manikins and mannequins

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manikins and mannequins A variant of ‘mannequin’ is ‘manikin’ and the latter's definition might well describe the present day role of the international fashion model: ‘one of the small gaily-coloured birds of the passerine family inhabiting tropical America’. Mannequin, manikin, and model are all terms which suggest a creature designed to be seen rather than heard and the origins of the contemporary ‘mannequin’ (a word now rarely used) are to be found in the dual worlds of fine art and fashion.

Artists' models of the human variety have a long history, but the small, jointed figures found among the stocks of artists suppliers also date back several centuries. A number of examples survive from the eighteenth century, including the articulated lay figure used by the sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac, which is in the Museum of London collections. This small, androgynous creature with its box containing both male and female clothing can be transformed into a fashionable miniature artist's model by the addition of wig, hat, and garments. The 1771 inventory of the artist Louis-Michel van Loo's possessions lists ‘des mannequins et leurs habits’. Other artists used life-sized lay figures on which garments of distinguished sitters could be arranged to ensure that no mistake was made when painting the details of state robes, orders etc. In many respects such full-scale models must have resembled the life-size effigies carried on the coffins of the great; examples of these can be seen in the museum attached to Westminster Abbey.

Fashion dolls also have a long history, and their origins can be traced back to the fourteenth century. These carefully dressed miniatures wore the latest fashions and, although fragile, were transported throughout Europe and to the New World to display the latest fabrics, styles of dress, accessories, and hairdressing. They were despatched to milliners and dressmakers prepared to pay, and be paid in return by their customers, for the privilege of displaying the latest fashions from London or Paris. By the end of the eighteenth century, fashion journals had replaced these travelling mannequins (the term used in French, alongside poupée (doll) to describe both artists' miniature figures and fashion dolls).

It is not known exactly when and where a dressmaker decided to demonstrate new fashions to customers by displaying them on a young woman whose height and physique would show the design to advantage. As with many other innovations, the credit for the idea is given to the first great couturier, the Englishman Charles Worth. He used his wife to model his latest creations both within his salon and in the fashionable meeting places of second empire Paris. In fact, as Diana de Marly's History of Haute Couture (Batsford 1980) makes clear, when Worth worked at Gagelin, the Parisian mercer's, from the late 1840s until 1858, the silk shawls and mantles which they sold alongside rolls of fabric were modelled for potential customers over plain dresses worn by demoiselles de magasin, one of whom, Marie Vernet, became Worth's wife. This practice had probably evolved naturally as an element in persuasive salesmanship, particularly in regard to the latest styles. The advantage of house mannequins was that young women of the physique which reflected the current ideal of fashion provided human forms on which new ideas could be tried without argument or discussion.

Paul Poiret, a couturier of considerable influence in the ten years before 1914 was inspired to create clothes which suited his wife Denise, a slender woman quite unlike the statuesque beauties usually associated with that period. His designs were much admired and copied and it is, in part, from him that we can trace the origins of narrower lines worn by graceful, slender mannequins. He was also a powerful self-publicist, taking his clothes, mannequins and even an early film ‘on tour’ to major European capitals in 1912 and to New York in 1913. His mannequins were also photographed in his latest designs, but they competed with society figures and actresses who more readily personified the current ideals of beauty and physique.

Lucile, an English couturier, claimed the credit for introducing fashion shows in her salon in London; she employed tall, buxom mannequins of nearly six foot to impress her customers. Two of them became so celebrated that they were known by name: Dolores and Hebe. Fashion shows became so popular in Europe and America that by 1913 The Daily Express reported that they were ‘rivalling in popularity the ordinary theatre play’.

Many of the elements: theatrical display, exquisitely crafted garments, memorable young mannequins (the term ‘model’ did not start to replace the word mannequin until the 1920s), publicity through photography and in magazines, have changed little since that period. However, for a long time modelling was a badly paid, often boring occupation. Until the 1950s there were no model agencies to advise and develop the careers of young entrants to this field. Couturiers, department stores, and magazines could provide work, and finishing schools and charm schools taught the rudiments of grooming and movement, but the assessment of a model's abilities and whether she should work in a salon, on the catwalk, in a photographic studio, or could combine all these elements was immeasurably assisted by the introduction of agencies.

A spurious glamour surrounded the work even when it was poorly paid; models wore beautiful clothes, travelled to faraway locations, and married rich men, or so it was thought. Some inspired great designers, such as Lulu de la Falaise at Yves Saint Laurent; others, like Twiggy, signalled the importance of the youth market, with clothing designed to be fun, cheap, and disposable, not exquisite and expensive. By the 1980s and 1990s the most successful models were known by name, highly paid, travelled to the most glamorous cities and resorts in the world and had become, in some instances, even more famous than the designers whose clothes they modelled. The shadow side of this evolution from anonymous mannequin to celebrity model can be found within the powerful fashion industry. For what had begun as a means to show clothes to advantage within a couturier's salon developed into an internationally promoted but often unrealizable ideal of female perfection which has spawned diets and eating disorders with occasional tragic consequences for impressionable women.

Valerie Cumming


Garland, M. (1957). The changing face of beauty. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.
McDowell, C. (1984). McDowell's directory of twentieth century fashion. Frederick Muller, London.
Ribeiro, A. (1984). Dress in eighteenth century europe, 1715–1789. Batsford, London.
Ribeiro, A. (1995). The art of dress, fashion in England and France 1750–1820. Yale University Press, New Haven.

See also fashion; modelling, fashion.