Saturday, February 27, 2010

"I'll wear my delaine"

Part of what I want to do in this project is a "semiotics of clothing fit" – the way that culture has represented garments. For instance, yesterday I saw a preview of the new Tim Burton Alice In Wonderland, and I couldn't help but be struck by the way Alice gets a new dress every time she changes size, because her previous outfit becomes too big or too small.

In the original 1865 John Tenniel illustrations, her clothes grow and shrink with her.

But viewing the affectingly mended pioneer-lady "best dress" in the Darnell Collection, which was so delicate it's displayed flat in a glass case, made me think of Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a kid I loved the Little House books for their blow-by-blow descriptions of pioneer homemaking and everyday life. This was such a vastly different world to the one I was growing up in that it might as well have been another planet.

The book has been digitised for Canada's Gutenberg Project, so you can read the whole thing online. It also includes Helen Sewell's illustrations, which I think were added some time between 1943 and 1953. The part that has always stayed with me is when they make maple sugar at Laura's grandparents' house.
Pa's blue eyes twinkled; he had been saving the best for the last, and he said to Ma:

"Hey, Caroline! There'll be a dance!"

Ma smiled. She looked very happy, and she laid down her mending for a minute. "Oh, Charles!" she said.

Then she went on with her mending, but she kept on smiling. She said, "I'll wear my delaine."

Ma's delaine dress was beautiful. It was a dark green, with a little pattern all over it that looked like ripe strawberries. A dressmaker had made it, in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa and moved out west to the Big Woods in Wisconsin. Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa, and a dressmaker had made her clothes.

The delaine was kept wrapped in paper and laid away. Laura and Mary had never seen Ma wear it, but she had shown it to them once. She had let them touch the beautiful dark red buttons that buttoned the basque up the front, and she had shown them how neatly the whalebones were put in the seams, inside, with hundreds of little crisscross stitches.
The book is set around 1870. At this time fashion in the United States was about a year behind Europe, and in pioneer Wisconsin I'd imagine it was further behind still. Caroline married Charles Ingalls in 1860 and her delaine (the word means a light, smooth wool fabric; it's from the French mousseline de laine, muslin of wool) probably dated from the late 1850s.

I also loved the part in which Laura's two young aunts Docia and Ruby are getting ready for the sugar dance.
They helped each other with their corsets. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby's corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers.

"Pull, Ruby, pull!" Aunt Docia said, breathless. "Pull harder," so Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder. Aunt Docia kept measuring her waist with her hands, and at last she gasped, "I guess that's the best you can do."

She said, "Caroline says Charles could span her waist with his hands, when they were married."

Caroline was Laura's Ma, and when she heard this Laura felt proud.

Then Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia put on their flannel petticoats and their plain petticoats and their stiff, starched white petticoats with knitted lace all around the flounces. And they put on their beautiful dresses.

Aunt Docia's dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it. The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them.

Aunt Ruby's dress was wine-colored calico, covered all over with a feathery pattern in lighter wine color. It buttoned with gold-colored buttons, and every button had a little castle and a tree carved on it.

Aunt Docia's pretty white collar was fastened in front with a large round cameo pin, which had a lady's head on it. But Aunt Ruby pinned her collar with a red rose made of sealing wax. She had made it herself, on the head of a darning needle which had a broken eye, so it couldn't be used as a needle any more.

They looked lovely, sailing over the floor so smoothly with their large, round skirts. Their little waists rose up tight and slender in the middle, and their cheeks were red and their eyes bright, under the wings of shining, sleek hair.

Ma was beautiful, too, in her dark green delaine, with the little leaves that looked like strawberries scattered over it. The skirt was ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon, and nestling at her throat was a gold pin. The pin was flat, as long and as wide as Laura's two biggest fingers, and it was carved all over, and scalloped on the edges. Ma looked so rich and fine that Laura was afraid to touch her.

I've selected this extended excerpt because it's so rich with detail: not only about the dresses and underwear themselves but the physical ideal of the tiny waist. Of course, Ingalls Wilder isn't an especially reliable narrator because she is recalling events of decades earlier, but the way that Docia "gasps" yet is still dissatisfied with her waist says a lot about the way that perhaps even its own wearer's uncorseted body wouldn't have fitted into one of these dresses. Yet Caroline still fits into her delaine dress after having borne three children.

Perhaps their diet has something to do with their body shapes? Later in the same chapter, the author remarks, "They could eat all they wanted, for maple sugar never hurt anybody." Really? Ingalls Wilder's descriptions of food are quite interesting throughout; often they sound spartan to a modern reader.

