Fashion and Physique


Fashion and physique: social change through the lens of the mannequin

By Rui Yi


With the retail industry accounting for 4.1 per cent of GDP and 10.7 per cent of employment in 2019, mannequins; an important tool of the retail business, have become commonplace in our everyday lives. As an effective form of visual communication and advertising for stores, they act as the first step to entice prospective customers by showcasing the store’s latest trends and products. Whilst their commonality has led them to draw little more than a quick appraisal or a cursory glance, contemporary forces centred around body representation have brought the static mannequin to life.

A walk through time

Since their introduction, shop mannequins have always reflected fashion trends and by extension, idealised forms of the human body. Emerging in shop windows in the1920s, they served as a marketing tool intended to encourage the passer-by to imagine themselves in the clothes and scenes on display. As department stores proliferated and shops began to feature increasingly large window displays, the mannequin quickly became synonymous with the ideal body type - a notion which continues to resonate within contemporary society.

Throughout the 20th century, events, icons and attitudes of the changing times exerted considerable control over perceptions of the body, and subsequently, the appearance of the mannequin. The onset of WWI saw a shift away from corsets which dominated the 1920s, for a more practical appearance with shorter skirts and slender, boyish figures as a result of scarce resources. This contrasted the1950s post-war liberation period where more curvaceous figures came into fashion, championed by celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe. Mannequins soon mirrored this new ideal; while male figures became larger and bulkier, female figures became fuller-bodied and hourglass in shape. Moving in through the 60s and 70s, mannequins resembled the toned, athletic bodies of Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John. By the 1990s, styles began to imitate the slim frames of Kate Moss and other supermodels which saw the narrowing of the mannequin’s hips.

The Modern Mannequin

However, the celebration of a certain idealised body type has been inherent to the marginalisation of others. In recent years, consumers have taken to social media to scrutinise retailers, such as Topshop, for their use of divisive visual language and unrealistic ideals in their mannequin figures. In response, some department stores have adapted their mannequins to reflect the size, shape, and changing attitude of the average consumer. In 2019, Nike unveiled its newest mannequins which included plus-sized and para-sport athletic bodies, representing a shift in the marketing methods used to target audiences.  Rihanna’s clothing line ‘Release 6-19’, was also displayed on a group of size diverse mannequins; specifically, the company utilised the inclusion of full figures, hip dips and belly pouches. Although some regard this as a marketing ploy by fashion retailers purporting to represent diversity, these recent installations have been regarded as “a step in the right direction” by The Independent.

The future

So, where does this leave us now? From their conflation with retail and advertising in the mid 18th century, mannequins have undoubtedly undergone significant changes in shape and appearance. Driven by celebrities and global events, they reflect changes in societal attitudes in regard to consumer behaviour and the human form.  Although mannequins continue to be inextricably tied with body ideologies for marketing purposes, the gradual changes are demonstrative of the inclusivity and open-mindedness which shape contemporary ideas of the human body and mark a change in the conversation.

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