A Barbie Girl in a Barbie World?

Author, host of @dressfancypodcast, and vintage fashion collector Lucy Clayton on the joy of dressing up and her newfound love of Barbie

It’s hard to think of anyone who loves dress up more than Lucy Clayton, the powerhouse behind the popular DRESS: FANCY podcast series for which she recently interviewed the original Barbie costume designer Carol Spencer. Her inspiring TED talk on ‘The True Power of a Good Outfit’ has had over 84,000 views.

Lucy previously worked with designer Patrick Grant as a CEO of Community Clothing, a social enterprise with a mission to create jobs in the UK garment industry. In 2020 she published a book, ‘How to Go to Work’ (Penguin). She lives in London, UK, with her partner, son Kit and daughter Bunny.

Tell us about your recent interview with Barbie fashion designer Carol Spencer

She was such an inspiration to me. She designed Barbie’s wardrobe for 35 years and when I asked her if she ever ran out of ideas, she simply said, ‘I live close to inspiration’ and I think that’s probably the best life advice I’ve ever heard.

I wanted to do an episode (listen here) on Barbie in anticipation of the Greta Gerwig movie coming out this summer so interviewing Carol was perfect because her perspective is so fascinating. I adore hearing particularly from female creatives from a different generation because their wisdom can really illuminate things – she made me think hard about the relationship between design for children and imaginative play. And I found her deeply impressive, thoughtful and hilarious. We’re going to do a follow up episode after the film is released, where we dissect the costumes together (I feel confident Carol will approve because Jacqueline Durran is in my top three costume designers of all time, so Barbie is in safe hands!).

How about your own interest in Barbie?

I was never allowed a Barbie growing up, my parents did not consider her a suitable role model. That completely backfired because my look today is very shiny ballgown, massive blonde hair! I think I own about 25 tiaras.

I can’t wait to see Gerwig’s interpretation – the trailer made me laugh out loud and I suspect the film will provoke a whole new wave of Barbie fans. It’s a clever way to make her relevant again.

How to throw the ultimate Barbie party?


When did your love of fancy dress/dressing up begin?

As a child I was obsessed with dressing up – I was always quite high concept and ambitious, even if I didn’t have very refined making skills. I loved coming up with ideas as much as executing them. I would dress my little sister in ballgowns made from binbags, I’d build crinolines out of rolls of paper and make decoupage corsets. To this day I am never happier than when conceiving a costume or working out how to produce it from the stuff I have lying about – I love the immediacy of fancy dress and being able to whip something up on a whim.

At home we had an epic dressing up box (sourced entirely from jumble sales by my mother), full of 1940’s beaded things and delicate drop waist chiffon cocktail dresses. There were a couple of wedding dresses in there which started my collection (I own about 40 vintage wedding dresses, it’s a major storage issue!). When I was too small to make my own things, my mother sewed us brilliant, eccentric versions of standard issue costumes (her specialities included a clown, Cleopatra, and a playful little carrot made from crepe paper).

When most people grow up and leave dressing up behind, I did the opposite with my own parties, the podcast and now with my long-suffering children. Whether it’s a Highland Fling in compulsory tartan, a Scoundrel’s Ball for Halloween or a Fairytale and Legends party, I fully commit! I suppose I’m now a world expert on this niche, glorious subject, which looking back, seems somehow inevitable.

Any key childhood memories regarding special outfits?

I love a theme – that’s always the starting point. Aged 11, I decided to throw a traditional fete for all the children on the street and I was ringmaster/race coordinator/face painter/hook a duck operator and, my favourite, a fortune teller. I vividly remember doing multiple costume changes and art directing every square inch for weeks beforehand. I made rosettes and there were officious but pretty painted signs everywhere. I wore a fringed embroidered headscarf (another jumble sale find) and had a goldfish bowl full of talcum powder for the crystal ball which I thought was very convincing. Everyone’s futures seemed a bit murky.

What gave you the inspiration to start your podcast series?