Wisconsin: A History, by Robert Nesbit and William Thompson, notes that: "The recollection of food or the want of it is a common feature in pioneer reminiscences", and that pioneers who'd made it through bad winters joked darkly that they couldn't change their shirts for months, "the fish bones sticking through and preventing such an operation."

Caroline was a pretty woman, wasn't she? As for Charles… well, I guess Abe Lincoln beards were really in at that time.

Friday, February 26, 2010

My original mannequin feature

As I mentioned in my last post, in 2005 I wrote a newspaper feature story on mannequins for The Age. The version that was ultimately published is quite different to the original, spiked, version, which I've just discovered now while searching for a transcript of my interview with Daisy Veitch of Sharp Dummies. Perhaps you'd like to read it?

As a child, I was terrified of mannequins. They towered over me with their stiff poses and pallid plastic skin. I was afraid to look at them in case their painted-on eyes swivelled to glare at me. Yet I couldn’t look away, because I was convinced they could creep up behind me when my back was turned.

I wasn’t the only one. Contributors to the childhood beliefs website I Used to Believe confess to thinking mannequins were real people who’d been punished for shoplifting, or for not making it out of the store by closing time. One tormented girl was afraid to touch them in case she turned into a mannequin herself!

Wobbly logic aside, kids recognise freakishness when they see it. Mannequins embody a mass of contradictions – lifelike but not alive, sexually provocative without genitals; warm, soft flesh cast in cold, unyielding fibreglass. They flirt with how a human body can look – and hint at what makes a body human.

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the disquiet sparked by those contradictions. In his 1982 book The Buddha in the Robot, Mori observed that the more human an object appears, the more we empathise with it. But when the simulation is almost perfect, we start to feel something’s very, very wrong. This is the uncanny valley.

Eighteenth century wax modellers knew this, and exploited it. Galleries of notorious thieves offered a macabre thrill of authenticity because they were modelled from executed corpses. Other exhibits created believable fantasy worlds. The setpiece in the salon of Madame Tussaud’s mentor, Dr Philippe Curtius, was an astonishingly vivid but entirely invented tableau of the French royal family eating dinner at Versailles.

Visiting Madame Tussaud’s still gives spectators a frisson. The gallery encourages visitors to flout protocol and caress the Queen, or impertinently fondle Elle Macpherson. Still, you’ll never feel her ineffable star quality. It’s just a dummy, after all.

Nowhere is the elusive celebrity body more starkly highlighted than in the museum. Lindie Ward is assistant curator in international decorative arts and design at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. She says the Powerhouse’s vast collection of provenance costume – clothing with a personal history – demands more of mannequins.

“When we did the Moulin Rouge exhibition, we had some adapted to Nicole [Kidman]’s very slim, long figure, because we couldn’t fit anything on any other way,” Ward explains.

Ward has devised bendable wire mannequins that subtly fill the costume as a body might. “You don’t need to have the wire showing at all, so you can get the exact shape of the garment,” she says.

You enter another kind of uncanny valley when you look at these mannequins. The body is creepily absent, leaving behind only traces of sweat and makeup. Sometimes it even spooks Ward.

Several years ago, she was dressing an exhibition of gay and lesbian Mardi Gras costumes, but grew uncomfortable making the mannequin for a full body suit worn by artist and AIDS activist Brenton Heath-Kerr.

“I must say, I had to keep walking away from it, because sadly he had died a couple of years before.”

In the early 1960s, British window dresser Adel Rootstein translated the uncanny appeal of celebrity mannequins into worldwide success. For Rootstein, the plaster and papier-maché mannequins then used in shop windows were stiff and lifeless, failing dismally to capture the spirit of Swinging London.

Rootstein’s fibreglass mannequins actually swing, striking dramatic poses and lounging insouciantly. They embody the zeitgeist because they’re modelled on the very celebrities who become fashion icons – Twiggy, Sandie Shaw, Joanna Lumley, Marie Helvin, Joan Collins, Yasmin Le Bon, Saffron Burrows and Jodie Kidd.

Rootsteins are the Rolls-Royce of the mannequin business. Each figure takes thirty days to make from a live model. After initial measurements and photographs, the head and body are sculpted in clay around a wire armature. The hands and feet are moulded in dental silicon, and successive plaster and fibreglass casts made. Artists individually apply each mannequin’s makeup using oil paints, and hair stylists select and cut wigs to customers’ specifications.

