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 Pizabay

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?

Yes! Wonderful Things! Fashionable Man-Cardigans and the Mannequin Challenge

In 1907, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon hired Egyptologist Howard Carter to aid him in his excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Carter worked for years, with a brief break caused by World War I, but it wasn’t until November 4, 1922, with Lord Carnarvon growing impatient and about to pull the plug on the whole operation, Carter got his big break.

That’s when he found stairs that led to a tomb he thought likely to be undisturbed. On November 26th, with the excited Lord Carnarvon by his side, Carter chiseled a small hole leading to the antechamber of the young, and fairly insignificant King Tutankhamun. When asked if he saw anything, the Egyptologist answered, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

It took months to catalogue everything in the antechamber and it wasn’t until 1932 that Carter was finished removing the thousands of wonderful things buried with the pharaoh. Among those were musical instruments, chariots, weapons, and a mannequin.

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Life-size bust of Tutankhamun, found in his tomb. And possibly, the world’s oldest fashion mannequin. By Jon Bodsworth [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons
At least that’s the purpose Carter suggested for the life-size, armless bust of King Tut, that it was used to model his jewelry, and robes, and fashionable man-cardigans. And dating from around 1350 BC, it may have been among the first of its kind.

Since then mannequins have gone through a number of changes. They’ve been life-size dolls shipped between European Aristocracy to exchange fashion trends, whicker dress-forms, and awkward 300-hundred pound sculptures with false teeth, glass eyes, and real hair.

At times they’ve been made from easily melted wax, have become the celebrated date on the arms of the occasional disturbed artist, and have come to life as the love interest in a bad eighties movie. Mannequins have been both curvy and slender, to reflect the fashion ideal of the era. They’ve been mangled by Salvador Dali, and they’ve often appeared in shop windows with no arms, no legs, and no heads. But longer than we’ve had big shop windows to put them in, and maybe even longer than we’ve had fashionable man-cardigans to display, mannequins have been around to creep us out.

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A headless mannequin could never pull off this look. photo credit: vtpoly best mannequin eyes, Seattle via photopin (license)

Recently, a new kind of mannequin has taken over the Internet. Scores of people are now rising to the mannequin challenge. And by scores, of course, I mean high school students, athletes, and probably very soon, people old enough they probably ought to have better things to do.

The way it goes is that a group of people stand, completely still in mid-activity, as if they are mannequins, while another person with a camera moves among them filming close-ups of their stunningly (or not so) executed poses. And usually there’s music, because let’s face it, people standing still is not, on its own, necessarily an exciting thing to watch.

I say, why not rise to it? Because Internet challenges have been with us for years (not like actual mannequins, or man-cardigans, or King Tut, but still, a while) and this one might have come at just the right time. I think after the week the US (and to some extent the world) has had, and is having, we might all be feeling a little frozen anyway.

So go ahead, give it a try. I would, but I’m old enough I probably ought to have better things to do.