita by Stanley Kubrick immediately comes to mind.....as well as “Camp Climax for Girls”....Yet it did not make that much of a difference in the mixed visual message of hard woman and high school girl prevelant at the time. Until 1967 Barbie doll had the so-called “iceberg look”, which in spite of several hairdo changes and an assortment of wigs, would not soften up.
"Hong Kong" Lilli
Later, by Fab-Lu Ltd., also from "Bild" Lilli moulds, complete with the high heels and asterisk-shaped flower earrings moulded onto the doll. Some were brittle shiny plastic, others painted as were the first German Lilli dolls. These are likely the earlier sample issues although there exists prototype Hong Kong Lilli’s which are painted nearly exactly as the German “Bild” Lilli dolls were. The eyebrows vary a bit on these dolls. They would also continue the seven inch version as well which can be found unmarked, or marked with various “Made in Hong Kong” markings. These were manufactured, amongst others apparently, by Chang-Pi Su Company, who marketed them as Cherie in a pale blue cardboard box with cellophane front. The same small version has been found in the same box, but red cardboard, marked The Fashion Model and “Made In The British Colony Of Hong Kong” with the original 88 cents price tag of the Sprouse-Reitz stores on the package. One known version is in a red and white striped strapless dress similar to Barbie doll’s Cotton Casual.
These dolls expressions, via mass-production of the painting of the face, would turn sometimes sour, with pursed lips and a definitely bored-to-death air. Her usually “bleached blonde” hair, the original option, would now be expanded upon. Whereas the original German Lilli model had on rare occasions tasteful in comparison henna red, jet black, and deep brownette or auburn-coloured hair, the Hong Kong versions were seen with a more shocking version of henna red, dyed-looking blue-black, and even a strange mousy brown shade of hair, the odd colour of old newspaper. One shade of blonde is that awful colour kinky brunette which turns, when it is cheaply dyed blonde, a brassy, greenish tone reminiscent of bad suburban dye jobs. Fabulous for collectors now, of course.
The once heavy, slightly orange painted, solid plastic Fraulein would, in her mass-productions, sometimes become a little thinner, with a lighter plastic in a much whiter shade of “skin" when un-painted. She, like the attitude she projected, seemed brittle. Of course, the tiny Bild newspaper which came with the doll during her years in Germany and her comic feature that could be clipped each Sunday from the real newspaper were no longer available. “Das” is life, I guess.
Eventually, the comparitively endearing "Bild" Lilli would disappear off the market, perhaps to look for another job in the classified section of her own miniature Bild newspaper. Or change her “profession” as “star of the bar”. Or maybe she just changed her name to Barbie and immigrated to the United States, as inferred the aforementioned Internet article. Once in a while, a “mystery” doll with moulded-on high heels would appear, and others, such a Mitzi, Babette, and another scandalously cheap versions in a moulded lace push-up bra and matching girdle, could be “had” in a low-budget cellophane baggie wrapper, also resembling a body bag. "Bild" Lilli’s alias or not, these floozies would haunt the perimeter of the “World of Barbie" forever, as a bitter reminder of her Mattel-denied origins.
The so-called “Hong Kong” Lillis, previously scorned by collectors and originally incorrectly thought to be only “cheap” copies of German Lilli have been found in authentic Lilli costumes identical except for the snaps, Lilli’s snaps originally being peculiar-looking gripper snaps from Europe of the fifties, these are Pyrm-marked and usually used by the DreiM - Maar company for all their doll’s clothing and also later for the mid-sixties Gotz Sasha doll clothes. Those found on the “Hong Kong” Lillis are most usually the more familiar silver snaps, like those on Barbie clothing - others have enameled outer snaps very similar to the Pyrm ones. These are much rarer to find, and usually only in Europe.
Besides the “classic “Bild” Lilli dolls, I have purchased quite a few “Hong Kong” Lilli’s in Germany and Austria. Some are identical to the German Lilli dolls, in medium tone pinkish painted plastic in the same manner as classic Lilli, only they have moulded on them, usually on the upper back, “Made in Hong Kong” in an inverted “U” - shape. This leads me to think perhaps "Bild" Lilli, who is known to have been manufactured as late as 1961 in Germany with over 80 different outfits and dolls available that year, might have been continued to be manufactured in Hong Kong by Fab-Lu Ltd. (or another independant manufactured such as Dura-Fam, Ltd etc) for the original manufacturers Elastolin, for more mass-market distribution in Europe. This is conjecture but highly possible. Upon seeing that a broader commercialization of the doll as a toy was not working for them, as they were a small company having legal disputes with Mattel Toys, perhaps the doll was sold or turned over to Fab-Lu Ltd, as well as Dura-Fam, Ltd and the others mentioned above, to market.
Maybe, as indicated by the original creator in a recent interview, Lilli was simply ripped off by unscrupulous toy makers of both the high and low end of the business. This is also very likely to be the case but the details have become obscured with time.