The time and effort pays off. These figures are so gracefully posed and carefully rendered that you’re almost embarrassed to have glimpsed them in the nude. Still, it’s striking how similar they look. Even despite racial differences, they all have long legs, slender necks, slim hips and pert breasts.

Such mannequins can’t be called ‘realistic’, no matter how lifelike they look. But if we expect mannequins to be socially inclusive, maybe we’re the unrealistic ones.

Some commentators have praised the recent trend towards larger mannequins, saying they finally reflect real women’s bodies. Last year, New York designer Ralph Pucci released an enormously popular mannequin whose derriere was modelled on curvaceous actor-singer Jennifer Lopez.

But retailers aren’t interested in making “a statement about what size people are,” says Melbourne-based mannequin maker Phil Russell. “Mannequins are really just to display the clothes.”

Russell’s boutique company, Mannequin Revolution, works directly with clients to create or rework mannequins for specific displays. Its output includes hourglass-figured mannequins for fashion brand Review, stylised gangsters and molls for city tailor Anton’s, and the pint-sized dummies modelling Kylie Minogue’s famous gold hotpants in the Victorian Arts Centre’s current exhibition.

Mannequin Revolution has also produced dark-skinned mannequins – but not for diversity’s sake. Russell’s clients see memorable mannequins as good business sense.

“People have gotta have a point of difference, you know?” he says. “I only do a couple [of black mannequins] here and there because it decreases the impact. It floods the market.”

But for some, mannequins are more about pleasure than business. In the ancient Greek story of Pygmalion, a sculptor falls in love with his creation. Plenty of movies, including the 1987 film Mannequin, perpetuate the fantasy of a mannequin as a compliant vessel for male desire.

Of course, men have been able to buy artificial women for centuries. Dr Curtius had a profitable sideline in erotic wax dummies for the boudoir. In 1920, the painter Oskar Kokoschka obtained a life-size replica of his ex-girlfriend, Alma Mahler; although in his memoirs, he coyly avoided the question of whether he slept with it. And last Christmas, Sydney shoe store Hype DC dramatised the link between sex and consumerism – and caused an outcry – when it used inflatable sex dolls as store window mannequins.

Then there are RealDolls. Advertised online as “the world’s finest love doll,” they’re smack bang in the uncanny valley. Special effects artist Matt McMullen created them almost by accident in 1996, while working on a prototype for an extra-realistic mannequin.

“I had a website going, and people kept e-mailing, asking if I could make a love doll,” McMullen recalled in 2000. “So I changed my design. Now you have RealDoll.”

RealDolls are made of solid yet pliable silicon moulded around a metal skeleton. They weigh as much as a woman and have a similar range of movement. Where mannequin groins are fibreglass blanks, RealDolls are anatomically correct. And they’re totally customised – you choose everything from your doll’s eye colour to her bikini wax preference. All for the bargain price of US$6499.

It’s easy to dismiss RealDolls as misogynist fantasies. But they’re a powerful reminder of how we use cutting-edge technology to flesh out our desires. In the stories, magic brings mannequins to life – and isn’t technology the magic of our era?

New mannequin technology isn’t always this perverse. In 2001, Adelaide company SHARP Dummies conducted Australia’s first anthropometric sizing survey since 1927. And intriguingly, the technology it used then also produces mannequins that behave like human bodies.

SHARP creates mannequins using a mixture of tape measuring, body casting, and a laser body scanner. This creates a near-perfect copy of the live model, complete with creases, dimples and fat rolls. SHARP dummies also boast what founder Daisy Veitch calls “biofidelity.”

“A person is made from bones and tissue and muscle; our dummies are made from composite materials,” Veitch explains. SHARP overlays a hard skeleton with foam, silicon and polyurethane padding, with underlying cavities to simulate compression. There’s extra padding on the bits that make so many women self-conscious – the bottom, hips, breasts, and upper arms.

Unlike their fibreglass cousins, SHARP dummies aren’t meant for shop windows. They’re meant to make clothes look good on you. They help apparel manufacturers get an accurate fit for tight clothing like hipster jeans and underwear. Conventional mannequins just can’t deliver that kind of realism.

Displaying clothes on skinny mannequins “is a successful strategy, and it’s okay to advertise like that,” says Veitch. “The problem is when people take the clothes off the dummy and try them on, and they don’t fit.”

It’s certainly fitting that the most disquieting mannequin technology of all comes from the country that invented the uncanny valley. Japanese firm Flower Robotics has developed a mannequin robot named Palette that senses nearby shoppers and uses motion-capture technology to pose for them in window displays. Palette can also detect the age and gender of shoppers for marketing purposes.

