In design and retail, the faces of mannequins are often featureless, their bodies reduced to torsos. At museums such as the V&A, they are sawn, bent and padded to fit the exhibits. It is all part of their ambiguous presence in society – constantly dehumanised, yet creepily human
One of the quieter items in the David Bowie Is exhibition, which is now touring the world after its first incarnation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last year, was a 1972 notebook containing the singer's measurements. In the year of Ziggy Stardust, when Bowie is said to have been getting by on "milk, red peppers, cigarettes and coke", his waist spanned a mere 26.5 inches. Also in the show are 59 mannequins wearing outfits from various stages of Bowie's career. When the V&A started to think about the display back in 2009, Lara Flecker in the museum's textile display department soon realised that there were no suitable contemporary men's mannequins for Bowie's stage costumes from the early 1970s: "He's just tiny. There were no mannequins that were even close."
It's a common problem in historical costume display; not only were people smaller, but before the 1960s, affluent women in particular owed much of their silhouette to their corsetry. Flecker's solution was to turn to Proportion London, which specialises in supplying mannequins to retailers and designers ranging from Primark to Alexander McQueen, and to its sister company Gems Studio.
The Bespoke range is designed for traditional men's tailors
Proportion has a showroom in Clerkenwell and a factory in Walthamstow in east London, but it first opened for business as the British branch of Siegel and Stockman, a French company, which was founded in 1867 and still operates in Paris today. (Fredric Stockman is credited with making the first papier-mâché bustforms and his Stockman tailor's dummy is still in use, as is the system of dress sizing he invented.)
In 2007, Proportion acquired Gems Studio, which specialised in waxworks before branching out into conservation-grade museum mannequins. The two companies share a showroom and the boundary between them seems very porous. Taking Proportion's existing Metropolitan mannequin, a fibreglass figure with a slender 28-inch waist, Flecker and the Gems team worked with the sculptor Ron Patterson to create a new figure.
"The idea wasn't that we were imitating Bowie, it was so that the clothes would look good," Flecker says, although there was more imitation involved here than usual; the Gems team worked with a clay life mask of Bowie which was sculpted on to each of the mannequins' abstract faces.
Walking through Proportion's showroom is an odd experience. As Natasha Berridge of Proportion says, "You don't notice mannequins, they're made just to blend into the background. Subsconsciously you see the clothes and not the mannequins, but when you start to know, you think, 'I see this everywhere!'" This pinpoints exactly what's so strange about the showroom; instead of displaying clothes, the largely bare mannequins – wearing perhaps a bikini here, a necktie there – are selling themselves to their potential buyers.
Each model seems to be displayed in a rough approximation of its eventual home. The Bespoke range, a cutaway bust form (a torso on a stand) covered in faux-suede and with optional wooden articulated arms, is intended for Savile Row tailors and is the main occupant of the largest viewing room, a softly lit high-ceilinged space with exposed brick walls and deep sofas.
The conservation studio at the V&A in South Kensington, in contrast, is a much busier scene of organised piles of fabric and huddles of mannequins in varying stages of undress. There's a definite air of being backstage, with the museum being the performance area. Textile display specialist Sam Gatley shows me the mannequins she is preparing for the Horst P Horst exhibition opening this month.
Museum, a mannequin developed by the V&A and Proportion London
In addition to the fashion photographer's prints, there will also be a display of nine figures wearing haute couture by some of the designers that Horst's work made famous. As usual, the dresses, including a Vionnet dress, which is undergoing 300 hours of restoration, were made for figures with much smaller busts and waists than most women (or contemporary mannequins) have today.
For Horst, the V&A will be using its customised, slimmed-down version of Proportion's Fluid mannequin, which it has also used in the recent Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition. Fluid is a fibreglass figure – she's the Marks & Spencer underwear girl, display team member Keira Miller points out – with an "abstract", ie featureless, face.
But even with its smaller bust and waist, it's still hard to get a dress on to an inanimate figure that can't get its arms above its head. Gatley says, "Sometimes you saw the bust off," and points to a table in the studio covered with a hammers, chisels and a striking set of three Japanese saws. There are technicians to do the really hard work, but the conservators often make the smaller adjustments themselves.
What the costume display department is trying to do in every case is to recreate the body for which a garment is originally made. It's also about protecting the outfit as much as making an effective display. The display specialists all trained as costume makers; their work at the V&A asks them to work in reverse, to fit the mannequin to the exhibit.
