Sunday, September 12, 2010

mannequins — forms and functions

Bergdorf Goodman window, July 2010 
Bergdorf Goodman window, July 2010

The Bergdorf Goodman windows in New York this July were more museum display than window dressing - period mannequins and hat forms were artistically arranged into an eye catching collage. Every clothing collector and museum has a catch-all of vintage mannequins and old fixtures hanging about but probably not arrayed in such an effective manner.

 Perhaps the oldest mannequin in the world

The word mannequin (alternate spelling manikin) comes from the Dutch word maneken, which means little men. In France, a mannequin can also refer to a live model who, originally modelled new designs for clients of couture ateliers. Logically, you would think the earliest mannequins must have been used for making clothes, but the oldest extant form surfaced when King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1922. The 3300 year old torso form stood near a clothing chest presumably as a place for displaying the king’s clothing or jewellery when not being worn.
The next documented use of mannequins dates from about 1600 when Henry IV of France sent miniature fashion dolls attired in the latest French styles to his fiancée, Marie de’ Medici of Florence. The use of dolls to disseminate fashion was also used by the French in the 18th century when Marie Antoinette sent miniature styles worn at Versailles to her mother and sisters in Austria. The demise of the fashion doll can be partly attributed to the more practical preferance for fashion plate illustrations in the late 18th century.

 Early 19th century men's clothing display forms

Display mannequins in men’s tailoring establishments, came into being during the 19th century. Costume stands, as they were often called, were made of wicker, wire, leather, or papier-mâché, and were usually headless and armless bodies fitted with iron boots so that they stood firmly.

Female mannequins, c. 1905
Female mannequins, c. 1905

Life-like female mannequins did not come into existence until the very end of the 19th century. What precipitated this development was the growth of the department store - the fashion centre for middle-class women in every city of the Western world. In 1868 plate glass was invented in the United States and during the 1880s, the first electric lights began to be installed in major cities. These two developments allowed for the creation of large display windows where full figure mannequins could wear the latest fashions. The age of window-shopping was born!

Eaton's department store, Toronto, 1918
 Eatons Department store, 1918

The most realistic mannequins were wax figures with glass eyes and human hair set into their scalps strand by strand, like figures from Madame Tussaud’s museum. Their look was based on what the ideal of beauty was at that time, including large eyes, small rosebud lips, and round faces.
An article from the Smithsonian magazine Mannequins: Fantasy Figure of High Fashion relays the story of a window display at a store in the 1910s that used wax mannequins. The window trimmer had set up a scene of a dinner party with the hostess holding a glass of wine in the frozen moment of offering a toast: “The window dresser … 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 wineglass still clutched in her now limp hand. The congenial atmosphere of the night before had become the ‘morning after’…” By the late 1920s plaster mannequins were replacing wax figures, in part to avoid these types of model meltdowns.

Lester and Cynthia relaxing at home, c. 1937

In 1936, sculptor Lester Gaba was commissioned by Saks Fifth Avenue to create a seated plaster of Paris mannequin. Modelled after a Manhattan socialite of the day, Gaba called the mannequin Cynthia, and over the next few years Cynthia sometimes accompanied Gaba on various outings, including the opera. This modern Pygmalion story was reported in Life magazine, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The eccentric relationship seems to have been a publicity stunt, made obvious by witty responses by Gaba who explained Cynthia’s lack of conversational skills was due to a severe case of laryngitis. Cynthia’s demise occurred in 1939 when she apparently slipped from a chair at a beauty salon and smashed into a thousand pieces. Her passing was reported in the New York Times.

The Room, Simpsons, Toronto, late 1950s 
The Room, Simpsons, Toronto, late 1950s

The ideal female form slowly changed over the next few decades. In plaster, then fibreglass and latex, the 1950 ideal of rounded hips, flat buttocks, wasp waists and full, low bosoms gave way to leaner, taller forms with narrower hips, broader shoulders, and smaller, higher bosoms. By the late 1960s the mannequin manufacturer Adel Rootstein was creating mannequins based on the impish supermodels of the day: Twiggy, Patti Boyd and Jean Shrimpton.

Twiggy amongst her likenesses in fibreglass, 1967 
Twiggy amongst her likenesses in fibreglass, 1967

In the October 14, 1972 edition of Canadian Panorama, writer Gwen Beattie reported “In case you haven’t already noticed, the sexual revolution has surfaced in the shop windows on main street. The need for merchants to display the new see-through, no-bras fashions made it essential that the mannequins of the world be liberated. So dress dummies now have nipples.” Although female mannequins may have received more realistic genitalia in the early 1970s it wouldn’t be until the 1980s that male mannequins finally lost their entirely androgynous physiques.
The Fashion History Museum has a small collection of vintage mannequins and display forms including some very nice examples from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as several Edwardian dress forms including one designed to hold a wax bust, but alas, the bust is missing…

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