Local Costume Historian Curates Barbie Exhibit on the Las Vegas Strip

Canyon Gate resident Karan Feder’s contributions to the first touring Barbie doll exhibition

The first Barbie doll exhibition to tour in the United States is creating nostalgia across the valley. The exhibit was masterminded and built by Illusions Projects in partnership with Mattel and brought in part by Canyon Gate resident Karan Feder. Karan, a costume historian, was instrumental in bringing Barbie®, A Cultural Icon: 60 Years of Fashion and Inspiration to the Las Vegas Strip, inside The Shops at Crystals. The exhibit celebrates 60 years of Barbie fashion and culture.

You don’t have to be a Barbie collector or a fashionista to appreciate the historical significance of Barbie in the American experience. This museum-level exhibition explores the story of fashion from 1959 to 2019 as told through the iconic 11.5” doll.

Karan, owner of Entertainment Exhibitions, is considered the local authority in the preservation of Las Vegas entertainment costumes and costume history. She turned her passion for fashion into an extensive and varied career as a Hollywood costume designer, fashion collector, costume historian, exhibit curator, and author. From her start at the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Historical Society to her time as a volunteer at the Liberace Museum and her more recent costume preservation and exhibit projects with the Nevada State Museum Las Vegas, fashion has always been the common thread in the tapestry of Karan’s professional life. 

Karan spearheaded and curated the priceless “Les Folies Bergère: Entertaining Las Vegas One Rhinestone at a Time” exhibit at the Nevada State Museum. The state museum’s Folies Bergère archive consists of 8,000 vintage costumes spanning the show’s 50-year run at the Tropicana. The archive is recognized as one of the most significant museum collections of cabaret costumes in the world. It made Karan a showgirl expert, but it was fellow museum volunteer, David Porcello, who turned Karan into a Barbie connoisseur. Porcello, an avid Barbie enthusiast had been acquiring and perfecting his vast collection since childhood with a goal to own all fashion released by Mattel from the very first Barbie in 1959 through the early 1980s.

The pandemic afforded Karan the time necessary to explore the concept of a fashion exhibition using Porcello’s Barbies. Entertainment Exhibitions partnered with local Illusion Projects, whom Karan refers to as “the backbone” of the exhibit since they expressed interest in developing a new touring exhibition program, and Karan was poised to not only deliver the more than 250 artifacts but also provide the expertise to interpret the material.

Karan defines the project as “primarily a fashion exhibition, that walks us through six decades of Barbie fashion, displayed in parallel with cultural events of the time.” She expounds by using Jacqueline Kennedy as an example. Her fashion style was replicated by Barbie designers in the early 1960s and the exhibit used multiple historical records, Vogue covers, newspaper clippings, and high-fashion runway offerings to present the parallels between the real historical figures that inspired the Barbie fashion designers and the significance of their choices, all from a historical and cultural perspective.

Karan describes the exhibit as different because she chose to explore the reasons behind the fashion trends that were produced by Mattel, as well as those that were omitted—like the lack of punk clothing in the late 70s and 80s. Plus she included surprising elements, like life-sized examples of the Barbie fashion that help us better appreciate the mastery employed when adapting and scaling down the outfits. She also strove to be inclusive by highlighting important moments in fashion and Mattel history, like her conversation with Kitty Black Perkins, the designer of the first African American Barbie in 1980.   

Karan affirms that she did her best not to re-write history, but instead to encourage Mattel to embrace their past, the company’s evolution, and, of course, their place in fashion history.

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