Barbie turned 30 the year I was born. That same year, my grandmother bought a dome cake pan for making Barbie cakes: typically, a Barbie doll enveloped to the waist in frosted layers of cake, carved into the shape of a voluminous skirt. In her words,“I had my first granddaughter and I envisioned making a lot of Barbie cakes.” Several more granddaughters followed and so did more Barbie cake baking accessories.
I grew up watching my grandmother make Barbie cakes in her home-based bakery for customers across North Texas. Now, 20-something years later, Greta Gerwig’s hot pink feature film has promised us a summer of Barbie. Food brands are turning everything pink — from the obvious Pinkberry with its Barbie Land Berry Pink froyo to the more obscure Pastificio G. Di Martino Barbie Pennette Rigate — and the Barbie cake is primed for a comeback, as those who never had the iconic buttercream-frocked doll as children live out their Barbie cake dreams as grownups. But where Barbie-themed birthdays complete with a Barbie cake were once sold to adolescent and preteen girls (and perhaps coveted by boys), these days, the throwback cakes are for everyone.
This past fall, months after Gerwig’s flick began filming in the spring of 2022, pastry chef and cookbook author Zoë François and chef and restaurant owner Christina Nguyen each made a Barbie cake to celebrate the birthday of their friend Ann Kim, a Minneapolis chef and restaurateur. Neither of them realized then what kind of cake the other was baking, but they both knew Kim had never had a Barbie cake as a kid and always wanted one. “I went with an elegant Barbie who seemed to be headed off to a Champagne soiree,” explained François. Nguyen’s cake found inspiration closer to the coast: With a crop top and pink ruffles that “looked ready for a bonfire on the beach,” surfside party Barbie was her alter ego of choice. “That’s the beauty of Barbie,” François says. “She can be anything we want her to be.”
Once Barbie arrived in the toy aisle, it didn’t take long for someone to take her out of the box and stick her feet-first into a cake. Doll cakes, made with real dolls and cake skirts, were already a popular choice for children and young women. The Twentieth Century Cook Book, published in 1914 by the Twentieth Century Club of Berkeley, contains a recipe for “A Child’s Birthday Cake” made with a gem pan (a cast-iron precursor to the cupcake tin) and tiny, cheap dolls poked into the tops of each little cake.
Doll cakes consistently appeared in the women’s pages of newspapers, in cookbooks, and in cake decorating texts over the next several decades. My grandmother’s Wilton dome cake pan, designed for making doll cakes, debuted in the 1970s. This led to the popularity of doll picks, half-sized dolls from just the waist up with a sharp pick at the bottom to stick in the top of a dome cake without a hole. But Barbie, in her seemingly exponential popularity, became so synonymous with dolls that, eventually, any doll shoved into layers of sponge and buttercream was going to be called a Barbie.
Starting in the late 1980s, Wilton cake pans, a then-60-something-year-old beloved American cake decorating and bakeware company based out of Illinois, also added Barbie to its collection of trademarked novelty pans. While many bakers, especially those adept at carving layer cakes, used a combination of multipurpose pans and bowls to achieve Barbie’s bell-shaped skirt, others needed something simpler for their Barbie-themed parties. Wilton’s flat-lay novelty pans were the key.
There was the 1986 Barbie Waving Cake Pan, which included a “time-saving face-maker” painted plastic mask that you simply laid on top of the cake. Frosting bangs, made with a few swooshes of Lemon Yellow tinted buttercream in Wilton piping tip 21, brought Barbie to life. The 1992 Beautiful Day pan could be decorated with a big pink ball gown or a frilly white wedding dress; an updated 1995 version of the pan included a plastic lay-on with legs and instructions to turn the large gown-shaped cake into a springtime garden or a beach scene. Another 1997 pan encouraged you to frost Barbie as a ballerina, a cheerleader, or fancy dress birthday girl, while a 2000 pan featured Barbie as a princess.
