History of Mannequins Tracks the Aesthetic Tyranny of Consumerism


Are mannequins just garment enhancers that let prospective consumers visualize what an outfit looks like on a human body, or are they creepy holdovers from the Egyptian aesthetes that first help shape the Western gaze? Both, of course — according to a recent overview of mannequin history in Collectors Weekly, the cold, creepy gaze of the human simulacrums we’ll be staring at in shop windows all through the holidays has a lot to tell us about the neverending duel between sexuality and modesty in fashion.

Collectors Weekly‘s Hunter Oatman-Stanford begins his mannequin history lesson in grand style, giving Lester Gaba’s famous “Cynthia” mannequin from 1937 no less illustrious a pedigree than as a great-great-great-great-great-great [takes breath, dabs forehead]…great granddaughter of King Tut, in other words, a “descendant of a long line of mannequins, whose idealized bodies gave shape to our materialist fantasies at least since the time of the Egyptians.” (Somewhere, surrounded by statues of Apollo and Dionysius masturbating, Camille Paglia is nodding vigorously.)

The retail mannequins spawned by the mass-produced garment excesses of the Industrial Revolution may have originated as ancient Egyptian coat hangers for deceased nobility, but their purpose changes dramatically when ordinary people, thanks to the miracle of mass production, start purchasing clothes from stores instead of weaving them from sheep dandruff and hemp. Mannequins in the 19th century were still pretty uninspired, being basically just “headless bodies made from wood, leather, wire, and papier-mâché mounted onto heavy iron bases,” but things started to change when the Paris-based manufacturer La Vigne started offering mannequins with faces (the early face mannequins were fairly high on creep — they had glass eyes and, often, human hair).

This watershed moment of mannequin realism is when modern mannequins start to reflect cultural attitudes and fashion industry dictates about the way women ought to look. Interestingly, according to Marsha Bentley Hale, who holds the distinction of being “one of the world’s foremost mannequin experts,” lady-shaped mannequins undergo distinct transformation according to the times, with mannequins of the 19th century being tiny-waisted and mannequins closer to World War II having broad shoulders:

With the shift to full-fledged human figures, mannequins immediately began to reinforce social norms and ideals. “The mannequin figure itself has so much meaning to it,” says Hale. “At the turn of the 19th century, you had bustier mannequins with tiny waists. Suddenly, going into the teens, they got a little more slender. Close to World War II, female mannequins had these broad shoulders. After World War II ended and the soldiers were coming home, all of a sudden the female mannequins were very voluptuous, almost like sirens calling them home.”
Like the larger fashion industry, mannequin design echoes seasonal styles that come and go, both in regard to technological improvements and the way we view our bodies. “It’s often the body attitudes and facial expressions that reflect what’s going on socially,” says Hale. Accordingly, the stiff, unnatural bodies of early mannequins were well-matched for the Victorian Era’s restrictive ideas about women’s rights and fashions, which dictated they wear many layers of heavy fabric over tight-fitting corsets.

Mannequin history is peppered with concerted attempts at greater mannequin modesty (the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, for instance, began a push to stop the spread (tee-hee-hee) of “vulgar mannequins). Wizard of Oz writer L. Frank Baum held the opposite opinion about the ideal (read: most commercially effective) mannequin appearance, explaining that lady mannequins needed a “very low neckline” if stores were really serious about selling dresses.

Baum’s mannequin aesthetics point to a distasteful recurring theme in the history of retail mannequins: the hijacking of the human body in the name of commercialism. Mannequins may reflect cultural attitudes during a certain point in history, but they’re created for the purpose of making clothes seem as appealing as possible; they are the way people who make and sell clothes want people who buy and wear clothes to see themselves. In a way, retail mannequins represent the ultimate dream of consumerist culture — a world in which cold, lifeless people are simply trying to drape themselves in the raiments of their race, profession, class status, or jawline, whatever admakers and window dressers insist they should wear. That’s why this Mad Men poster is so astute:

It’s also why naked mannequins seem so sad/creepy. They’re not riding on the great merry go-round of consumerism, so they serve no purpose other than to allude to the inherent purposelessness consumerism ascribes to real human people who don’t (or can’t) consume.

h/t: Boing Boing

Image via Getty

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