Mannequins as Muses

The tall, slim, faceless or headless white mannequins found in most store windows are not selling reality and that has spurred on a trend for more realistic mannequins – perhaps too realistic if American Apparel is indicative of the trend.

A recent Swiss campaign to bring awareness to and acceptance of people with disabilities has been using mannequins simulating disfiguring ailments to display clothes in high fashion stores. But in a different take on reality, American Apparel in New York City pushed the line of vulgarity this month by displaying transparent lingerie on mannequins with a ‘natural’ look. And according to an  Associated Press article other mannequin features in the near future may include tattoos, back fat, and less than perky breasts.

That same article referenced a recent study that showed 42% of customers are influenced in their purchases by what is being worn by mannequins. This can’t be any truer for Steve Venegas who for the last 5 years has been photographing himself in the same clothes as Gap mannequins and blogging the results.

Until the 1900s, full body mannequins were rare but the earliest examples aimed for realism. The bust and arms were modelled of wax and featured real hair and porcelain teeth. Cheaper and sturdier plaster mannequins became common in the 1920s and featured Deco make-up styles and molded hair.

The problem with realistic mannequins is that contemporary features and hairstyles meant mannequins had a short ‘best before’ date for high fashion shops. Its no wonder then that amorphic or headless styles became popular in the 1980s. The Schlappi mannequin, created in 1975, is still a standard used by many museums for post 1920 clothing displays because the model doesn’t reference any particular era. The only problem with Schlappis, and similar looking mannequins used by museums, is that they really only work as a way of presenting historical fashions as art.

Added February 6: I just found this great article about mannequins

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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