Plastic Faces and Great Hats

On November 5, 1854 French tailor Alexis Lavigne filed the world’s first patent for the mannequin, though by then he’d been perfecting its use for a number of years and had displayed a prototype as early as 1849 in the Industrial Expedition in Paris. As the industrial revolution had begun to make itself felt and the metric system took over most of Europe, Lavigne understood the shifting of the clothing industry away from individually tailored items toward those which could be mass-produced.

Armed with a flexible tape measure, which he invented, Lavigne set out to study human body types and measurements and produce mannequins that could approximate them, reducing the need for large numbers of fittings and increasing productivity in the fashion industry. And that was a pretty great use for mannequins.

This mannequin doesn’t creep me out, but it would still probably look better in a dress than I would. Image by AnnaliseArt, via Pixabay

Known in the fashion industry as Professor Lavigne, the founder of the famous French fashion school ESMOD, the inventor was not the first person to ever make a vaguely creepy fake person, even for the purpose of modeling clothing. Dating back to 1350 BC, King Tut had a mannequin of himself tucked away in his tomb, that some scholars have suggested may have been used for assembling fashionable pharaoh garb.  

Of course, plenty of artists, too, including Marie Tussaud modeled life-size, and much more lifelike, sculptures of people. When mannequins began to make their way into the department stores of the twentieth century, they became more lifelike, too.

Materials changed from wax to papier-mâché to plastic and female mannequins went from busty to boyish and back again to reflect trends in ideal body shapes. Headless busts gave way to pronounced facial features complete with realistic hair and pouty lips, which then became bald and faceless forms or even unfortunate mannequins who had once again lost their heads.

I would not look as good as this fake person does in this real hat. But I would occasionally blink. Image by KRiemer, via Pixabay

But regardless of the trend, there’s probably always been something just a little unsettling about mannequins. As lifelike as they can sometimes be, mannequins don’t move. Instead they openly stare at anyone passing by in a way that is so unnatural that in the right lighting, or on the set of a horror film, it can appear frightening. They are the silent observers, who in some ways, are just a little bit superior to their human counterparts.

Mannequins are more fashionable than most of us, are much better at holding that perfect awkward pose to best show off their hemlines, and they are completely comfortable in their clothing choices. They’re slimmer than most of us, slightly more ideal in proportion than most of us, and they always look good in hats. They are these disturbing, often quite pretty, pieces of art that stand in the place that should be occupied by people.

And now they are going to restaurants and baseball games, occupying even more spaces that should belong to living and breathing human beings.

Apparently in Taiwan, where baseball is in about as full swing as any of us is likely to see this year, the stands are filled with mannequins. And at least one popular restaurant in Virginia is seating stylishly-dressed mannequins at tables that would otherwise remain empty for social distancing purposes. And yes, even though mannequins are notoriously bad tippers, if you go, they will probably still be served before you.

This family is all ready to go to the hockey game. But I can’t tell if they’re excited.

I suppose it’s a creative solution to the problem of discomfort created by empty spaces once occupied by people. Humans are social creatures by nature, and even the most introverted among us often crave communal experiences. But I’m not convinced that this is a great use for mannequins because regardless of how good they look in hats, I don’t think they can give us that.

Instead, I fear we will find ourselves surrounded by frozen, emotionless faces made of plastic and will be reminded even more starkly that the community we crave is at home in its pajamas.

And I think we might all feel just a little bit lonelier for it.

So, I’m curious. What do you think? Would you want to dine with mannequins? Or watch them sitting in the stands cheering for your favorite teams in your stead?

14 thoughts on “Plastic Faces and Great Hats

  1. I dislike the faceless ones the most. Missing arms, legs and head is fine, but no face is plain spooky. I didn’t know about the inventor of the flexible tape measure – not to be confused with Lasagna and eaten.

  2. I could deal with a sports audience filled with mannequins, but I do NOT want to eat next to them. I mean it’s bad enough having to be seated in the table right next to a living someone who looks like a supermodel…a whole restaurant filled with perfect bodies would body-shame me into eating nothing!

    And now I’m reminded of a story I heard yesterday about a sporting event “peopled” by blow-up dolls when the team’s mannequin order got messed up.

  3. When I was six or seven there was an episode of Dr Who involving shop-window mannequins coming alive and chasing people down the street. I remember being rather spooked by mannequins for a while after that, usually when my Mum went into clothes shops with me & my sister in tow. I seem to recall that the same bad guys turned up on the revived series as predatory wheelie-bins that ate people… also a bit spooky, but only in the sense of ‘what on earth were the writers THINKING?’ (I do rather like the show, though, and I wish I had my own TARDIS).

  4. Sam Hall

    Manikins awake memories. I remember my first visit to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in Victoria, BC. It seems it featured methods of execution. Each figure was more frightful than the one before it, and as I approached the Algerian Hook–an unfortunate impaled on a huge hook–I heard a penetrating scream that echoed thru the entire exhibit. It seems that as a young lass walked by a Beefeater, the yeoman guard at the Tower of London, she paused to stare into his face. She murmured how lifelike it appeared, when it winked at her!
    Needless to say, it was a real person, dressed in period costume, standing perfectly still. Already hyped by the macabre examples of punishment to evildoers, she couldn’t take the sly wink.
    As I recall, they had to practically carry the little lady out of the place. While we enjoyed her distress, thereafter we viewed each figure with no little trepidation.

  5. I have been enjoying ad nauseum reruns of The Devil Wears Prada but didn’t make the connection till now to think about comparing the real/unreal models in that film to the mannequins, photo cutouts and video screens used to stand in for the actual live bodies missing from recent sporting events. I have found that to be an amusing use, in combination with the recorded crowd noise that, given the extended longer than anyone expected period of physical isolation we are all enduring, almost gives me a feeling of watching a normal NBA playoff or World Series game. As far as sitting them at restaurant tables to mimic real live bodies, again for the purpose of pandemic social distancing, I applaud the creativity and sense of humor of those proprietors. Since you don’t live in L.A., I’ll forgive you for overlooking the use of mannequins (and sometimes even blow up dolls, or so I heard) to fill the bill for a passenger and thus enable frequent freeway users to make use of the carpool lane. At least until they were caught by sharp-eyed officers!

    1. Ha! I didn’t think about that use of mannequins. Fortunately I don’t have a busy city freeway commute to worry about, but I have heard of people doing that in the carpool lane. I’m afraid I really ended up having a hard time enjoying baseball this year. Radio was better, but television was too depressing.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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