Fashion’s relationship with body image is a notoriously complicated one. Discussions surrounding this issue usually refer to problems like the prevalence of too-thin models on the runways and in ad campaigns. But these harmful images sometimes confront us in very real-world situations, as well, and there’s been a conversation about store mannequins, which are often even more skinny than the size 2 that’s become standard among models. Brands like Topshop and Oasis came under fire this year for their use of extremely thin mannequins; these British retailers have since addressed the complaints, but storefronts all over the world use window displays featuring entirely unrealistic body proportions.
According to The Guardian, the “average” mannequin measures around six feet tall, with a 34-inch bust, 24-inch waist, and 34-inch hips, and extremely narrow calves, ankles, and wrists. Needless to say, it’s a far cry from the average American woman’s size 14 build (which, according to many mass retailers like J.Crew, is equivalent to a 40.5-inch bust, 33-inch waist, and 43-inch hips).
So why the big difference between store windows and reality? According to the experts, this disparity boils down to straightforward marketing. Just like the skinny models slinking down the runway, the purpose of mannequins is to sell a dream. Kathleen Hammond, VP of strategic accounts at New York mannequin distributor Goldsmith, explained that stores buy the type of mannequins that they simply believe will sell the most clothing. “Models who walk runways are size 2 or a size 0,” she said. “These mannequins emulate that [proportion], because sellers believe it makes their product look the best.” Regardless of whether this reasoning holds true, there’s an important caveat: With their stick-thin limbs, smoothed-over bodies, and mile-long legs, these faceless figurines don’t look like real people at all. An Oasis spokesperson used that very idea as justification for its controversial dummies to Refinery29earlier this month. “Our store mannequins are highly stylized to represent an artistic prop and are in no way any attempt to accurately portray true-to-life proportions,” she said.
Although mannequins will never be confused with real people, they’re still representations of the clothes, the retailer, and the ideal customer. As Lisa Mauer of the mannequin company Siegal & Stockman put it, “You want your mannequin to show off the attitude of who you want your shopper to be.”
Mauer also cites artists like Alberto Giacometti and his famous elongated human sculptures as inspiration behind the mannequins’ silhouettes. And if you think that mannequins need to be skinny for retail staff to be able to dress them, that’s not exactly the case. Both Hammond and Mauer debunked the idea that a mannequin’s proportions affect basic functionality. “Mannequins come apart the same way, so it doesn’t really matter how big or small they are — a plus-size mannequin comes apart the same way as a normal one,” Hammond explains. However, there are a few key benefits of the mannequins’ exaggerated proportions. Their typical wide stance and long legs (usually slightly bent) keep pants from pooling at the bottom. What’s more, these elongated bodies tend to look better from the customers’ point of view, which is usually from either above or below.
According to an article published by the Smithsonian Magazine in 1991, mannequins have become less and less human-like over the years. Soon after the first full-body mannequin was introduced in France in 1870, other stores followed suit. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these storefront models were crafted with far more realistic-looking wax heads, and contained detailed features such as glass eyes and even wigs (and in some cases, even false teeth). It wasn’t until the 1920s when the mannequin manufacturer Siegel & Stockman began using paper-mache (instead of past materials like wood and wax) that the features became more abstract. These days, mannequins are typically made from materials like plastic and fiberglass, and their faces are smoothed out with no distinguishing features — if they even have heads at all.
But still, if average-sized models sell more clothes, and the purpose of mannequins is to turn a profit, then why not embrace the “average” woman mannequin? It seems especially silly, considering that many retailers have expanded their offerings up to size 4XL — but still refuse to acknowledge this customer base in their own windows. Store figurines have been used to make statements on feminism, gender, and body image in the past, but with the exception of some key campaigns, average-sized mannequins are few and far between.
Mauer chalks it up to the fact that there are just too many different body types to represent. Although she (and Hammond) are both quick to point out that petite and plus-sized models are indeed sold to retailers, having a group of consistently sized mannequins is the most effective sales tactic. “Just like on a runway, you need to have sameness,” Mauer said. “It would be lovely to have all body types represented, but given the limited space in a store, having uniformity is crucial to the message coming across.” It remains to be seen if the recent acceptance of fuller-bodied women on the runway and in campaigns will translate to the sales floor. But with innovative retailers, like the Swedish department store Åhléns, successfully rolling out plus-sized mannequins, here’s hoping that other brands break out of the mold (literally) and follow suit.