The history of mannequins — why they were created, how they have evolved over the years, how they mirror what is happening in society — is fascinating.
Back in 1991 The Smithsonian magazine published a very detailed article about the history of mannequins. It was written by Per Ola & Emily d’Aulaire and below is the reprint.
After you read this article, if you are still curious about mannequins, we invite you to visit our Pinterest boards which feature various ways that mannequins are used for fun and for commerce. And if you need to purchase a new or used mannequin, please visit our website.
Mannequins have fascinated mankind for centuries. Indeed, these glorified coat hangars have a genealogy that goes back to ancient times.
When Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb in 1923, he discovered an armless, legless, wooden torso, made exactly to the pharaoh’s measurements, standing next to the chest that held the ruler’s clothing.
Dating from 1350 B.C., it may have been the world’s first dress form. Nero’s wife had an inanimate surrogate modeled in her own image to help her review her clothing choices.
“People have always loved fantasy versions of the human figure,” says Michael Southgate, Creative Director of Adel Rootstein Display Mannequins of London and New York. “We’re brainwashed this way from early childhood with dolls and toy soldiers.”
Though “fake people” have come in various guises over the years — children’s toys, artists’ lay figures, wax effigies, tailors’ dummies — the European fashion doll is actually the progenitor of the modern mannequin.
The dolls, ranging from a little over a foot tall to life-sized, with torsos of wax and wood and porcelain faces, were stylishly clothed and sent abroad to spread news of the latest modes from country to country.
So popular were the little ambassadors of fashion and good will that they received safe passage across borders even during times of war.
In 1391, Charles IV of Spain shipped a life-sized doll dressed in the style of the French court to the Queen of England as part of ongoing peace negotiations. Henry IV dispatched miniature, elegantly-attired dolls to the de Medici women to update them on British trends.
And Marie Antoinette kept her mother and sisters apprised of the latest vogues at Versailles with the elaborately clothed figures she regularly sent them.
After the French revolution, however, it wasn’t only Marie who had lost her head. Fashion dolls were replaced by drawings and by utilitarian dress forms made of wire, leather and wicker. These were often headless: padded coat hangars that displayed the clothes with about as much personality as a doorknob.
With their keen appreciation for style, however, the French regained their senses in time to introduce the first full-bodied mannequin in 1870.
It was no accident that the event coincided with the Industrial Revolution: the time when American craftsmen perfected the manufacture of large, plate glass windows, when sewing machines were invented, and when cities began to electrify.
With the new lighting and large expanses of glass, a succession of stages had been created on the city streets of Europe and America. The men and women who strolled the boulevards were the audience; all that was needed were players. Enter, stage left: the mannequin.
Such was the allure of the then-wax figures that window shopping quickly became a form of entertainment; millions came to stare at a make believe world frozen in place.
The female mannequins that stared back at them in those early days were big-busted heroines in three basic poses: left foot forward, right foot forward or both feet together. They cost $15 apiece, a tidy sum at the time, but worth it. Business boomed.
And as retailers prospered, so did the display industry. L. Frank Baum, who went on to create the immortal Oz books, was fascinated with the field. He got his start in 1898 as editor of the first trade magazine on show windows and two years later he wrote a book on the subject.
In it he discussed the importance of mannequins to attract customers to the store’s goods. “Without such displays,” he wrote, “the merchant sinks into oblivion. The busy world forgets him and he is left to himself, to rust, vegetate or to fail ignominiously” — the same obstacles the Tin Woodsman, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion would later face in “The Wizard of Oz”.
Indeed, Baum’s principal characters in the book could have sprung straight from the turn-of-the-century, midwestern store windows he was so familiar with. Depending on a merchant’s budget, display dummies of the time were made of everything from wax, to hemp rope, to straw or sheet metal.
The most realistic mannequins of Baum’s era were those of wax and like today’s mannequins, they mirrored the times. Though their false teeth, glass eyes and real hair, implanted with warm needles a strand at a time, had a definite taxidermist’s air about them, they sported the full bosoms and broad beams of the gay ’90s woman.
