Why Mannequins Must Reflect Us

by Sharon Haywood

Triggering women’s insecurity by selling us unattainable beauty has been the golden rule for the fashion industry, but common sense begs the question: Wouldn’t sales naturally increase if consumers actually had models—both real-life models and mannequins—that looked like their own bodies?

Triggering women’s insecurity by selling us unattainable beauty has been the golden rule for the fashion industry, but common sense begs the question: Wouldn’t sales naturally increase if consumers actually had models—both real-life models and mannequins—that looked like their own bodies?

After all, meta-analyses of existing studies, such as a 2008 review by professors Shelly Grabe, L. Monique Ward and Janet Shibley Hyde, have established that repeated exposure to the thin ideal negatively impacts body image in girls and women and is a significant factor in low self-esteem and disordered eating.

It’s no wonder, considering that only five percent of women actually fit this narrow ideal, as social anthropologist Kate Fox confirmed in her 1997 summary of body-image research.

(Fall 2013)

Ben Barry, CEO of Ben Barry Models, presents another convincing argument for normal model sizes. Barry conducted a study involving more than 2,500 Canadian and American women of varying ethnicities, ages and sizes. He illustrated that female consumers’ purchasing intentions skyrocketed when women saw clothing featured on models that looked like them in relation to race, age and size. Further, he found that women’s intentions to purchase actually decreased when they couldn’t identify with the model. Out of the three variables, size generated the most extreme results. When models were the same size as the consumer, their intention to purchase rose over 200 percent; for women greater than a size 6, that number shot up to 300 percent. On the flip side, purchase intentions dropped 60 percent and 76 percent, respectively, when the model did not reflect the consumer’s size.

These results run completely contrary to the insecurity-inducing business model to which the beauty and fashion industries almost religiously adhere. As Barry wrote for Elle magazine in 2012, “While some women in my study felt insecure when they saw idealized models, their insecurity didn’t translate to purchase intentions as the industry hopes; it actually turned them off the product.” As one of the participants summarized,

“Ads like this want us to be part of their world, but they have the opposite effect for me. I feel excluded”.

If making women feel lousy about their bodies doesn’t boost sales, why do it? Until the late 1950s, the size of mannequins was much more realistic than the models currently featured in store windows. In 1992, a study by two researchers, Minna Rintala and Pertti Mustajoki, compared Italian, Japanese and Malaysian mannequins from the 1920s to the 1960s. They found that “arm, hip, and thigh circumferences of modern display figures were two to three cm, eight cm, and four to five cm less, respectively, compared to those of figures from before the Second World War.”

Furthermore, upon examining calculated amounts of fat, the researchers determined that mannequins used prior to the 1950s reflected a percentage typical of a young, healthy woman.

After the 1950s, mannequins grew progressively slimmer and possessed proportions not present in real female bodies. Their waist circumferences also notably decreased during the 1950s, further accentuated by larger, lifted breasts and wider hips. This voluptuous female figure took on a silhouette close to that of a Barbie doll, which was first created in 1959. It was well before this, at the end of the 19th century in Europe, that mannequins transitioned from headless, shaped torsos into wax figures that assumed human characteristics— from the neck up. Details such as real eyelashes, human hair and, sometimes teeth were used in an attempt to make them more lifelike. By the 1920s, the drive for more true-to-life depictions produced more convincing female faces that were widely used in Europe and the United States. Full-body female mannequins also entered the market and tended to reflect the popular boyish figure glamorized by the period’s famous flappers, as described by Marianne Thesander in her 1997 book, The Feminine Ideal. By the 1930s, U.S. manufacturers emerged and began producing mannequins with faces with which American women could identify—the famous and the wealthy.

