Evolution of Mannequins

Alluring, eccentric or creepy? Window dressing, retail, medical and even military uses are all reasons why mannequins came into existence. Decor or festish? A famous celebrity who people named “Wacko Jacko” was known for having mannequins in his home. I actually have a few, too, for decoration purposes. I love to photograph mannequins in vintage stores. Sometimes, I inquire about purchasing one of them but so far, they haven’t been for sale. The ones I have are from store closings, etc. I decided to read up about the history of mannequins and whenever I find something interesting, I start to wonder if my blog readers will think it’s an interesting subject, too. So…here we are….the evolution of mannequins.

Mannequins have had various purposes through the decades; fashion dolls, CPR/first aid dummies, and even 1950’s nuclear test dummies to help demonstrate the effects of nuclear weapons. “Mannequin” is a French word for an “artist’s model” and it’s also a Flemish word “maneken”, meaning “little man or figurine.” They originated in the 15th century when milliners’ mannequins were used for fashion displays. They’ve ranged from wickerwork to wirework models in the 18th century, approximately. The first mannequins were constructed from paper mache in France in the 19th century. Later, they were made of wax and then plaster in the 1920’s. Over the decades, the mannequins evolved from having small or average bust size to the newly manufactured bustier and bodacious sizes.

In the 100 year span of 1900-2000, mannequins went from being headless dolls to fully complete human form due to the industrial revolution. This was the dawn of “window shopping”. The original 300 pound mannequin had false teeth, glass eyes and even real hair but eventually became much lighter in weight. Victorian styles (at the turn of the century) were conservative and censorship of the female body drew protests and bans against store mannequins displaying corsets, etc. There were even laws passed in some cities forbidding the dressing/undressing of mannequins openly in store windows. They required that the windows be covered first. Believe it or not, this law lasted until the 1920’s. During Victorian times, exposed knees and ankles were frowned upon but in the 1910-1920 decade, mannequins exposed those body parts. During the flapper phase, (1920-1930), the more slender figure of a flatter bust and androgynous, athletic, boyish body was more in vogue during this Art Deco style phase. The mannequin became 100 pounds lighter and made from paper mache. During the Great Depression (1930-1940), mannequins had a metal skeleton with material that resembled skin. The incorporation of high cheekbones and oval faces became important  features.  WWII (1940-1950) was a somber time, obviously, and the window dressing took on a serious tone. Patriotic attitudes and muted tones were at the forefront. The commercial boom of the 1950-1960 decade reflected the popularity of Marilyn Monroe with her shapely body and curves. The overtly sexualized body image bothered some people and reportedly, nipples were shaved down, temporarily. In 1959, the invention of the Barbie Doll celebrated curviness and mannequin nipples returned for the 1960-1970 decade. However, this was the Twiggy generation so skinny, fiberglass mannequins came to be. Petite mannequins were introduced as well as faceless mannequins in the 1970-1980 decade. The 1980-1990 decade celebrated health and fitness with a boom in aerobics. The next decade (1990-2000) included plus sized models even though the beginning of the decade featured waif and heroin chic models. Now, in this decade, we are seeing more mannequins size 6 and above.

As I write this blog, I just remembered an experience I had as a teen in the 1980s. My best friend and I were hired to be live mannequins in a store window of a popular mall. We were modeling sportswear and stood there as stiff, non-blinking mannequins. It was fun but hard work. It definitely drew attention from mall walkers and customers. One fiesty boy came up to the window, stared at us and exclaimed, “KISS you? I don’t even KNOW you!” and walked off.  My best friend lost her composure and collapsed into a fit of giggles and side splitting laughter. The contagious humor of the situation had us both erupting in laughter. We got the job done which was to attract attention to the store and model sportswear. We’re mid-lifers now with this sweet and funny memory of our teen years. Maybe my fascination with mannequins has to do with my experience one afternoon as a live mannequin in a mall window. Not plastic, fiberglass, metal or paper mache but celebrating fashion, nonetheless! Not Victorian, stick thin Twiggies or Barbies but taking part in the evolution of fashion, retail and art!

photos by Gina Kingsley

pictures taken at KC’s River City Market Antiques and Wonderland

2 thoughts on “Evolution of Mannequins

    1. Thanks, Julie! I appreciate the feedback! The things we see when we travel can be thought provoking! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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