The traditional mannequin needs a revamp—here’s why

They look like us, or at least we’d like them to. They remain eerily still. Mostly. They are considered crucial to the showcasing and sale of clothes, which makes them complicated. For a period of time during lockdown, they were the only thing to inhabit many clothes stores. Now some of them have been put to use in cafes, bars and other venues where spacing people out is imperative: living, breathing customers arranged between motionless facsimiles of themselves.mannequin

I’m talking, of course, about mannequins. In a world where human contact has become fraught and the normal fashion system has been upended, the mannequin has become a surprisingly relevant focal point: whether emblematic of a disrupted world of consumerism or offering practical display solutions in face of social distancing and isolated working circumstances.

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The mannequin is having a moment

In fact, recent digital fashion weeks and presentations have been rather mannequin-heavy. At Loewe, creative designer Jonathan Anderson showcased his 2021 menswear collection and women’s pre-collection on a series of simple mannequins. Various designers including Kaushik Velendra also explicitly chose to invite viewers behind the scenes, revealing their clothes in the process of being made on dressmaker’s dummies. For Dior’s couture show, too, mannequins proved central to the proceedings, the label’s video Kingdom of Dreams featuring clothes presented in miniature on a series of small, headless mannequins, with the fashion house promising to send them out to key customers so they could preorder.

It wouldn’t be Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior without a historic reference or two; these mannequins formed a direct nod to another period of tumult that required inventive thinking. After the second world war, with fabric in short supply and the world of haute couture in economic free-fall, 15 French fashion houses including Schiaparelli, Lanvin and Balenciaga joined forces to put on a spectacular public attraction that also functioned as a handy advert for their wares. They made scaled-down versions of their best-loved clothes and displayed them on wire and porcelain mannequins that stood at a third of their usual size. The Théâtre de la Mode was a huge success. It initially showed in Paris where it welcomed over 100,000 visitors before touring Europe and America.

This post-war show of ingenuity isn’t the only time the fashion industry has made canny use of mannequins either. Alongside their obvious position as a necessity in stores, the humble mannequin has also been a mainstay on shoots, catwalks, and presentations, as well as in museum exhibitions. From Maison Margiela’s AW98 collections, presented on a series of rather eerie marionettes made by stylist Jane How, through to fashion shoots by the likes of Tim Walker and Helmut Newton, playing with the lines between living body and static form, the mannequin has offered many creative—and sometimes uncanny—opportunities over the decades.

Why should the traditional mannequin be reconsidered?

In more recent years, the very nature of the mannequin has come under increasing scrutiny. As the fashion world grapples with present, urgent responsibilities, as well as more existential questions about the future of the industry, use of mannequins comes with new concerns, both in retail settings and elsewhere. Some of these concerns are practical. For example, in an age where consumers increasingly care about the sustainability of their clothes, how do they feel about the figures that display them?

Many mannequin manufacturers are already experimenting with ways to make their products more environmentally friendly. For Belgium-based Bonami, their ‘Future Mannequins’ are made of a strong, lightweight, 100% recyclable material called bonplast. “We’ve spent several years on research and development to create and produce mannequins using advanced eco-based manufacturing that is friendly to the environment, while at the same time meeting the retailer’s demands for a perfect fit and design,” owner Nico Bonami tells me.

Other companies are investing in new approaches too. A range of suppliers including Genesis, Bonaveri and Hans Boodt have similar ethical credentials, ranging from reduced greenhouse emissions to biodegradable materials and paints to carbon neutrality and closed-loop (fully recyclable) production.

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How to diversify the mannequin’s antiquated image

It’s not just what mannequins are made of that’s the issue, it’s also how they’re made to look. The standardised mannequin form—slender, tall, able-bodied, often exemplifying all the beauty ideals long perpetuated by the fashion industry—is also in need of an overhaul. Over the past decade, a number of brands, Nike among them, have addressed this lack, offering displays of mannequins that more readily reflect those buying their clothes. However, these gestures can feel tokenistic: only in store for a limited period of time, rather than illustrative of any deep, structural change. Other options, like the iDummy, which can mechanically change shape, seem like an interesting route forwards, but aren’t yet used widely.

It’s an area of progress that writer, speaker and advocate for disability and design Sinéad Burke is keenly invested in. Last year, as part of an exhibition for the National Museum of Scotland’s Body Beautiful exhibition, her body was cast in order to create the world’s first little-person mannequin. “Being able to witness and experience every stage of the process, I thought my first sighting of the mannequin would be casual—but the awe I felt caught me by surprise,” she tells Vogue. “I hadn’t seen a 360-degree representation of myself or someone who looked like me ever before. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the impact it might have on others, particularly those who are younger, who might just assume that such inclusion has always existed.”

Burke has been a passionate and articulate activist for change within the fashion industry over the past few years. “I view diversity through a prism. I see it as a vehicle of education, innovation and creativity,” she says. “By mobilising diversity as the starting point for any design process, rather than something which only occurs within a legal framework towards the ends of a system, it creates an opportunity to design for all, simply by focusing on the experience and expertise of the minority group. For so long our exclusion has been explicit, even if it wasn’t intentional. Our inclusion has to be deliberate.”

Although rooted in the physical world, these concerns aren’t exclusive to it

If recent digital fashion weeks—and several magazine covers this year—are anything to go by, technology offers new potential for the future of the mannequin and other representations of the human form.

For art and design duo Auroboros, blurring the line between model and mannequin isn’t just a question of commercial ease. Instead, it presents a great opportunity for innovation. They have been working on a purely digital clothing collection, which they describe as “accessible, digital-only prêt-à-porter, free of all material constraints, meaning no gender or size issue, nor the negative impacts of physical mass production.” These virtual clothes come complete with what they term Biomimicry digital display mannequins. “The mannequins can, similarly to the clothes, be designed in limitless forms,” Paula Sello and Alissa Aulbekova, the creators behind Auroboros, tell me. “The beauty of the virtual sphere is both utopian creation and also representing those human forms that may have previously had limited visibility in the rest of the fashion industry.”

Tangible or virtual, old-school or cutting-edge, it’s clear the future of the mannequin is one in which the question of how we display and consume clothes is paramount. This is a question with huge creative potential and complicated social and ethical dimensions, requiring great consideration of what our default ideals look like, and what we want to see in shop windows, on screens and in museums. Hopefully, with this current, renewed interest in what mannequins can offer, these questions will carry on being asked—maybe with some interesting answers along the way.