Curiously, Palette has no face. Its inventor says customers should focus on the mannequin’s clothes. But perhaps it’s just as well. While we like our mannequins as lifelike as possible, we don’t want them too human.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Museum peregrinations: Silhouette and mannequins

The National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Drape features a Versace evening frock from 1996 posed next to a 1913 evening gown in the style of Paul Poiret's Directoire Revival. Viewers were meant to remark on the ways in which designers separated by decades have interpreted the ancient Greek chiton; but what I found more remarkable were the mannequins on which the dresses were displayed.

The Versace mannequin is noticeably taller, more statuesque and angular than the one displaying the Schmoiret, which is petite, with sloping shoulders and a swelling bosom. The 'contemporary' mannequin has a figure sculpted by diet and exercise, whereas the 'historical' mannequin's figure is sculpted by corsetry.

The catalogue entry for this garment noted that its innovation was to evoke an uncorseted figure while actually requiring a corset. The 1910s were a transitional period in silhouette, as the voluptuous, tightly corseted 'Gibson Girl' with her 'S-bend' figure gave way to the svelte, boyish 'flapper'. As well as Poiret, designers including Lucile (Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon) and Madeleine Vionnet were favouring less restrictive corsetry and a more naturalistic silhouette.

(As an aside, I really want to get my hands on a copy of Waist Not: The Migration Of The Waist 1800-1960 by Richard Martin. But I baulk at the price of international shipping.)

Meanwhile, the bias cut is often championed as flattering to the female body, but the Versace dress looks cruelly revealing: see how the pubescent, pointy breasts and hipbones jut through the dress, and even the stylised fat pad on the mannequin's stomach is visible. It reminds me of one of the 'origin stories' of the bra: improvised by New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, who in 1910 had bought a diaphanous evening gown but found it revealed her corset's whalebones.

At the Fashion and Textile Gallery in Sydney, Dreaming Of Dior author and curator Charlotte Smith told me that she prefers modern mannequins for displaying much of the Darnell Collection because these mannequins are quite slim, which suits the clothes. I should add here that Smith – the former wearer of some of these garments – is a tiny, birdlike woman.

A group of older dresses from the Darnell Collection (including the bustle dresses from 1884 and 1885, below, and a 1910 evening dress) are actually posed on child-sized mannequins with padded busts, hips and replica bustles. (Smith has the real period undergarments, but they're too fragile to use under the dresses. Besides, I think it's a shame to hide them that way.)

These images don't give the best idea of how small these garments are, but they are clearly clothes for adult women, so perhaps they do convey how weird it felt to imagine the bra-wearing kiddie mannequins beneath.

Smith's take on the small size is that women in the 19th century weren't as active and athletic as women nowadays, and also that people then tended to settle in the same areas where they'd grown up, so they lacked the 'hybrid vigour' of intermarriage that would result in taller offspring.

I'm still skeptical that either of these ideas completely explains the radical smallness of old clothes, but I am getting a sense for the ways in which any genealogy of clothing size depends on a concomitant genealogy of silhouette… and corsetry. The NGV measures its garments by "centre back length" and "waist, flat", which sometimes gives an indication of fit but sometimes doesn't. For instance, the Versace dress has a waist measurement of 32.5cm, whereas a gold lamé dress by Vionnet, c1927, has a waist measurement of 61.4cm. This doesn't mean the Vionnet was made for a larger woman, but rather that 1920s dresses had no structured waist.

While it's useful to think about mannequins in this case because they are judiciously chosen to show off particular garments in a 'museum-appropriate' way, it's a mistake to extrapolate that the sizes and shapes of retail mannequins reveal very much about the size and fit of clothing. Not only are the mannequins themselves abstracted for visual impact, but the clothing can also be carefully pinned by visual merchandisers, in the back where customers won't see it.

Years ago I wrote a feature on mannequins for The Age. It was originally commissioned by Sunday Life, whose then editor wanted me to write, basically, "Oooh, look, mannequins are getting larger to reflect 'real women'." This wasn't the picture I got from my own observations, nor from interviewing a mannequin maker. Also, I think Sunday Life was a little freaked out that I brought RealDolls into it. So they spiked it, but I sold it to the regular paper instead (albeit without the RealDoll stuff).

However, another bit of my research that never ended up making it into the final article was an interview I did with Daisy Veitch of Sharp Dummies in Adelaide. They are a really fascinating firm because they don't make retail display mannequins; rather, their dummies are meant to be used during the manufacturing process.

