Mannequins: History, Trends, and Key Figures

The latest social media fad is the so-called #mannequinchallenge. It consists of a large group of people posing as if they were frozen in time while someone passes through them, recording the scene with a video camera. At FashionUnited, we'll have a look at the trends, history, and key figures of the mannequin industry.

Mannequins: From the Industrial Revolution to the present day

Mannequins date back to the Industrial Revolution. The first mannequins appeared at around the same time as urban department stores, sewing machines, and city street lights. In around 1870, shopping began to be seen as something that was not just necessary, but also enjoyable. For many city dwellers, window shopping was the highlight of their week. Back then, mannequins were made of wax and had false teeth, real hair, and glass eyes. Lifeless female display models came in three varieties: right foot forward, left foot forward, or both feet together. To preserve the innocence of these somewhat realistic-looking figures, a law was enacted requiring stores to cover their windows before changing their mannequins’ clothes.

Mannequins: History, Trends, and Key Figures

Mannequins throughout the ages

Wax figures had drawbacks: they melted when it was hot and were extremely heavy. During the 1920s, the French company Siegel & Stockman found a solution to these problems by inventing the paper maché mannequin, which weighed a good 100 pounds less than its waxy counterparts. Moreover, the mannequin figure evolved from a Victorian prototype with a full bosom and wasp waist into a boyish, flapper style genre.

The name Käthe Kruse may sound familiar to some people in the mannequin industry. But the fact that she invented a metal skeleton in the 1930s which provided mannequins with the ability to move has long since been forgotten.

Mannequins: History, Trends, and Key Figures

Brought to life

In the 1930s, doll maker Lester Gaba created a lifelike mannequin named Cynthia, and proceeded to take her along to his various events. The pair became celebrities, with Cynthia proving to be quite the endorsement — Tiffany’s, for example, sent her jewelry, while LIFE Magazine ran a feature on the couple. Their relationship took a tragic turn, however, when Cynthia fell off a chair and broke into a thousand pieces. 1987 saw the release of the movie '”Mannequin,” starring Kim Cattral as a mannequin who comes to life. The film is partly inspired by the aforementioned episode and partly a revival of the Pygmalion myth, but with ‘80s fashion.

Mannequins: History, Trends, and Key Figures

Shifting ideas about the perfect body type

A study by Minna Rintala and Pertti Mustajoki shows that during the Second World War, the circumference of mannequins worldwide was reduced by several centimeters. Once the war was over, the original circumference was able to be restored. Smiles also returned to the female mannequins’ serious-looking faces. The firm Wolf & Vine created the first mannequin out of plastic, but unfortunately found that it appeared green under the special store window light and withdrew it from the market. Nevertheless, plastic quickly became the new material for mannequins, until it was replaced by fiberglass in the 1960s.

The '50s and early ‘60s were epitomized by Marilyn Monroe’s hourglass figure, which was also reflected in mannequin designs until being supplanted by Twiggy lookalikes in the '60s. During the ‘70s, mannequins became more abstract and lost many of their facial features. In addition, their ideal weight once again approached that of a “healthier” looking female. This carried over into the ‘80s with the aerobics trend, as mannequins acquired abs. Super skinny mannequins à la Kate Moss were in vogue in the ‘90s. Later, plus size mannequins were introduced to the market. These mannequins wore a size 14 and were therefore closer to the average size of consumers.

Mannequins: History, Trends, and Key Figures

Current trends

Cornel Klugmann of the Dutch mannequin manufacturer Hans Boodt explains another trend, which has lasted several years and is currently being brought back - namely realistic facial features. “For a long time, it was all about an abstract design. But now we are gradually seeing the reemergence of more pronounced facial features. These semi-abstract mannequins are a sign that targeted advertising is becoming a renewed priority.” Nowadays, mannequins are even outfitted with technical gadgets. “iBeacons and scanners are still optional gadgets requested by only a handful of customers. But to us, these “gadgets” are of the utmost importance, for they can help us collect data on target groups.”

Mannequins - Key figures

In 2007, a law was enacted in Spain forbidding the use of mannequins smaller than a size 6. In general, female mannequins are 5’11, which is 6 inches taller than the average height of average women. They wear a 4-6 dress size, which also deviates from the norm. Mannequins have a 34B bra size, an average waist of 24-25 inches, and 36-inch hips. There are roughly 100 mannequin manufacturers throughout the world. Twice per year, each of these manufacturers releases a new mannequin collection featuring six to twelve new poses.

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On average, a mannequin costs 875 dollars and has a life span of seven years. Recently, the mannequin industry has stepped up efforts to recycle its products. At Hans Boodt, for example, an old mannequin can be returned when purchasing a new one. If the company is unable to find a new home for the old mannequin, then the mannequin is recycled. The mannequin business earns an estimated 1.4 billion dollars per year. Its most important trade show is the EuroShop in Düsseldorf, Germany. Cornel Klugmann reckons that something like five to a maximum of ten manufacturers supply 80 percent of the global demand for mannequins.

1. Hans Boodt Website
2. Detroit’s Elliott, Taylor, & Woolfenden department store, c. 1905, shows a limited range of early poses and appendages. Image via the Library of Congress
3. This extravagant 1928 window display for Atwater Kent radios shows the heightened realism of many mannequins following World War I. Image via the Library of Congress.
4- 6. Hans Boodt Website