In 1999, acknowledging the ongoing popularity of Barbie cakes of all types, Mattel debuted the Barbie Celebration “Cake,” a toy that included a doll in a short, sparkly dress, stackable plastic cake layers, piping tips, and two tubes of real pink and purple frosting, plus sprinkles. The kit only included enough frosting for one “cake,” but the plastic layers were dishwasher safe, meaning you could have many more hours of fun (so long as you could convince your mom to buy you more tubes of frosting at the grocery store).
The doll’s prominence in the 1990s, especially for girls, helped popularize Barbie as the ultimate novelty party theme, and the cakes became a category all their own. Across the nation, bakeries advertised Barbie cakes alongside birthday cakes and wedding cakes. The grande dame of themed parties, Martha Stewart, even made a Barbie cake on an episode of Martha Stewart Living in 1998. After setting an elaborate pink party table, Stewart and her hair colorist (the mother of the episode’s birthday girl) demonstrate how to make the Barbie doll cake. Together they wrap naked Barbie dolls in plastic wrap, protecting her body and blonde hair from the oncoming buttercream, and assemble towering layers out of angel food cakes (handy due to the preexisting hole). They cover the cakes in Swiss meringue buttercream, and Stewart asks the tiny blonde birthday girl, “Would you like to put some dragees on my cake?” The kid asks for star sprinkles instead.
The 1990s, a decade that saw record numbers of women in the workplace and a third wave of feminism, were a turning point for Barbie, who was marketed with the slogan “We Girls Can Do Anything.” But the brand was often criticized for promoting unrealistic body standards and gender norms. In response to these critiques, demand for Barbie dolls and Barbie cakes dropped significantly towards the end of the decade, and Mattel was forced to rethink the brand’s outdated 40-year approach to female empowerment. And while Barbie has since been adopted by diverse communities beyond her original target audience — as the now doll comes in a variety of body sizes, represents multiple ethnicities, and sometimes comes with accessories like a prosthetic leg and hearing aids — on the whole, the traditional Barbie cake aligns with the stereotypical gendering of the original doll.
In her book, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, M.G. Lord argues that Barbie exists as an “emblem” of femininity (albeit a white, cis, privileged version of it). In cake form, this femininity is performed through the stacked and heavily frosted layers of her skirt-shaped cake. You can’t make a Barbie cake with pants. I asked my grandma; that cake would barely feed a party of four. But as bakers of today make their first Barbie cakes, they’re using Barbie’s skirt as a vehicle for nostalgia, yes, but also as a (tasty) medium for individualized self expression. A TikTok of a purple-hued Barbie cake with messy violet hair and fuchsia orchids baked by LA-based baker Kassie Mendieta for an LGBTQ customer garnered over 500,000 views. In March, Josué (The Cake Guy) Luciano decorated a rainbow drag queen Ken cake for a client. And just last week, Joelle Park from BuzzFeed’s Tasty posted a video of an “iconic ’90s Barbie Cake that is perfect for Barbiecore summer,” inspired by the cakes she used to see in the Costco bakery.
As a short, plus-sized, ginger kid, I simply didn’t think that a representative Barbie cake was in the stars for me, let alone for any of my more underrepresented peers. So naturally, I never really appreciated them, even as my grandmother baked Barbie cakes and brought us dolls at every holiday.
But since the start of this Hot Pink Summer, I’ve come to realize that the fervor around Barbie is due to more than the nostalgia inherent in the movie: Barbie has garnered legions of fans for her ability to reinvent herself as whatever it is we want her to be, whether that’s a princess, a blue-haired scientist in a lab coat, or simply a beautiful woman with a skirt made out of cake. And as fans plan their Barbie-themed outfits for the movie’s debut, I’ll be studying the 2002 Wilton Cake Decorating Yearbook my grandmother mailed me last week, celebrating Barbie’s progress with my very own Barbie cake.
KC Hysmith, PhD, is a food scholar who writes about food history, gender, and digital media.