Mannequins have been around for thousands of years but their use in store display is more recent. Kings and Queens who were concerned about their appearance, like the ancient pharaohs, would have a dress form made to their body dimensions. The court dress maker or tailor would use the dress form to display and make the clothes thus avoiding any royal embarrassment during the course of a fitting.
The evolution of this ancient crude dress form through the middle ages and up until just before the industrial revolution is unknown because there are so few written records and no museum examples to study. Wickerwork mannequins were certainly around in the late 1700s and were probably filled with stuffing and leather. Wire-framed versions came into existence in 1835 but mannequins were still not in use for store display. The invention of plate glass, the filament lamp and the sewing machine were the catalysts that put mannequins in the store.
In the 1880s window panes began to be installed in retail establishments and street lights started to appear. The improvement of sewing machines enabled ready to wear clothing to be made in large quantities. The industrial revolution also created a new middle class with money to spend on what was previously only available to royalty and landed gentry – fashionable clothes! More retail stores opened and the store owners needed mannequins to display the latest fashions.
These early mannequins were made of wax, wood or heavy fabric and because they needed to stay upright their feet were made of iron. To give them shape papier-mâché and sawdust were used. Consequently the result was an expensive, hard to maintain and very heavy object. However such was the interest in fashion that by the turn of the century the mannequin was already the center of a fledgling industry called ‘window trimming’ which later became known as ‘visual merchandising’.
The advent of the department store with its large show windows, behind which mannequins bearing the latest fashions could be admired by the crowds, encouraged window trimmers to be artistic as well as practical. Mannequins slowly developed from being just a simple prop to display the merchandise towards a more realistic form. Mannequins with glass eyes, real hair and facial expressions began to appear.
The First World War sent millions of European men off to fight and left the women at home to do the mens jobs. This change brought about a revolution in womens clothing, they shed their bustiers and crinolines and adopted a more fluid line of clothes. Mannequins gradually became more lithe and realistic to reflect these changes but never could they be mistaken for the real thing. Not until the 1930s and Lester Gaba did realism become ubiquitous.
Lester Gaba was a soap sculptor in New York and was asked by a large department store if he could produce some mannequins in a more stable material with the same detail and quality that he could get with soap. He created six astonishing specimens from plaster that become known as the ‘Gaba Girls’. They were each given names and a party at a prestigious hotel where they were dressed in fine clothes and jewels, New York high-society loved them! The socialites also loved Lester Gaba who had taken to the eccentric habit of going everywhere with a sitting mannequin called Cynthia. Cynthia, elbow on her knees with a cigarette in hand, traveled by taxi and appeared with Lester Gaba in a box at the opera, the Stork Club and many other famous venues. The publicity was enormous and stores could not get enough of the Gaba Girls or their imitators.
The depression and the Second World War brought about shortages and shop windows became rather somber with the mannequins of the day looking slightly melancholy and concerned. However it all changed when the war was over and by the late 1940s mannequins looked happy and prosperous, some of them even wore a radiant smile. Male mannequins in particular looked relaxed and some even had holes drilled between their lips for inserting pipes!
In the 1950s new materials became available and by the late 1960s the true mass production of fiberglass and then plastic mannequins became a reality. Advances in technology have continued so that mannequin artists can now manufacture any conceivable design and are bounded only by the limits of their creativity.