Waists were wasp thin, not surprising at a time when women were willing to suffer for their beauty to the point of having their lowest ribs surgically removed to achieve an appropriately modified midriff. At least for the mannequins it was painless.
As well as tight-laced times, those were straight-laced times. When one store featured a mannequin modeling a corset, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) sprang into action. Never mind that the mannequin, dubbed Miss Modesty, held her hands apologetically over her face as if warding off the stares of shocked onlookers.
The WCTU watchdogs declared all mannequins vulgar and lobbied hard to banish them. Although less successful in this arena than in promoting prohibition, the WCTU did manage to score a minor victory.
Thanks to its efforts, some cities passed laws that forbade dressing or undressing mannequins without first discreetly covering the store windows, laws that remained in effect until the sexually permissive 1960′s.
The display dummies of earlier days had other problems than censorship, however. With feet of iron to keep them upright, legs and arms of dense wood, torsos and heads of solid wax, they were clumsy and heavy, weighing 300 pounds or more. They broke easily, were hard keep clean — and worst of all, they melted.
Wrote one window dresser, “On extremely hot days, an otherwise dignified young lady would start drooping around the waistline; her arms, usually held in that vague air of supplication, would listlessly drop to her sides while her mouth fell open.” Though electrification of store windows had been a boon to the mannequin business, as wattage increased, so did meltdown.
One pre-prohibition window featured mannequins arranged as if at a small dinner party. The “hostess” held a glass of wine in her hands, frozen in a toast. The window dresser was so pleased that he went home early that night.
When he noticed a crowd gathered around his display the next morning, he was sure it was in admiration of his work. Proudly pushing his way through the assemblage he was shocked to see that his hostess had softened shamefully under the heat of the lamps.
She was slumped over the table, her mouth sagging, the spilled wine glass still clutched in her now limp hand. The “morning after” scene hardly conveyed the congenial atmosphere the designer had intended — and was unlikely to sell the wine-stained apparel.
World War I brought enormous social change to the country and mannequins were quick to reflect it. Women, working by necessity, shed their hats and unlaced their corsets. Clothing revealed the unheard of: legs — even knees.
Bust lines turned modishly flat, yet sinuousness crept in. The stiff, formal mannequin poses of the turn of the century gave way to a sprightlier attitude.
Then the twenties roared in and in spite of Prohibition, or more likely because of it, so did a studied debauched air. Says Robert Hoskins, Assistant Professor at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), “Mannequins tended to look a little tired-eyed during Prohibition, as if to say, we know where the speak-easies are. I’m still having fun.”
Some of the mannequins at this time were abstract, graced with a Modigliani look that reflected the Art Deco style of the era — a new look that was made easier by the introduction of papier mache mannequins by the French company, Siegel & Stockman.
The material, quickly adopted by U.S. manufacturers, allowed the fashion figures to shed a good 100 pounds — and made them heat resistant to boot. On the down side, however, papier mache shrank, and should a storeroom flood, any mannequins below the high water mark dissolved into a mass of soggy mush.
It was about that time that department store dummies attained the title mannequin, from the meaning little man — though from the start men mannequins have been thorns in the side of the business. “Males have always been difficult,” says Michael Southgate. “You can show a store a hundred females and six males and the males will be the ones to give you trouble.
When a new batch of females arrives, nobody makes waves. But when the men go in, everybody has something to say about them, from the store president to the guy who runs the elevator: ‘This one looks like a sissy; that one’s hair is too long; why are his hands on his hips; looks like he’s wearing lipstick.’”
The obvious reason, says Southgate, is that people are conditioned to seeing glamorous and made-up women, while for men those things are taboo. Mannequins by their very nature tend to look too pretty, too perfect, and attaining a truly masculine edge is difficult.
“Even when you do get a male mannequin with the right look,” says Southgate, “you’ve got to reassure the male customer with tweeds and natural wood and nice masculine elements all around the display.”
Some manufacturers avoid the masculinity problem by producing male mannequins that are abstract, or even completely headless. Ralph Pucci, owner of New York’s Pucci Mannequins, has faced the problem by going to extreme efforts to produce the archetypical he-man.
