Fashion Dolls, Nancy Drew, and the Bee’s Knees  

                                                  By Katie Oliver

Three is a magic number. 

Take writing. There are always ‘threes’ in stories – three wishes, three spirits, three little pigs – because a series of three works to (1) grab interest, (2) ratchet up suspense when things start going wrong and (3) deliver a satisfying finale. Consider Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If Marley’s ghost hadn’t first shown Scrooge his past and present, would his bleak and frightening vision of the future have made such an impact? Probably not. Credit the ‘magic of three’ for helping to power Scrooge’s dramatic change of heart. 

So when I was asked to write about three of my favorite non-writing things, I was on it. (Of course, I managed to sneak in a writing reference. I couldn’t resist.) I thought about three things I like, and I realized all three relate back to my childhood. (I guess I never really grew up.)

And to prove I never grew up, here are three things I like: I collect Barbie dolls. I’m a Nancy Drew fan. And I’m obsessed with the 1920s. 

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My love of all things Barbie began when I was eight. I was a skinny kid, with short, dark hair and knees scabbed over from roller-skating; Barbie was a blonde, beautiful, and glamorous teen fashion doll. She arrived in a slender box with a doll stand and her own tiny sunglasses. Her black-and-white striped swimsuit and white high heels were très chic. I couldn’t wait to collect all of the stylish outfits in the Barbie fashions booklet. I was hooked. 

My best friend Debbie had a Barbie too, and Barbie’s best friend, Midge; I had Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend. Every day one of us would show up at the other’s door clutching our vinyl doll cases to say, “Want to come out and play Barbies?” We’d spend hours on the front steps or the sidewalk, dressing and undressing our dolls and making up stories for them to act out. Sometimes they’d go shopping; sometimes they went on dates; sometimes they went for a ride in their plastic two-seater convertible. Those are some of my best childhood memories.

But eventually, as girls do, we grew up, and our dolls were boxed up and put away in our respective attics and forgotten. Boys and cars and real dates took the place of fashion dolls.

I was a mom with two kids of my own when Mattel reissued the 35th anniversary Barbie. My swimsuit doll was back again with her vintage sunglasses and tiny white heels. So I began collecting specialty Barbies – designer dolls by Ralph Lauren, Moschino, and Jonathan Adler; Coach and Dooney & Bourke dolls with their own tiny handbags; Hard Rock Cafe, Hello Kitty, Hallmark, and FAO Schwarz Barbies. I even have a Gap Barbie with her own miniature pair of Gap jeans tucked in a tiny GAP shopping bag. So I ended up with boxes of Barbies once again. 

The more things change, the more they…don’t. 

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Like collecting Barbies, reading mysteries is another thing I never outgrew. And Nancy Drew mysteries were at the top of my childhood reading list. As Barbie receded from importance, I decided I wanted to be Nancy instead – she was smart, with a widowed lawyer dad who didn’t cramp her style, her own convertible, two best friends named Bess and George, and a college boyfriend named Ned Nickerson. Best of all, she solved mysteries. This was a good skill to have, because boy, there were a lot of mysteries to solve in River Heights. 

I came across the series purely by chance. One of our neighbors’ daughters was going off to college in the fall. Her mom had boxed up her old Nancy Drew books. Was I interested? Was I! The books dated from the 1930s and 40s through the fifties and early sixties. The illustrations ranged from Nancy cruising in a stylish ‘roadster’, wearing thirties fashions, to tooling around in a sporty Mustang with a sixties ‘flip’ hairstyle. The clothes and cars might change, and Ned might look a little different with each passing decade; but there were mysteries still to be solved, and Nancy was just the girl to do it. 

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My fascination with the 1920s started with the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie. It starred Julie Andrews as naive flapper Millie and Mary Tyler Moore as her equally naïve best friend, Miss Dorothy, who come to the city for jobs but capture the attention of an evil boardinghouse proprietor, Mrs Meers. Millie’s plan to (a) get a job as a stenographer and (b) marry her wealthy boss soon goes awry. But the course of true love never does run smooth…

Another movie that fueled my interest in all things flapper was Some Like It Hot, the Billy Wilder film starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis. 

The story features two male musicians, both on the run after accidentally witnessing the infamous St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. In fear for their lives, the guys jump on a train bound for Florida and dress up in drag. They befriend Sugar, a sexy ukulele player/singer played by Marilyn Monroe, who has no idea that the two ‘sisters’ she’s bunking with are really guys. Hilarity most definitely ensues. 

Maybe it was the 20s clothing that appealed to me – the fringed silk flapper dresses, feathered headbands, bobbed hair and Mary Janes – or maybe it was the slang, like ‘don’t be a wet blanket,’ ‘the cat’s meow,’ and ‘the bee’s knees.’ It might have been the speakeasies, and Jazz, and dances like the Charleston and the Lindy Hop; whatever it was, something about the era spoke to me.

Who knows? Maybe I was a flapper in another life. Wouldn’t that have been the cat’s pajamas!

 Katie’s most recent series, The Jane Austen Factor, is now available!

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Keep up with Katie and follow her on Twitter at @katieoliver01.