Laurie Toby Edison

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The Meaning Behind the Mannequins

Lynne Murray says:

Debbie pointed out this Washington Post blog by Delia Lloyd about “plus-sized” Swedish department store mannequins and the storm of interest in them:

Let’s face it. Part of the mannequins’ viral appeal was no doubt the illusion that they came from Sweden, that Nordic bastion of pushing-the-envelope cultural fare that brought us the likes of Ikea and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” We all secretly want to take our lifestyle cues from Sweden. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.)

But the excitement and interest generated by the mannequins run much deeper than that. “Call it a hunch, but I think we could have quite a discussion here,” wrote the popular syndicated columnist Connie Schultz on her Facebook page, where I first viewed the image. Which is clearly what Women’s Right’s News was after in posting the photos: “Store mannequins in Sweden. They look like real women. The US should invest in some of these,” read the caption.

An in-your-face message about the need to project more realistic, healthy body images to women and girls might easily have been lost, had the appetite (no pun intended) to hear it not run so deep. But it’s an encouraging sign of the times that we’re beginning to push back against the anorexic ideal that is so deeply embedded in our commercial and cultural aesthetic.

(By the way, there’s been some confusion about the truth of this story. Now that the dust has settled, the basic facts are known to be correct.)

In the emotionally fraught War on All Things Fat, any pushback against fat hatred, such as a suggestion that fat people might deserve to know what clothing might look like on their actual bodies is met with hysterical opposition.

Ragen on Dances with Fat notes that the Swedish mannequins

… have started a crapstorm of people falling all over each other to wring their hands and shriek about “promoting obesity”.

… Where is there good research to suggest  mannequins in a size 8 somehow cause people to become larger?  How is it logical that fat people will become happier, healthier and thinner as long as they never see people or inanimate objects who look like them?  Basically this entire idea – that the best thing we can do for fat people is purposefully create a world without positive representations of them –  is an unsubstantiated claim rooted in size bigotry.

Even if this research existed, the idea would still be problematic – is it ethical to try to make people healthier by creating a world that is designed to make them hate themselves and feel hopeless about their future unless they are able to change their body size? Then, of course, there is the added layer of the fact that the vast majority of those who try to change their body size fail? Among those who succeed, even if their physical health was better, would their mental health ever recover?

This is why I think it’s so important that we put representations of ourselves out there using the means that we have at our disposal – Facebook, blogs, forums, media appearances, wherever we can get ourselves out there.  It can also be extremely affirming to look at images of people who look like us to remember that what we are spoon-fed by the media is a stereotype of beauty that is artificially narrow and limited and, thanks to digital retouching, is unattainable by everyone – often including the people in the pictures.

Mannequins began as made-to-measurements dress forms to ensure that the clothing of the rich and royal fit well. One was found in King Tut’s tomb next to a chest full of clothes. sent around among Renaissance nobles sent around “fashion dolls” to share the latest courtly clothing trends.

On Displayarama, a site that sells mannequins, Jodie Deen describes the transition to mannequins as a sales tool and window display art form:

Wickerwork mannequins were certainly around in the late 1700s and were probably filled with stuffing and leather. Wire-framed versions came into existence in 1835 but mannequins were still not in use for store display. The invention of plate glass, the filament lamp and the sewing machine were the catalysts that put mannequins in the store.

…The advent of the department store with its large show windows, behind which mannequins bearing the latest fashions could be admired by the crowds, encouraged window trimmers to be artistic as well as practical. Mannequins slowly developed from being just a simple prop to display the merchandise towards a more realistic form. Mannequins with glass eyes, real hair and facial expressions began to appear.

Modern mannequins both reflect cultural trends and create impossible body types to display the clothing in an eye-catching way that brings people into the store as Tove Hermanson discusses at The Huffington Post:

The 1970s saw more ethnic diversity in mannequins; Decter of Los Angeles presented its Reflections VII collection with Asian and Black mannequins “walking” arm in arm. There was greater attention to anatomical accuracy too, specifically nipples. As short and mod ’60s fashions evolved to the long, flowing, backless or see-through styles of the ’70s, structured bras were worn less by live women and mannequin nipples more realistically displayed these braless styles. Capitalizing on the “natural” look, VIVA Lingerie even had a nipple bra that had padded nipples with the “support you want” (hilarious!).

In the same vein of growing skin exposure, as the fashionable waist was lowered from the natural waistline to the hipline, the torso joint of mannequins’ upper and lower halves was likewise lowered, to display bikinis without the distracting visible split line.

Mannequinexperts.com tells us that “Plus-Size” Mannequins available in the US are usually size 14, versus the “standard” size 4 or 6–note that the average American woman wears a size 14. You can sometimes find size 18 mannequins on EBay, although not as beautifully molded as the Swedish models.

I find it most interesting that the dressmakers’ form, a tool to provide a better fit for made-to-measure clothing, has evolved into a standardized model designed to flatter clothing, almost completely disregarding the actual sizes of customers, let alone the variety of shapes that fall within the range of a single clothing size. In the modern fashion ideal, shoppers are expected to change their bodies to fit the clothing.

2 Responses to “The Meaning Behind the Mannequins”

  1. Sue Trowbridge says:

    Last summer, TLC aired a show called Big Brooklyn Style about a clothing boutique that caters to plus-size women called LeeLee’s Valise. One of the episodes dealt with their difficulty in finding plus-sized mannequins for their store displays. For the most part, though, I guess I don’t expect to see “realistic” looking mannequins anymore than I expect to see “realistic” looking models in fashion mags or on runways. I’d be more interested in fashion and clothes-shopping in general if more designers/magazines featured women of all shapes, ages and sizes.

  2. Lynne Murray says:

    King Tut didn’t have these problems (okay he had other problems, I know)! I guess it’s not yet profitable for clothing manufacturers to focus on diverse body shapes and sizes. I’ve heard of computer simulations to show how certain fashions would “look” on different body types, but my recollection was that the differences were within a very limited variety of body types. Maybe there’s a way to do this that just hasn’t been developed, popularized, and above all “productized.” If I’m making sense here (not sure, clothing and fashion are very far from my chosen mode of self-expression).

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