I had been CEO-ing a fashion brand and felt quite burnt out and in need of something that was creatively fulfilling and straightforwardly joyful – it’s useful to turn back to childhood passions when you feel like that. So DRESS:FANCY is a podcast about dressing up; it’s a celebration of moments in time where the clothes tell the story and it explores the idea that the clothes we wear shape our sense of self. It’s been running for several years and it’s in the top 1% of all podcasts – I’m lucky to have a community of listeners from all over the world who are loyal, enthusiastic, and creatively prolific themselves.

Talk us through some of the highlights of that series?

I’m privileged to work with amazing brands, writers, academics and designers and I love having the freedom to cover everything from World Book Day to the Claridge’s Christmas Tree (a highlight of the fashion calendar). Being able to indulge my passion for fashion history alongside commentating on contemporary fashion issues makes my heart sing – I can take listeners back in time to rock n’ roll parties held in 1970’s stately homes or to Regency-era picnics, and grapple with industry challenges like sustainability and cultural appropriation all in the same space.

There are certain stories that are so bonkers or surprising that I really immerse myself in research (modern mermaid communes springs to mind) or that are really moving (I made myself cry once in a recording about Victorian Christmases). And the podcast has been a platform for some wonderful experiences, such as leading a Georgian costume parade, live at the Royal Academy or doing my TED talk on costume as tool for political protest 'The True Power Of A Good Outfit.'

But mostly I just adore collaborating with people who share my love of dressing up in all its sequinned chaotic glory and I get to do that in every episode.

“I have a ten-year gap between my children so it does look like I had another baby at the exact moment my son lost interest in dressing up, just so I could carry on making things!”

Tell us about how you approach to dressing your own kids for events?

My poor children. I have a ten-year gap between them so it does look like I had another baby at the exact moment my son lost interest in dressing up, just so I could carry on making things! They have very different attitudes to it, my son was a reluctant but reliable collaborator, whereas Bunny (aged 2) has her own art directional ideas and is less keen on my vision or on standing still for the photograph. For 11 months she wore a Christmas Pudding hat 24/7 and that was a problem at various costumed events because I’d dress her and then she’d stuff it on her head as a final flourish, while I stood by weakly muttering, “But Bunny, that’s a different idea.”

Your greatest fancy dress feat/achievement?

World Book Day is my favourite day of the year. My friend, the children’s author & illustrator Alex T Smith says that my World Book Day is his Met Gala which is a huge compliment. Bunny has made the ‘Best Dressed’ lists every year and that’s a record I now feel pressure to uphold although no one else in the world cares!

My greatest costumes have probably been a painstaking recreation of Lady Wolverton’s Britannia from the Devonshire Ball of 1897 which I made for the Jubilee. Or Bunny’s Nativity Christmas Tree outfit, based on the gorgeous Meri Meri cape and worn with a Giambattista Valli-esque frock underneath. She didn’t sing a note in the concert, but the crowd went wild for the costume.

I should say I’ve had as many disasters as triumphs though. One Halloween, I commissioned a suit of armour for myself, got the measurements wrong and could not breathe all night – when I took it off, my ribcage was lacerated. And I ended up in A&E after an accident with a glue gun, trying to affix 100 copper coins onto a Roman Soldier costume.

Favourite dressing up moments in the year for you?

This summer, I am looking forward to Wilderness festival (they have multiple costume themes across a number of days so that’s a dream for me!). I’ll be wearing a combination of things I’ve made and quite a lot of Erdem adapted for the terrain! And I’m already scheming about Halloween, naturally…

Your approach to summer hosting/festival-going?

I enjoy planning all the details. We’re having an opening party for a doll’s house I’ve been working on for Bunny, so I sent invitations with miniature martini glasses. I’m hoping to host a puppy party for our new dog Dash and his gorgeous siblings. And then I’m building up to Bunny’s 3rd birthday in September, she’s having a Disco Tea Party with all her nursery classmates and we’ll have cake, dancing, and I’m going to try to make the ultimate “pass the parcel”.

Listen to Lucy’s recent podcast with Barbie designer Carol Spencer here.

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