Recently he commissioned artist Lowell Nesbitt to design a collection of store figures, based on Greek and Roman heroic sculpture, that would reflect the athletic male of the ’90s. Larger-than-life with the musculature of Arnold Schwartzenegger, the fiberglass mannequins look like marble that has been weathered in a distant piazza for a century or so, and would be as at home in a museum as in a department store.
“Getting people to identify with mannequins has always been paramount,” says FIT’s Hoskins. “They must convey idealized images of ourselves, what we aspire to rather than what we actually are.”
During the Depression, for example, it was desirable for a mannequin to appear affluent and well fed, like the buxom Bertille, created by Dutch artist and mannequin maker Pierre Imans. Though stout beyond doubt, Bertille radiated elegance and looked far from hungry in the size 18 dresses she displayed.
Today, when less is more, mannequins still represent the ideal, for the same reason that so many people buy diet books. Although 64% of women in this country wear size 14 and above, mannequins are said to represent the “optimal” size eight, and are actually often closer to a size six.
Hot on Bertille’s heels came Cynthia, created in New York by Lester Gaba, soap sculptor turned mannequin artist who took his inspiration from the wealthy socialites of the day. Cynthia so enchanted her creator that he took her home.
Soon the odd couple was seen at the Stork Club, riding a city bus, in a box at the opera. In her perpetual seated pose, elbow on knee, cigarette in hand, Cynthia became an overnight hit. Couturiers sent her clothes. Cartier and Tiffany lent her jewels.
The ultimate tribute came when Life Magazine hired the famous photographer, Eisenstadt, to document the couple. Cameras clicked as, escorted by four armed detectives, Gaba and Cynthia attended a formal ball.
Reason for the security: the $5 million Star of the East diamond that dangled from Cynthia’s perfectly sculpted neck. Says Gaba of his silent sweetheart’s popularity, “It was because she was a mystery, a woman who never opened her mouth.”
Indeed, Cynthia did keep her mouth tactfully sealed, yet she had another fatal flaw. Paper mache mannequins had by then yielded to plaster figures, which though waterproof, were dangerously brittle. Like Humpty Dumpty, Cynthia met her demise when she slipped from a chair in a beauty salon and shattered into a thousand pieces.
With World War II the country changed again, and mannequins with it. Troops were fighting and dying abroad and the store window ladies became subdued. Somber clothing replaced bright colors. Expressions were serious, eyes downcast. While modeling the restrained fashions, wartime mannequins did patriotic double duty, clutching placards that promoted War Bonds and the Red Cross.
When the forces returned from overseas, smiles instantly reappeared on the mannequins’ faces. They were radiant — and noticeably voluptuous. Says mannequin buff Marsha Bentley Hale of Manhattan Beach, CA, who has made a twelve year study of the creatures, “It’s almost as if they were saying, “Our men are back. Let’s catch them while we can.”
Simultaneously, male mannequins, whose dandy-like, stiff, looks were conspicuously absent during the war, returned with a comfortable “father knows best” air about them. They wore tweed jackets and relaxed genial grins on rough-textured faces.
Although plastic is still popular with some manufacturers, others prefer fiberglass, a material as tough as a yacht’s hull that can be sanded as smooth as a block of hardwood. But environmentalists worry about the effects of fiberglass particles in the air, particularly at the factories where mannequins are stamped out from molds, hundreds at a time, such as at Greneker’s huge Los Angeles plant.
Spray painting adds to the on-the-job hazard, emitting a barrage of hazardous fumes. Workers wear breathing masks, and are under constant OSHA surveillance, but still there are concerns. “The air emissions people are always coming in here and doing tests,” says Ralph Pucci whose mannequins are produced in a 25,000-square-foot loft that smells like an auto body shop, adjoining his Manhattan showroom.
At Rootstein’s 70,000-square-foot Brooklyn facility, workers turn out 24,000 fiberglass figures a year. Each sander has a small vacuum cleaner on the table beside him. In addition, large exhaust fans, their filters changed three times a week, work round the clock to minimize the danger to workers. “The fans are so powerful,” says factory manager Joe Garcia, “that some days I swear we pull the smog from Denver all the way through here.”