They've harvested extensive anthropometric data and used it to build human forms that don't just reflect the shapes of actual bodies, but are also specially padded so that their 'flesh' has the same 'give' as a person's. This makes them invaluable when fitting things like lingerie and jeans, where it's important that the clothing doesn't dig in. Rather than use a (live) house model, your company could buy one of these dummies.

I wonder if I still have the interview transcript somewhere. I'd actually love to interview Daisy again because anthropometric research is deeply implicated in clothing sizing; the world's first anthropometric study was done in Sydney for Berlei in 1926-27, and still forms the basis of Australian clothing sizes.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The hunt begins

Today I was on Chapel Street in Prahran, battling the breeze that was lifting my skirt in an agonisingly embarrassing Marilyn Monroe way, and I couldn't resist ducking into the Chapel St Bazaar.

For those not familiar with this Aladdin's cave of retro ephemera, there are 70 stalls covering everything from clothing and jewellery to furniture, homewares and knick-knacks. It's bewildering and you can spend hours in there. I managed to make my way to a dead end where there was a small vintage fashion boutique. I think the name on all the labels was "Anna's", but Googling just now hasn't yielded anything much.

Anyway, I found myself looking at a certain rack where all the sizes seemed to be quite large: 44, 46 and so on. Some of these dresses were actually quite nice and I got quite excited imagining that I might actually fit into them. My only familiarity with European sizing is in lingerie, where I know that a 32 is a 10, a 34 is a 12, a 36 is a 14 and then I've never seen any European bras larger than that.

So I got into conversation with the staffer, who told me these are indeed European sizes, but that in general, sizes in the '60s, '70s and even '80s were smaller compared to their contemporary equivalents. She reckoned that a 40 would be equivalent to today's size 10-12, a 42 to a size 12-14 and a 44 to a 14-16.

I have tried to do some research online and have got a lot of contradictory information:
  • European sizes are pretty much adding 30 to a US size. Factoring in that US sizes are generally a size down from UK/Australian sizes, an Australian would add 28 to her regular size. eg 10=38.
  • Vintage sizes are five sizes smaller than today's.
  • Italian sizes are larger than French sizes, which are larger than English sizes.
  • Fifty years ago in the UK, if a garment was made for a 36-inch bust it was called a "36", and in the mid-'60s a garment sizing review led to "British Standard Sizing" – the 10, 12, 14 system.
Pauline Weston Thomas of has more interesting stuff to say about sizing:

"Women were much slimmer in the 1950s or in earlier periods than now. You would never have seen a larger woman exposing her flesh 50 years ago in the way that an overweight teen girl might show her belly button stud in hipsters today with fat plunging over it. If you were fatter than the ideal you covered the fat up in alternative styles of a tent like or straight down shift like sack dress.

"One reason for trying to keep the weight down was quite simply that it was very difficult to buy any fashionable garment over a size UK 14 in the main fashion shops and even then they were cut very skimpily. Some ranges did go up to a UK 16, but only very occasionally up to an 18. If they went up to a UK 18 they probably had lost the fashion edge.

"An important factor with sizing is the physique. No one really pumped iron in the UK until late 70s. Going to the gym to workout was not usual. It was harder to put on weight from snack food then as Pizza was available in about one place in central London as I recall. The main snack bar of the era nationwide was Wimpy. A curry or steak on a Saturday night was the norm rather than deep fried snack food and the portion size even of a wimpy was much smaller. Also central heating was getting better, but still not everywhere, so people burned off more fat and walked more after an evening out. Taxis were only just taking off in the UK provinces for a night out."

And then this:

"Sizes were cut smaller then too and so a vintage 12 is not the same as a UK or USA or European Community 12 of 2003. Today buyers list sizes as plus sizes or queen size if they measure larger. If 50s they probably have labels like extra extra outsize inside them. For the same reason of lack of fashion variety women in the plus range either made their own clothes or had them hand crafted or custom made. Corsetry was popular for this reason alone and no women went without a girdle."
I have had a shameful thought, too: my favourite aunt, my mother's sister, has worn plus-size clothing her entire life – there are heartbreaking family photos of her standing sullenly in her '60s shift and pillbox hat at her brother's wedding while my much slimmer mother poses like a model. I wonder if she would agree to be interviewed by me.

It's a shameful thought because I haven't seen or spoken to her for a few years (she lives in Brisbane), and so it is kind of insulting that my opening salvo is, "Hey, can I interview you about being fat in the '60s?"