Saturday, March 13, 2010

More thoughts on mannequins: size versus shape

On Thursday night at a literary launch I talked the ears off the team from Arcade Publications about my "What Fat Chicks Used To Wear" project, and today Dale Campisi pointed me to this article that appeared on the front page of yesterday's Age. It's a pretty stock-standard iteration of the "mannequins are getting larger to reflect real women" argument that gets trotted out every so often.

I am emphatically not interested in these repetitive debates over body size/shape in fashion, and it never fails to annoy me that commentary tends to get split between "Yay! Finally retailers are interested in their customers' actual sizes", "It's a good start but it's only a token gesture; they need to go further", and "We're in an obesity crisis so anything that encourages people to normalise fatness is a bad thing".

The thing that annoys me about these responses is that they transform the mannequin, the inert fibreglass form, into a mimetic reproduction of the customer's own body, whereas the actual role of a mannequin is to display the clothes attractively enough to make you want to go into the shop and try them on. It is a visual merchandising tool just like a rack or a showcase, and there are no moral panics suggesting that people feel inadequately green next to a green-painted dummy, or worry about having heads because so many mannequins are headless.

But I am interested in the relationship between the mannequin and the clothes on it, which is about fit, which in turn is about the shape of the body under the clothes. I'm not sure when this happened, but Review has got rid of its iconic petite, wasp-waisted mannequins. Those mannequins used to say to shoppers, "This shop sells an old-fashioned, girlish kind of glamour".

What would be far more interesting than the size of mannequins would be their shapes and proportions. From the little reading I've done on the history of mannequins, their shapes seemed to follow those of the prevailing fashions: slim during the Art Deco era and sturdier during the 1940s. Here's the collection of vintage mannequins in the window at Circa Vintage Clothing.

Image: Circa Vintage

It might be worthwhile to examine if, historically, mannequin makers have produced ones in larger sizes for the older or plumper consumer. But actually, I'm worried that this talk of mannequins is getting off-topic.


Mary said...

I have a book which is reprints of old Sears catalogues-mine is from the mid 30's. In it there are multiple pages with the words "larger sizes cost no less at Sears" alongside pictures of plus-size models who don't look especially plus size, but a little bit, kind of like a lot of today's plus size models. A lot of the text talks about slimming styles, though the long, drapey styles of the 30's are only flattering to a few people. Thought that might interest you or be worth checking out, especially considering the Sears catalogue in America was a very large force in the clothing business.

Nicole said...

The Circa mannequins do indeed vary in shape and size, to reflect their times. The smallest one is from the late 1920s and as well as being short, she is flat chested and not slim waisted (she's the one closest to the camera but her '50s dress gives her curves). The other two are '40s and '50s so curvier. You can see them sans clothes in this post:

Tove Hermanson said...

I recently wrote a couple blog posts
about mannequins, concentrating not exclusively on the trajectory of their standard sizes, but how they've been used as marketing tools. This ended up revealing a lot more than I initially expected-- reflecting larger ideas (ha!) of identity, the relationship between current fashion and displays, and consumption of fashion as a part of a narrative that mannequins can contribute to the creation of....