History of Mannequins in Fashion Design – A Look Back Shows They’re More Than Just Dummies

Walk through any department store, and you’ll pass countless mannequins modeling the latest fashions. While we’ve come to take these visual display staples for granted, mannequins have a rich and storied past that dates as far back as ancient Egypt. Looking at how mannequins have evolved through the years, we can see that they have reflected not only the ideal of how we should look, but how we should live. No wonder historians, retailers, and fashion school students alike have been fascinated by these lifelike figures for so long.

Ancient and medieval times. When King Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in 1922, one of the treasures found was a lifelike torso believed to be the world’s first dress form. Indeed, the mannequin continued its functional role as a dress form through the centuries. Lifelike facsimiles of kings and queens were created so that tailors and dressmakers could create clothes without having to bore the monarchs with endless fittings, or worse, threatening their modesty by touching their bodies.

French aristocracy. In the 18th century, France was considered the fashion capital, and “fashion dolls” were created to show off the French fashion design to the world. These early mannequins, which represented the ideal of courtly fashion, ranged from about twelve inches to life size. They were sent abroad so people could see what the French were wearing and copy the styles. Marie Antoinette was known to send dolls to her mothers and sisters in Austria so they were kept up to date with what was in vogue at Versailles.

The Industrial Revolution and window shopping. Mannequins made a huge leap forward with the development of electrically-lit streets and large, glass-pane windows. Suddenly, strolling along avenues and looking at the fantasy worlds displayed in retail store windows became a favorite pastime. The first mannequins created for this purpose were made of wax and wood. They were extremely heavy, weighing between 200 and 300 pounds, with iron-reinforced legs so they would stay upright. With glass eyes, false teeth, and real hair, the mannequins adopted the feminine ideal of large bosoms and tiny waists, in situations of genteel living, like giving a toast at a dinner party. The art of fashion merchandising was born.

Hollywood influence. Until the ’20s, mannequins had wooden expressions, which is why they were called “dummies.” In the silent film age, however, there was more focus on the face than the body. With the popularity of Hollywood movies, mannequins acquired more realistic features and animated facial expressions that mirrored those of famous stars like Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino. To complement their movie star looks, they were displayed in aspirational, make-believe situations like having cocktails at the country club.

The Gaba Girls. In the ’30s, mannequins began to be produced with plaster, decreasing their weight to about twenty-five pounds. And thanks to a former soap sculptor named Lester Gaba, they reached a new level of realism. His lifelike figures were dubbed “The Gaba Girls,” the most famous of which was named Cynthia. Gaba envisioned Cynthia as the ultimate New York socialite, and the mannequin became a pop culture sensation. He took her to nightclubs and the opera, and Cartier and Tiffany even lent her jewels.

World War II. With the arrival of the second World War, life changed, and so did mannequins. Mannequins resembling carefree people were replaced by serious, no-nonsense ones. But when the troops returned, mannequins performed the public service of encouraging the public to be happy again. The female mannequins wore radiant smiles, while the male ones were relaxed and comfortable; both displayed domestic, suburban bliss.

Fiberglass and plastics. By the ’50s, mannequins moved away from brittle, breakable plaster to rugged fiberglass and plastic. Because manufacturing and sculpting had not yet been refined, the new mannequins were less realistic and took on an abstract quality. They actually celebrated surrealism, with sprayed-on hair styles and anatomical inaccuracies. The mannequin had become pop art.

The women’s revolution. When women’s roles started changing in the ’60s, mannequins depicted the shift. On one hand, there were the housewife (or aspiring housewife) mannequins with bouffants and hopeful gazes. At the other extreme was the active, assertive woman, posing casually and confidently. The decade also gave us the Mod look – skinny, leggy figures epitomized by the Twiggy mannequin.

Real life. The ’70s saw the introduction of Black, Asian, and Latino mannequins, reflecting the growing ethnic mix in the country. Also mirroring the turbulent decade, mannequins started having facial expressions of pain, worry, and stress. In the 80s, the country got “physical,” and mannequins followed suit, taking on running and leaping poses.

Modern day. When it comes to mannequins today, the old rules are out, and anything goes. Mannequins are different colors, crystal clear, headless, backless, and any form of abstraction. In fact, the realistic figures of previous decades now look decidedly creepy. There is no “ideal” form, probably because there is no longer a consensus on an ideal vision of beauty.

While we know that fashion design and mannequins have been forever intertwined, it’s fascinating to see how much these “dummies” have shown us as about civilization, history, and culture.