Adel Rootstein, a leading manufacturer, burst on the scene in the early ’60s with a now-famous Twiggy mannequin. It was a serendipitous match. Rootstein became well-known thanks to the success of the Twiggy mannequin, and the mannequin with its large eyes, long lashes and near-anorexic body helped make the real Twiggy one of the most famous models in history.
Rootstein, who breathed life in the industry at a time when stores were turning from mannequins to more static fixtures for showing off their clothes, went on to produce one of the first ethnic figures, a black model named Luna. Says Hale, “Adel endowed her figures with personality, made them laugh and gave them character.”
She also helped set the trends for the ensuing decades: the liberated, bra-less look of the 70′s; the dont-mess-with-me, fist-clenching feminism of the 80′s; and the somewhat softened, realistic look of the 90′s mannequin.
Indeed, today’s mannequins are neither as harshly angular as those of feminist era nor as bony as Twiggy. James Damien of Hindsgaul sees the present decade as one of romance, a time for rekindling things put on the back burner in the 70s and 80s. “It’s okay to fall in love again,” he says. “We want our mannequins to show that.”
Rootstein’s Southgate thinks today’s concern with health and fitness will also continue to be important, as well as more freedom of choice. “People are more independent-minded these days. The fashion industry can no longer dictate, only lead by example.”
The mannequins that broadcast these examples start their lives in an artist’s studio as clay sculpture. Some artists prefer to work from life; others rely on invention. Says Andre Bardax of John Nissen Mannequins of Belgium, “We design our mannequins according to what we think is the ideal.”
John Bates, who sculpts mannequins for the English firm Gemini, also prefers the freedom of imagination. “An idea drops out of the sky,” he says. “You see a picture in a magazine, a movie, a girl in a cafe; something happens inside your head and you think, ‘That’s it.’”
But many mannequin artists argue the importance of modeling from real life. “When you make up the human form,” asserts Tanya Ragir, a Los Angeles artist who sculpts mannequins to support the fine arts side of her vocation, “they look just that: made up. With a live model the anatomy is authentic. There’s a sense of movement, a feeling that someone is really there.”
Cyril Peck, an ex-patriate American sculptor in Paris who uses live models for the mannequins he creates for Hindsgaul agrees: “When you see one of my mannequins, you know she’s not from auto parts. You know she’s been touched by the human hand and interpreted by human feelings.”
Ragir, who creates for Patina V has, by her reckoning, as least “100 bodies” to her credit. “I’m always watching how people move, on the lookout for the right attitude for the line of clothes we’re working on. I’ve gone up to people on the street or in my sports club and said, ‘You have a great body. Will you pose as a mannequin for me? It helps that I have a business card,” she adds with a grin, “and that I’m a woman.”
Tanya found Kate Mitchell, an aspiring actress and one of her newest models, in a dance class. It was Kate’s first mannequin job and she was delighted. “I like the fact that I’ll be immortalized in shops,” she says. “It’ll be fascinating to see a hunk of fiberglass that’s me.”
Kate is larger than the models Tanya worked with when she began twelve years ago, and more athletic. “My models have added inches over the years,” the sculptress says, massaging and molding the clay on the emerging sculpture. “The anorexic look is gone; health and fitness are in.” Indeed, the body that was taking shape — Kate’s body — was both athletic and vibrant, yet feminine and supple. It was to be the depiction of a body beautiful, and a body in shape.
Tanya will spend more than twenty hours with Kate before the sculpting is complete. Though she’s proud of her mannequins, her first love is producing fine art. The reason, she explains, is that with mannequins, the creativity– and the reputation — goes to the window dresser. “We make the mannequins,” she claims. “They make the statements. My real artistic satisfaction comes from my non-commercial work.”
Others argue that mannequins at Cyril Peck is one of those. “Since so few people go into art galleries these days, by sculpting mannequins, I’m bringing more of my work before the people than I could in any other way.” he declares. “As an artist, that’s my ultimate responsibility. The department store is the museum of the future. My destiny is to take fine art to the windows.”
Though the concept of mannequins as art is debatable, the craftsmanship behind modern mannequins is not. The creation of a mannequin is much like the creation of any fine sculpture. When Tanya Ragir has finished sculpting Kate, mold makers will pull a plaster waste mold from the original clay. From that, they cast a fiberglass prototype which is then cut at the arms, hip and at one leg so it can be removed for ease of dressing.