Author Jon Stratton outlined in a 1996 issue of the Australian Humanities Review that Cora Scovil, the first designer to make the shift from wax to plaster, modelled her mannequins after well-known film stars such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. Another pioneer in American mannequin design, Lester Gaba, took his inspiration from a different sector of elite society: young New York socialites. He produced the popular Gaba Girls and the Cynthia mannequin, which even got her own photo spread in a 1937 issue of Life magazine. (Until that time, Life online says, “upper-class women preferred to see how their clothes looked by having them modelled on young, human women.”)

During the Great Depression, it was also common to see heavier-set mannequins. In a 1991 issue of Smithsonian magazine, writers Per Ola and Emily d’Aulaire make reference to the size 18 Bertille, created by Dutch artist Pierre Imans. Although Bertille and 1930s mannequins of her size seem to be somewhat of an anomaly in mannequin history, they too projected an elusive body ideal for their era—one that reflected affluence.

Clearly, mannequins don’t just sell clothes. As beauty ideals and fashion trends have morphed over the years, mannequins have served as three-dimensional mirrors of such shifts, but they have also acted as instruments within mass media that set beauty standards, enforce stereotypes and shape perceptions of perfection.

Mannequins have evolved in their inclusivity—but only to a point. As it stands today, mannequins of various ethnicities and ages are represented in mainstream markets, but the same cannot be said with regard to size—a gap whose closure could cause mannequins to be harnessed as potent tools of change. As “dummies” are clearly not real, it could be argued that inanimate objects cannot be held to the same standards as models. As leading mannequin designer Pucci has noted, the perfect mannequin stands about six feet tall, and, in inches would measure

32-22-32. According to Barry, though, “A customer is better able to see how clothing compliments their body when the mannequin has similar proportions.”

In the 1960s, the quest for above-the-neck realism prevailed, but mannequin designers did not reflect the true diversity of bodies; dummies continued to reinforce societal stereotypes and each era’s version of beauty. In 1966, London-based South African designer Adel Rootstein created the famous Twiggy mannequin, fashioned after the internationally popular 17-yearold size 6 model. This drastic shift away from the big-busted, small-waisted, cartoon-like mannequins of the ’50s fell right in line with the extreme social changes and upsurge of rebellion that defined the decade.

In the midst of the civil rights movement, Rootstein broke new ground again by creating Luna, a Black mannequin in the likeness of Donyale Luna, a world-renowned Paris runway model and the first African-American featured on the cover of Vogue. Even though Luna broke barriers in the fashion world, her likeness was consistently positioned in feline-like poses that reaffirmed the animalistic and overly sexualized stereotype for women of colour. As author Sara K. Schneider wrote in the journal Design Issues in 1997, “Most of Luna’s poses showed the mannequin, weight forward, as if preparing to pounce or landing after a long backward jump. All of Luna’s poses came with exceedingly articulated almost claw-like fingers.” Sometimes, manufacturers simply darkened the skin colour of white mannequins to whatever they felt appropriately reflected a desired ethnicity.

Mannequin variety continued to expand after the 1970s. There was an increase in authentic facial features from various ethnicities, as well as the introduction of petite mannequins.

On the surface, the inclusion of petite figures could be seen as progress on the size-inclusive front. However, as journalist Helen Burggraf noted in Crain’s New York Business, petite mannequins are “universally several inches taller than the women for whom they were designed… because ‘clothes simply look better on taller figures.’”

Coinciding with the aging and well-off baby boomer generation, the first line of older mannequins appeared in 1988 with Robert Filoso’s “Classic Drama,” representing women between the ages of 42 and 48. Then, in 1989, Filoso created “Gloria,” the first in another line of older mannequins, modelled after a 58-year-old woman of the same name. He took great care to include details such as laugh lines and facial asymmetry. In 1989, UPI journalist Valerie

Kuklenski reported Filoso as saying, “Nobody’s face is the same on both sides…. If mannequins are supposed to reflect live people, they should look alive.” Despite the fixation on creating eerily human-like faces and an increased attention to race, height and age, the mannequin industry continued its quest for realism while essentially ignoring the size and shape of its consumers.

