vintage mannequins

The History of the Mannequin

Today we take the idea of a mannequin for-granted. We see them in practically every clothing boutique and department store, in window displays, museums and in an assortment of other settings.

It was not always so.

The following is a brief history of the mannequin and it’s evolution through time.

It is believed that ancient royalty – kings, queens and other lesser types such as dukes and nobleman – would have dress forms made that were exact replicas of their body type. It is understood that this was to assist the royal tailors and dressmakers of the court in crafting garments that where more or less a perfect fit for their royal client and help to avoid any uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing fitting sessions.

It is further believed, but by no means proven that wickerwork mannequins such as the one pictured above were around as early as the late 1700s and were probably filled with stuffing and leather. Wire-framed versions came into existence in 1835 but at that time, the use of mannequins as a way to model clothing and merchandise had not yet become popular. It was the invention of the filament lamp, plate glass windows, and the sewing machine that eventually led to the widespread use of mannequins as we know them today.

The early 1880’s popularization of plate-glass windows panes in stores and retail shops coupled with the sewing machine made-ready-to-sell dresses and the emergence of the middle class thanks to the industrial revolution, all caused the textile industry to spiral upward in sudden boom. All of the sudden textile store owners were looking for any way to capitalize on this accelerating market. It was in this era of industrial prosperity that the retail-display mannequin was born.

A few centuries of evolution later, mannequins went from being crudely made of wood, iron, wax, paper-mâché and heavy fabric (which made them very unwieldy, expensive and hard to maintain) to being more realistic, made of plaster, fiberglass and plastic, with glass eyes, real hair and facial expressions.

Mannequins continue to evolve, and today there are even rumors of mannequins that can record the activity and habits of nearby shoppers for security and marketing reasons. Does this mean we are destined for a world where the mannequin becomes a walking talking salesman? Only time will tell.


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