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  • Jonathan Walford

Forms & Function

We have been receiving a lot of comments and questions about our mannequins. Many of them are vintage, and some need to be restored, but no matter how many we have, it's never enough!


The word mannequin comes from the Dutch word maneken, which means 'little men'. The oldest extant form surfaced when King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1922. The 3300 year old torso stood near a clothing chest presumably as a place for displaying the king’s clothing or jewellery when not being worn.


Tutankhamun display form; French fashion doll, 1770s; French wax mannequin, c. 1920

The next documented use of mannequins dates from about 1600 when Henry IV of France sent fashion dolls attired in the latest French styles to his fiancée, Marie de’ Medici of Florence. The use of dolls to disseminate fashion was also used by the French in the 18th century when Marie Antoinette sent miniature styles worn at Versailles to her mother and sisters in Austria. Display mannequins in men’s tailoring establishments, came into being during the 19th century. Costume stands, as they were often called, were made of wicker, wire, leather, or papier-mâché, and were usually headless and armless bodies fitted with iron boots so that they stood firmly.


Life-like female mannequins did not come into existence until the very end of the 19th century. In 1868 plate glass was invented and during the 1880s, electric lighting was becoming popular. These two developments allowed for the creation of large display windows in the new departments stores that were springing up in major cities. The age of window-shopping was born!


The earliest store mannequins were wax figures with glass eyes and human hair, set into their scalps strand by strand, looking much like figures from Madame Tussaud’s museum. An amusing anecdote relayed in a Smithsonian magazine article told of a story of a window display in the 1910s. The window trimmer had set up a scene of a dinner party with the hostess holding a glass of wine in the frozen moment of offering a toast. The next morning: “The window dresser … noticed a crowd gathered around his display… he was sure it was in admiration of his work. Proudly pushing his way through the assemblage, he was shocked to see that his hostess had softened shamefully under the heat of the lamps. She was slumped over the table, her mouth sagging, the spilled wineglass still clutched in her now limp hand. The congenial atmosphere of the night before had become the ‘morning after’…” By the late 1920s plaster mannequins were replacing wax figures, in part to avoid these types of model meltdowns.


In 1936, sculptor Lester Gaba was commissioned by Saks Fifth Avenue to create a seated plaster mannequin. Gaba called the mannequin Cynthia, and over the next few years Cynthia sometimes accompanied Gaba on various outings, including the opera. This modern Pygmalion story was reported in Life magazine, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The eccentric relationship seems to have been a publicity stunt, made obvious by witty responses by Gaba who explained Cynthia’s lack of conversational skills was due to a severe case of laryngitis. Cynthia’s demise occurred in 1939 when she apparently slipped from a chair at a beauty salon and smashed into a thousand pieces. Her passing was reported in the New York Times.



Gaby and Cynthia out for dinner

By the 1950s fibreglass was being used for making mannequins, with latex hands for flexibility for putting on gloves. However, latex hardens with age, and it’s rare to find a mannequin from the 1950s or 1960s where the fingers aren't missing, or at best, showing signs of having been re-glued several times.

In the October 14, 1972 edition of Canadian Panorama, writer Gwen Beattie reported “In case you haven’t already noticed, the sexual revolution has surfaced in the shop windows on main street. The need for merchants to display the new see-through, no-bras fashions made it essential that the mannequins of the world be liberated. So dress dummies now have nipples.”


With and without nipples, I collected vintage mannequins for years until about twenty years ago (right before the founding the museum), I sold them to a collector in Chicago. I regret that now, but I am gradually rebuilding the collection for the museum and some of them are now on display in our new exhibition 300 Years of Fashion.

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