Proportion's Fluid mannequin, wearing a Maggy Rouff evening dress, c. 1935, for the Horst exhibition
To put as little pressure as possible on delicate seams and avoid any stretching of fabric, they always start with the smallest figure possible and pad out areas if necessary, making simple tube petticoats (especially if the mannequin has no legs) and other undergarments as needed.
As Miller says, "We can make things beautiful. They need to have all sorts of support that no one has any idea about." Flecker is also the author of A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting, which shows the same garment mounted before and after the making of invisible supports and photographed in identical light; the transformations are startling.
To get a long-sleeved, high-necked, black satin Mainbocher dress (1938) covered in a swirling pattern of gold and sequins on to its mannequin, Gatley had to cut off most of the model's bust (building it up again later with padding) and completely remove its shoulders and arms. "Her hands are tied on tapes hanging round her neck," she explains.
The Horst mannequins have sculpted 1930s hairstyles; these are white nylon wigs from Gems, which have been sprayed several times to match the paint finish of the rest of the figure. The poses are meant to suggest the attitudes struck by models in Horst's photographs; it's a relaxed and relatively uncomplicated set of gestures which haven't required special sculpting.
But for an exhibition like Hollywood Costume, which showed Keanu Reeves' character in the Matrix hovering above the ground as he faces Hugo Weaving, Gatley and her colleagues will often photograph each other attempting the pose for reference and measurement purposes. Most of the V&A's mannequins, whether for special exhibitions or in the permanent galleries, have abstract faces.
Proportion's contemporary and vintage mannequins
It's a growing trend in retail as well. Berridge suggests that the tipping point for this was the recession, as featureless figures are more reuseable. But it's high-end fashion retailers or designers that tend to use plainer mannequins, to let the clothes to speak for themselves – you're more likely to see "realistic" mannequins at TopShop.
It's often a struggle to show clothes to their best advantage and to satisfy an exhibition designer's requirements at the same time. "People have such strong reactions," says Flecker, adding that one of the first questions people ask is, will they have heads or not? She says that the decade-long fashion for cutting away limbs and heads, reducing mannequins to the torso, is on its way out – "What brings a mannequin to life are the limbs" – but can see the problem: "The fear is that they [the mannequins] date, that there is something creepy about them ..."
The recent Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition, which began at the Brooklyn Museum and was at the Barbican in London until last month, had an arresting opening room of mannequins on to which holograms of live faces had been projected. With the accompanying soundtrack of the figures talking – the quilted "JPG" mannequin loudest of all – the effect was mesmerisingly unsettling.
As Gatley puts it, the exhibition was close to the idea of the Uncanny Valley, a concept introduced by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in a 1970 paper, which explores the degree to which humanoid figures make the viewer uneasy by blurring the line between "almost human" and creepily lifelike.
Tools in the V&A's conservation studio at South Kensington
Mannequins are obviously uncanny for being inanimate stand-ins for a living figure, but there's a further ambiguity in their role as what the fashion historian Caroline Evans has described as "a subject and an object, animate and inanimate, live woman and dummy". Derived from manikin, the Dutch for "little man", the term came to be used in 18th-century France for dolls dressed in the latest fashions, which toured the provinces to show what was being worn in Paris.
Eventually, this led to the display of clothes on live mannequins, an approach pioneered by Charles Frederick Worth, the father of the haute couture system. The first US department stores were holding "mannequin parades" by the turn of the 20th century, while Parisian designer Paul Poiret, who freed women from restrictive corsets before Coco Chanel, used to tour with his models, dressing them in travelling uniforms.
In 1911, for example, his mannequins wore blue serge and plaid suits and oilcloth hats embroidered with a P. The inanimate kind, on the other hand, played a starring role at the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition organised by André Breton and Paul Éluard. And Oskar Kokoschka fulfilled all of Evans' possibilities for the mannequin – and crossed into sex-toy territory – when he commissioned a lifesize doll of his former lover Alma Mahler from a dressmaker in 1918. The Alma doll is said to have come to a brutal end, beheaded by a drunk Kokoschka one night in his back garden.
Conservation-grade mannequins may not be objects of desire, but they lead a more turbulent existence than most of us would imagine. Ashley Backhouse of Gems Studio explains that when they're asked to supply a model with gestures, they'll usually suggest one with straight arms: 'They're easier to bend and just break at the elbow. It sounds quite dramatic, but we do talk a lot about breaking knee-caps."