This summer a particularly lifelike mannequin in Nike’s flagship London store went viral. Its body, clad in black leggings and a workout bra, was not the skinny display figure people usually think of when they think of mannequins. Instead it was a plus-size mannequin, one which reflected the fact that the average US dress size is a 16. It looked uncannily human, perhaps because it was shaped like most humans.
The mannequin attracted the typical handwringing; a Telegraph writer cried that she was “gargantuan, vast” and selling a lie to “obese women.” It was evidence of what seemed, at the time, like a inevitable trend, as brands like Old Navy and Target began putting plus-size mannequins in stores. But months later, despite the press attention for big-name mall brands that buy and display plus-size mannequins, skinny still rules the mannequin industry. And in a rapidly changing retail landscape where brick-and-mortar chains topple like dominoes and malls across the country shutter, the mannequin, an object of derision and projection since its invention, doesn’t seem as relevant as it once was.
“A few years ago we started seeing mannequins that were still tiny but they were curvier as a result of Beyoncé or J.Lo having more curvy figures,” says Judi Henderson Townsend, CEO and President of the mannequin retailer Mannequin Madness, which has supplied mannequins nationally to stores like Barney’s New York, Bloomingdale’s, and Kohl’s. Townsend says that while she noticed a small spike in retailers asking for plus-size mannequins following the Nike news, one which has been slowly increasing since cost-cutting efforts of the 1990s gave way to an interest in diversifying mannequins in the 2000s, they are “not a big mover” for her business, estimating that they account for less than 10 percent of her sales.
Brands suddenly seem more aware of the fact that not only are plus-size mannequins a good press opportunity, but reflect a deeper reality of the market. President and COO of Greneker Mannequins Steve Beckman says that while plus-size mannequin sales have always been a big business for them, selling sizes up to 22, it’s traditionally been for plus-size specific retailers. Now, he says, retailers typically buying straight-size mannequins are starting to add plus-size mannequins to their lists.
But the demand, while increased, doesn’t reflect an overhaul of the mannequin industry. Chris Kim, founder of the company Mannequin Mall, which has supplied mannequins to brands like the Gap, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom, says that he’s seen an increase in sales since he started his business in 2012. “At the time, when I would go to my manufacturers overseas, there was not a lot of variety for plus size mannequins. Now I see a lot more options.” Still, he says, plus-size mannequins don’t sell well, only accounting for 3% of his business.
It’s easy to think there’s a revolution afoot when mannequins that stray from the skinny, Amazonian ideal gain viral fame. When JCPenney displayed a mannequin with a wheelchair in 2014, it got news attention for the brand, but its existence did not trickle down into widespread change—the store did not convert its national displays to represent a wide variety of bodies. That’s partially a business reality: to produce a mold and mass-produce an entirely new mold for a new mannequin would cost “thousands of dollars,” Kim says.
While Townsend thinks the prevalence of plus-size mannequins in stores is increasing, in part because of celebrities like Rihanna casting and celebrating a diverse range of bodies in her own clothing campaigns as well as a wider conversation about size-inclusivity in fashion spurred by blogs and social media, there is a delay between the body positivity preached in magazines and what’s actually being purchased and manufactured in the industry. “[Manufacturers] aren’t producing at the same rate because the retailers aren’t requesting it,” she says. “The bigger the market becomes, the less expensive the pieces become,” Beckman says.
While there may be a demand for images within the fashion industry of people over size 12, there isn’t necessarily the same demand for mannequins that reflect those sizes as well. The mannequin as a political symbol—a reflection of how the retail and fashion industry creates a skinny, oppressive ideal—feels increasingly outdated when people continue to barely interact with mannequins while shopping online. If anything, the human models that customers encounter online, often Photoshopped into physically impossible sizes, and influencers who carefully curate and manipulate images of their lives to sell products, are a bigger threat in the fight against unrealistic images of women in fashion.
The realistic mannequin hasn’t always been a branding mechanism. Early mannequins were humble objects for clothing makers in the 19th century, used by tailors and clothing makers. “In the late 19th century, [the mannequin] is still fairly new, and it’s marketed more as a thing for making clothing,” says Dr. Alison Matthews David, the MA Fashion Program Director at Ryerson University and author of Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. “By the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris you start seeing Pierre Imans and other makers who make beautiful, elaborate, lifelike wax mannequins with real hair and eyelashes. Those were the ones that end up being the stars of the department store window.”
As clothing manufacturing became less bespoke and more industrialized, the dawn of the department store gave mannequins a stage in the form of street-facing window displays. While materials changed (wax, papier-maché, fiberglass) mannequins throughout the early 20th century were made to look like skinny, realistic humans, drawing on feminine ideals of the time, but as shopping changed in the 1980s and 1990s so did the mannequin’s relevance. “Mannequins in store windows were no longer the first contact with potential customers as television and print media advertising had usurped the place of the store window and replaced the mannequin with the fashion model,” writes Gayle Strege in Visual Merchandising: The Image of Selling. “Mannequins were severely deconstructed into body parts and abstracted into minimalist forms constructed of metal poles for the display of apparel merchandise.”
These days, Kim says, the reigning mannequin look is the blank, white “egghead” shaped mannequin, devoid of a face, hair, or race. Also the “ghost mannequin, “has become increasingly popular, particularly in online retail. With movable parts the ghost mannequin eliminates the appearance of a body at all, making it look almost as if the garment is floating mid-air, which makes it easy for brands to Photoshop out the body parts for online photography.
Today, stores no longer want mannequins that look lifelike—rather blank, almost alien-forms that keep the focus on the clothes. But as malls across the country continue to shutter, online shopping has overtaken brick-and-mortar store shopping for the first time this year, and e-commerce giants like ASOS use video models on product pages to give sellers a feel for garments, mannequin sellers have to adapt to this changing landscape.
“That’s a bigger issue right now because you’re trying to figure out, do I have a store or not?” Townsend says, citing a company like Forever 21, which announced it was closing over 300 stores after filing for bankruptcy. “You don’t need as many retail stores, you don’t need as many mannequins.”
But even if store closures mean mannequin retailers have to turn to other areas of business outside of stores, such as museums or fashion schools, it means that plus-size fashions actually might be showcased more often online than they would be in a store. “When someone is doing primarily online business it’s a lot easier for them to have more inclusive sizes [because] they buy one plus sized mannequin which they use then to photograph the whole product line,” she says.
Sellers like Beckman are optimistic that even as physical stores close, mannequins will still have a place in shopping. “Through the late 1990s we went through this real downtrend in mannequins that really shook up the industry quite a bit because retailers thought that they could save the money on mannequins and put everything on hangers,” Beckman says. “They felt the sting of that decision and mannequins came back. There’s just no better way to display clothing.” But even if the department store mannequin as we know it continue to exist, no matter the size, it’s no longer the battle ground for body positivity that it once was.