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DON’T CALL THEM DUMMIES


mannikin3 Have you ever tried to slip a long silk stocking onto the unwieldy plastic leg of a department store mannequin? Take it from me it isn’t easy.

Straight out of my high school art class, I was hired by the local department store in my hometown of Alameda to not only hand paint the signs which advertised the clearance and sale items. From there it was an easy jump to being the resident window dresser.

The mannequin’s view from the inside of the window is of course quite different from yours looking inward. Their job is to show off the clothing, and do it in such an appealing manner that the passing “window shoppers” can’t bear to stand outside another minute without that particular outfit. It is a proven fact that mannequins are a spur to helping customers buy more clothes.

These are stressful times to be a mannequin. She’s under pressure to do it all—she needs to show off the latest beach wear, be more athletic, glamorous, businesslike, and even ready to rope a calf. Fortunately today’s mannequins come ready to be rearranged into more believable positions. Arms and legs are detachable, head and neck positions can be screwed into different positions.

For decades store mannequins were eerily headless, then bald and featureless. Now certain companies have magnetic lips, eyelashes and nails which are changeable to reflect the latest in makeup colors.

An artist friend working freelance, used to draw the figures for the newspapers for a number of years. The earliest use of mannequins in a retail setting dates back to the 1800’s with some being made of papier mache, wicker or having wax heads and glass eyes. Their use climbed with the rise of store windows in the 1900’s. In the late 1940’s more durable fiberglass began to replace plastic and allowed for more realistic features.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s faceless and headless mannequins became more prevalent. They didn’t require professional makeup artists and hairdressers. One factor was cost; mannequins sell for $750 to $900 each, and even an average size store is now using them throughout the stores various departments. A large store like Nordstrom may use 2,000 mannequins throughout the store. Clothing today doesn’t have much hanger appeal; you need a body inside to give it shape and show off the cut. Even a table full of folded colorful sweaters benefits from having a mannequin wearing an outfit featuring one of the sweaters.

My life as a window dresser picked up again later in life with a successful display business begun with one other woman. The lure of the shop window has never left me, and today I sometimes become more entranced with how the window is displayed than with the merchandise inside it! The holiday windows were by far the most fun and creative. Macy’s in San Francisco, in conjunction with the animal shelters, for several years showed puppies and kittens for adoption in the windows. Remember that the window display, whatever it may be, just gets people into the store. After that they’re on their own!

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8 comments on “DON’T CALL THEM DUMMIES

  1. My first experience of New York during the Christmas season was dazzling. There was something about being on Fifth Avenue, looking into all those store windows, that just had it all: glamor, rampant commercialism, art, the excitement of the crowds.

    But even inside the stores, the mannequins seemed – not exactly alive, but somehow more mysterious than those at J.C.Penney. Who knows what they did at night, after the stores closed?

    One of my friends used to work for one of the big department stores here in Houston. My, what tales she has of trying to prepare for the next season, while keeping everything hidden. I’d never thought about how stressful the job would be, or how complicated it could be to get every detail right.

    And even the men get their “man”-equins!

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    • Hi Linda,
      I don’t want to imagine what they were doing at night with the lights out! Seasonal displays seem to come around all too rapidly. Summer isn’t even getting off the blocks before Fall/Winter merchandise is ready. Even small stores without the use of mannequins (such as jewelry) get seasonal believe it or not. It’s the window display which frequently decides whether the customer walks through the door or not.

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  2. Fascinating post, Kayti. It hasn’t happened often, but I’ve caught the window dressers at their work a few times. It’s a treat, having a peek “behind the scenes”. Why does this happen so seldom? Do window dressers usually do their work at midnight or the crack of dawn?

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  3. Thanks mrsdaffodil. You are correct, the action usually takes place late at night, or in some cases a full window screen is put up. It takes a lot of planning, and in some cases a plan is hindered by the store needing to push a certain item, which may disrupt what the artist had in mind. But it is a lot of work and great fun, especially at Christmas. A holiday window display may take nearly a year to put together. When you work for a large store, you also do some of the inside displays if there are mannequin. Someone within the department usually does the smaller displays and of course any table/counters.

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  4. I learn something new about you with every post, Kayti.

    Today’s mannequins are at times, x-rated. I was in the lingerie department at Nordstrom last week and there was a buxom mannequin with a thong on…

    And then there are those at Victoria’s Secrets. Oh boy.

    When I worked the night shift in the women’s department at Mervyns, we’d redress the mannequins in clothes that didn’t match. Boy those “old ladies” of 40, 50, and 60 were annoyed when they came in to work the next morning. 🙂

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  5. I don’t tell all my secrets Cheri! Even for “third daughters.” I learned something too. I knew Jimmie worked at Mervyn’s (he was staying with us) but I didn’t remember that you did as well. Even the names of some of the lingerie are x-rated. Case in point: “hanky-pankies” I always thought that was a little suggestive. How would I know they were just tiny knickers?

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  6. No, I haven’t tried putting a silk stocking on a dummy. A great pity. I might well have left it too late now. I did once remove a female dummy from the ‘etelage’ of a shop window. I was asked to by the fashion shop owner. I made sure I did not handle her inappropriately. People were watching.

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  7. I’m very glad you remained discreet! I haven’t seen or thought of the word ‘etelage’ since my early training days as a window dresser. I like it’s panache.

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