Gift display in a fashion shop on Saville Row, Newcastle upon Tyne (1966).
flickr.com/Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
origin story / culture

Retail Therapy

What our mannequins say about us.
Cynthia’s face remained completely blank, wearing that same empty stare at the theater, Bergdorf’s, a private dinner party, and even her regular hair salon. Everywhere she went, Cynthia tantalized the paparazzi and her adoring public—always seen on the arm of the fashionable Lester Gaba, wearing the runway’s latest styles and enjoying New York nightlife to the fullest—but still her gaze revealed nothing.

Of course, that’s because Cynthia was a mannequin, crafted by Gaba to promote his retail display business. In 1937, Gaba’s irreverent experiment captivated the public by spotlighting our larger fixation with mannequins, made up of a strange blend of adoration, emulation, discomfort, and sometimes even terror. Cynthia was merely the descendant of a long line of mannequins, whose idealized bodies gave shape to our materialist fantasies at least since the time of the Egyptians.

When archaeologists opened King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, they found a wooden torso bearing the king’s likeness near a chest containing the young pharaoh’s wardrobe, considered the oldest-known forerunner to modern mannequins. This bust was likely used to model Tutankhamen’s elaborate garments and jewelry, providing a stationary figure matching the king’s specific measurements to assist with clothing design and adjustment.

“That would be more like a display form made for tailors and seamstresses, used almost like clothes hangers back then,” says Dr. Marsha Bentley Hale, one of the world’s foremost mannequin experts, who began amassing an extensive archive of research during the 1980s. “Eventually, they became mannequins, the figures that sell fashion.”

Similar to the elaborate fashion dolls that preceded them, retail mannequins were first developed to model the latest clothing styles for wealthy shoppers. The Industrial Revolution generated a surge in mass-produced clothing, requiring new stores with larger shopping spaces in cities across the globe. By the mid-19th century, the garment industry recognized the display form’s potential to make clothing come alive, and with the proliferation of shops—from five-and-dimes to luxury department stores—came an additional market for mannequins.
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