An investigation into the evolution of the mannequin

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27th Jun 2019

In our day-to-day lives, mannequins rarely draw more than a cursory glance or quick appraisal. But now, as fashion labels such as Nike and Fenty announce that they will be employing the use of plus-size iterations, the idea of the mannequin has emerged from the shadows. 

In an unprecedented turn of events, the mannequin is drawing more attention than the clothes it wears. Is the idea of a mannequin really so static and unchanging that the thought of a bigger version, with hip dips and stretch marks, shocks us all? 

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While the exact origin of the mannequin remains unclear, and there are significant gaps in the history of the object, scholars suggest that the mannequin initially emerged in the 15th century, utilised by artists who did not have access to a live male model. It was only during the mid-18th century that mannequins began to find their way into ateliers. Tailors quickly discovered that mannequins provided an economical alternative to the live model.

In the 1820s, with the birth of what we know now as the shop window, the mannequin embraced its second transition: out of the workshop space and into the window display. As the number of female shoppers began to increase, so too did the amount of female mannequins on display. The mannequin soon become intertwined with female desire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it then began to embody the ideal female figure. 

The 19th century introduced mannequins replete with pinched-in waists, courtesy of the era’s love of corsetry. The advent of World War I then demanded greater practicality. As women shunned the limitations of corsets, mannequins followed suit. The 1920s replaced the Victorian mannequin with those that had a slender, boyish appearance. The spark of the modern age was also embraced by manufacturers like Pierre Imans, whose mannequins were available in a variety of skin tones and sizes.

Following The Great Depression in the 1930s, fashion turned to conservatism, and mannequins, modelled after Old Hollywood film stars, became slimmer and far more homogenous. The 1940s and the coming of the Second World War saw the continuation of this subdued mood, as mannequins became even slimmer and shorter as a consequence of scarce resources.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the world could bask in the liberation of the post-war period, and actresses such as Marilyn Monroe championed the return of the hourglass figure. Mannequins soon mirrored this new ideal: a full bust, small waist, and round hips.

Celebrities and style icons continued to exert considerable control over perceptions of the female body, and subsequently, the appearance of the female mannequin. In the 1960s and 70s, mannequins resembled the toned, athletic bodies of Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John. By the 1990s, it was supermodel-thin frames that saw the narrowing of the mannequin’s hips.

So, where are we now? As we move through the 21st century, we have been lucky enough to witness a wide push from both celebrities and the general populace alike for greater diversity in the fashion industry. In a socially conscious modern age, we are recognising the ways in which fashion contributes, both negatively and positively, to our body image.

Slowly but surely, we are doing away with the cultural myth that clothes look best on tall, thin bodies, and must be displayed on similarly tall, thin mannequins. Developments in the appearance of the mannequin can be rooted in its larger history, a past which has seen the mannequin undergo many changes. Above all, the mannequin is a product of its time. In its most recent iteration, we see reflected back at us the inclusivity and open-mindedness that shapes contemporary ideas of the female body.

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