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DDI Magazine

Visual Perspectives

By Ann Fine Patterson
August 11, 2012

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As a kid, I spent hours playing “Barbie.” For me, it wasn’t at all about play acting the fabulous life of a popular teenage female—it was all about the clothes, accessories and hair. Back then, it wasn’t about how many dolls you had. You had one doll, perhaps an additional Ken, Midge or Skipper (Barbie’s retail sidekicks), and lots of clothes and fashion accessories. I was a fashion stylist in the making. Thank you Ruth Handler, Mattel’s creator of the Barbie, for helping to shape my career (the unrealistic perception of body image, as some feminists might say, didn’t phase me one bit).

Fast-forward 15 years, and I was styling mannequins in a large department store. At the time, we had an army of Caucasian female mannequins across a variety of ages (meaning current to out of date) made by a variety of manufacturers. There was a small cast of males—two head designs and about three poses. A smattering of youth and a small few diverse females rounded it out: three Asian, three black and a pair of full-figured gals. As a young fashion stylist (and former Barbie connoisseur), I had a strong affinity for mannequins. There were good ones, bad ones, ugly horse-face ones and ones that were stunningly beautiful. Styling them was an art in itself. And based on their pose and particular outfit, it could be difficult at best to dress them—even for a skilled professional. Who would have thought my childhood entertainment would evolve into an actual paying career?!

Although in my mind I felt I was being paid to play, the goal, after all, was to sell merchandise. There is no better way to sell apparel than to put it on a human form—certainly not a new idea.

Mannequins were created to do that very thing—sell a lifestyle and sell products. Based on my research, they date back to 16th-century Venice on the Grand Canal, where life-sized dolls were presented in the latest French fashions. The history of mannequins is fascinating and has gone through a long series of metamorphoses—from wicker to wire, straw, wax, cloth, wood, fiberglass, resin, plastic and any combination thereof. Throughout the history of mannequins, and even early on, you will find life-like, realistic, articulated, abstract, odd and even ridiculous. The mannequins of the ’30s copied all physical types—large, impressive mature sizes in both male and female (women’s size 46!)—not just perfectly proportioned pubescent figures.

In the early days, mannequins were designed and created by a variety of vendors coming from Europe. Today, there are even more mannequin companies to choose from, including those from China and the United States. You can find them from high-end to economical, fully custom to off the shelf.  Poses, sizes, shapes and finishes galore—you name it. In most cases, you’re limited only by your imagination or budget. You can even find environmentally friendly mannequins made of vegetable matter!

So, what’s the point of my history lesson, you ask?

Well, here it goes: I am walking the malls, and window after window the mannequins all look the same. A pasty white or gray finish, a variety of somewhat static poses and NO HEADS! Store after store, there is no apparent point of differentiation. With so many different retail brands out there, I am astonished by the lack of brand identification through a key merchandising tool being used to sell a lifestyle product and a brand. It’s not that the options aren’t available (and some retailers do get it), but mostly the choices being made are boringly safe. My guess is that the executive mannequin steering committee at each retail organization is weighing in on what is most appropriate and PC. Does removing a head make a mannequin more PC? Lack of a face? What about body shape—what is PC there? Customers also “weigh in” with a point of view. I once received a customer complaint while working at a fashion retailer that the mannequins were too skinny. While I know of many mannequin vendors that are capable of producing a muffin-top midriff, I am not really sure that would sell more tops! 

Fashion figures are there to suggest and sell the idea of lifestyle clothing. In most cases, these bodies/forms need to be aesthetically pleasing and designed to best fit the garments to be sold. The significance and definition of muscle and other “parts” should be considered in relation to clothing fit and the lifestyle you intend to communicate. There also are the decisions on the head and face. I, quite frankly, am annoyed by the simple solution of “off with the head,” which seems to be the Henry VIII choice of the day.

As always with visual merchandising, there is a balance of form, function and practicality. Here are some factors to consider for mannequin selection:

Form: Overall design look and fit for the brand and apparel lifestyle to be conveyed, garment fit and related body type. Finish color intended to enhance not distract from the products.

Function: Appropriate poses—the more complex the pose, the more skill required to dress. Mannequin assembly and number of parts, durability and weight, ease of use and skill level of those dressing mannequins.

Price: Basically you get what you pay for. A decent mannequin should last a number of years (five-plus), so I suggest thinking of this as a long-term investment.

Sad to say, but the lack of variety and PC approach to mannequins today may simply be a sign of the times. I must consider history and the mannequin style cycle will trend as the apparel fashion cycle does. And the fashion cycle indeed responds to the state of the economy and related politics—perhaps an indicator of how and why we currently have lost our heads.

—Ann Fine Patterson, principal of Ann Fine Patterson LLC, is a 20-plus-year career
professional in visual merchandising. She shares her insights in this bi-issue column. Email her at ann@annfinepatterson.com.