Hello, Doll

Pristine beauty, cute miniature outfits and preserved memories at the Barbie convention

Lissa Townsend Rodgers

As we all know, Las Vegas is a town of conventions, and the Gold Coast features some of the oddest: the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly convention, the International Accordion convention, the 1/32 Slot Car convention. One of the strangest, if smallest, must be the Barbie convention, which was held there last Sunday. Salon F became a soothing den of middle-aged women edging toward the door before turning back to circle the room one more time, in case they missed a pyramid of pink boxes, a line of 12-inch-high perfect ladies or a row of tiny couture outfits.

Then there are the dolls of forgotten (or at least B-listed) celebrities: Diahann Carroll as Julia, "Brooke Shields: The World's Most Glamorous Teenage Doll" and, of course, the Vanilla Ice doll, still in his hot pink box with "postcard and fan club info inside!" There are also sudden, shuddering moments of recognition for any female—finding the houndstooth wrap skirt worn by the growing-up Skipper I had as a first-grader, or coming face-to-face with my cousin's Western Barbie, still in her skintight fringed jumpsuit and electric-blue eye shadow. But most of the women in attendance are more likely to feel pangs of nostalgia for 1959 than 1979, and run to either the pasty and doughy or the bleached and leathery. Still, their devotion to girlish perfection manifests in their full shopping bags and depleted credit lines, if not in their physicality.

Vintage Barbies do offer a definition of femininity and elegance: perfect hairdos, flawless eyeliner and coquettish sidelong glances. Against the mutant-esque Bratz dolls at Toys R Us, it's like comparing Rita Hayworth to Tara Reid. And their outfits also outrank: genuine silk and wool, buttons the size of lint, contrasting linings, lingerie detailed down to the garter tabs on the girdle. It's Dior to the J.C. Penney poly-and-velcro gear of modern dolls. Not to mention that every ensemble has an evocative, lipstick-style name such as "Silken Flame," "Orange Blossom" and "Sorbonne."

Although, even if it is "pristine" and "complete" down to the tiny opera program, I wouldn't spend $3,295 on "Gala Evening." (If I'm going to drop six months' rent on something in a sandwich bag, it had better be ... well, never mind.) Of course, if that's a bit much, you can always spend $75 on a pair of knee-high, fur-topped black boots. Of course, they're Barbie-sized. And they're not real leather. Or dig through what one vendor referred to as "the Wal-Mart bins": plastic storage boxes full of odds, ends and other cast-offs. Some may scorn, but the search is fun—I passed up a 45 rpm of Barbie singing her touching paean to young love, "Ken," and a freezer bag of old Cher doll outfits for a tiny suit like the one Kim Novak wore in Vertigo. Nothing like a roomful of dolls to make you remember how much you enjoy being a girl.

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