The plus-size market began to use more realistic mannequins during the 1990s. As plus-sized fashions by retailers such as Lane Bryant gained in popularity, so did the demand for larger-sized mannequins. Interestingly, even plus-sized mannequins haven’t accurately represented plus-sized bodies.

Bust magazine reported in 2013 that, historically, “most mannequins for larger clothes were made by just magnifying the general proportions of smaller mannequins.” This past May, however, two Cornell University fashion design students created the first size 24 mannequin using authentic measurements.

Nevertheless, the norm remains that plus-sized mannequins are generally only featured in plus-sizes shops. Rarely do we see size diversity in window displays, even though non-specialty retailers cater to a wide range of sizes. One exception is the U.K. department store Debenhams. In 2010, the Mail online noted that the store became the first to use plus-sized mannequins, motivated by the fact that 42 percent of its profits came from size 16 to size 18 garments.

Perhaps the tide is finally changing. In 2007, Spain’s health ministry mandated that healthier-looking mannequins, estimated to be a European size 38 (a British 10 or North American 8) replace the über-slender display models. In 2010, BEAT, a U.K. charity aimed at preventing eating disorders, spoke out against a line of ultra-thin male mannequins called the “Young and the

Restless” (yet another Rootstein creation), affirming that such thin figures can have a negative effect on men’s body images, just as they can for women. In 2012, Change.org hosted a petition created by Dr. Dae Sheridan, a U.S. psychotherapist, which targeted department store JC Penny for its use of super-skinny mannequins. At the time of writing, signees exceeded 7,300.

According to Statistics Canada, 44 percent of Canadian women are considered overweight. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention and England’s National Health Service report 63.9 percent of American women and 58.4 percent of British women fall into the same category. Simply put, the majority of women in the global North are not thin. Compare that to today’s size 2 mannequin: A woman of the same proportions would be too thin to menstruate.

While the size and proportions of mannequins continue to remain more or less static outside the plus-sizes market, race, age and, to a certain extent, disability are much more visible in store windows. In Toronto, the independent retailer Fashion Crimes has been drawing women into its trendy Queen Street West location since the 1980s with racially diverse mannequins designed by none other than the famous Rootstein.

Owner Pam Chorley has always chosen to feature her made-to-measure designs on what she calls “realistic, stunning mannequins. They all have a personality that brings the clothes to life.”

Since 2009, Old Navy’s “SuperModelquins,” mannequins of various races and ages, have been displayed at stores across North America. In 2010, Debenhams incorporated mannequins using wheelchairs into their high street displays. Barry cites Canadian designer Izzy Camilleri as “one of the best examples” of accurate mannequin use. Camilleri’s window displays in her Toronto shop, IZ Adaptive Clothing, feature mannequins in the seated position so her clients—people who use wheelchairs—can clearly picture how garments would fall on their own bodies.

According to Barry, “size is still one of the most stigmatized characteristics in fashion. Fashion marketers and retailers have a false fear that consumers are turned off by size diversity … that consumers do not see curves as aspirational.”

As such, the fashion industry has yet to tap into the selling potential mannequins possess. However, many people are beginning to realize the power mannequins wield as vehicles of change. Earlier this year, a photo of a mannequin from the Swedish department store Åhléns went viral, attracting international attention. Little did the rest of the world know that this plus-sized mannequin is one of many various-sized figures the retailer has been using in its window displays for more than 10 years in order to cater to its different-sized clientele.

Increasing size diversity across the board in the fashion world carries tremendous potential for improving consumers’ self-image while also maximizing the industry’s bottom line. Applying such logic to mannequins makes sense, considering that their primary function is to act as welcoming ambassadors meant to entice passersby. Rather than capitalizing on and creating insecurities, a shift to a sustainable body-loving business model is what will create loyal shoppers and greater profits—a win-win for consumers and for the fashion industry.

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