Next, fiberglass production molds are be made of the individual parts that split along the sides, like clamshells. From the master molds, duplicate molds are sent to the factory for production. Every detail from Tanya’s original clay sculpture, down to the last thumbprint, will be transferred to the final fiberglass figures.
All told, there are about 200 mannequin manufacturers, worldwide. The leaders come out with a new line of mannequins — from six to twelve new poses — twice a year. They cost on average $875 each and despite Kate’s quest for immortality, have life spans of about seven years.
Superannuated store mannequins are demoted, moved from the windows to the inside floors and, finally to the bargain basement. Ultimately, the day comes when they are hopelessly out of date or damaged beyond repair. Opinions vary as to what happens then.
Marsha Hale, of course, would like the cast-off figures to be part of her collection. John Bates of Gemini speculates that they disappear into the Bermuda Triangle. Gerald Decter is more realistic. “I suppose,” he says, “they eventually end up in the dump.” Mannequin liquidators, like Mannequin Madness, pioneered the idea of recycling mannequins from retail stores and reselling these used mannequins at discount prices.
Their replacements make their debuts at “market week” sponsored by the National Association for Display Industries (NADI) each December and May in Manhattan. At that time, hundreds of buyers representing retail stores on every continent descend on the city, checkbooks in hand, to mull over the latest in mannequin mania.
Most of the major manufacturers, whether American or European, have showrooms located in the lower west side of Manhattan. Chartered busses shuttle the mannequin mavens from one display house to another.
The trendy studios and airy lofts look like crosses between a new car dealership and an art gallery. Prospective buyers wandering among mannequins posed in eye-catching outfits, are attended by tuxedo-clad waiters who proffer champagne and hors d’oeuvres to the beat of disco music. Should a visitor venture into one of the showrooms at lunch time during market week, no problem. Tables are laden with delicacies: smoked salmon, filet mignon, fresh raspberries — all washed down with the finest of wines and imported mineral waters.
Says FIT’s Hoskins, “Millions of dollars are spent during market week — the food, the drinks, the schmooze. This is when the sales are made that will determine business for the next six months.” No wonder they go all-out. The business is estimated to be worth $1.4 billion a year.
What the buyers are looking for as they eat and drink their way from one showroom to another are mannequins with the right “attitude.” It’s a word frequently used in the business, and it sums up a mannequin’s look: her pose, her mood, the message she sends to the public about the clothes she’s wearing and the store she’s in. It’s the mannequin expert’s term for gestalt, and a buyer wants to make sure that gestalt is just right.
In the most recent market week, there were more ethnic mannequins than in the past — Blacks, Asians, Hispanics. And, like the population around them, some models were more mature. Rootstein mannequins offers “Mr. and Mrs. Lewis,” a couple in their fifties who represent what Southgate refers to as the Woopies: Well-Off-Older-People.
Robert Filoso, owner/sculptor of Filoso Mannequins in Los Angeles, has acknowledged what he calls the “graying of America” with Gloria, a “fifty-something” mannequin. Remarks Filoso, who labels himself the Michaelangelo of Mannequins: “The baby boomers are heading into their forties and fifties and mannequins have to reflect that. The days of thinking a woman is grandmotherly or matronly just because she’s fifty are gone.”
Gloria, who was sculpted from a real-life 58-year-old, is definitely more glamorous than grandmotherly. She is, in fact, gorgeous, and looks at least ten years younger than her near-sixty years. Her figure is also beyond reproach — perhaps, as Filoso confessed, because a different woman, one in her twenties, posed for the body. “There was nothing wrong with the real Gloria,” he protests, “except that she was too petite.”
Regardless, older mannequins, even glamorous ones, are still the exception, even at Filoso’s where most of Gloria’s mannequin friends are all a good 15 years younger than she is. Mannequins are, as always, a reflection of the ideal, not how we are but how we’d like to be — and it seems we’re not entirely ready for that graying. Says Ralph Pucci, “Glamour and youth are still what sells.”