Mannequins are fascinating creatures; traditionally they “live” in shop windows behind glass and are employed to show off clothes.
My first encounter with one came in the 1970’s when I was on holiday in Athens, Greece and saw this forlorn incarnation in a shop window. It was in the very early days of my serious photography and I didn’t know if you were allowed to photograph them, and if I did what could I do with it. After a short time of reflection I decided to go ahead and capture this figure shooting through the glass. My first mannequin was “in the bag”.
Since then I have photographed mannequins all over the world….I consider it a quest of mine to capture these wonderful creatures and restore them to their natural habitat. It cannot be any fun being stuck in a shop window all day and night!
The first known mannequin was discovered when Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened and a head and shoulders torso, life sized, effigy of the boy emperor was found in all its glory. Made of wood covered in plaster and painted it was a very lifelike representation of the young king.
Although not totally clear it is thought that it was being used to display clothes and jewellery that Tutankhamen would wear.
The head and torso mannequin of Tutankhamen found in his tomb
Royalty through the ages had simple headless mannequins, made to their body measurements and stuffed with straw, to model their costumes so they could see how they looked.
It was not until plate glass shop windows and electric lighting started to appear in the 1880’s that mannequins were used to display fashionable clothes. To a certain extent a greater realism in terms of glass eyes and facial features started to develop the mannequin into a “living person”.
Lester Gaba & Cynthia out at a top class restaurant for dinner
The first truly realistic, from head to toe, mannequins were the brainchild of an American sculptor, writer and retail display designer Lester Gaba. In 1932 he created a lifelike and lifesize mannequin and christened her Cynthia. Cynthia, dressed to the nines, travelled everywhere with him quickly becoming an instantly recognisable celebrity. Cartier and Tiffany sent her jewellery, Lilly Dache designed hats for her. Apart from being Lester’s constant companion she appeared on radio shows and had small parts in films.
She was quickly followed by a series of mannequins who became known as Gaba’s Girls. Nevertheless she remained Lester’s favourite until she met her untimely death when she slipped off a chair in a beauty salon and shattered into a thousand pieces.
Fortunately Lester still had the mould so he was able to reincarnate the lovely Cynthia.
Following Gaba’s Girls mannequins took on a more realistic and ladylike appearance.
Their appearance following trends and austerity during and just after WW2 then gave way to a more relaxed look by the 1950’s. In the early days they were made of wax, wood or heavy fabric. The introduction of fibreglass and plastic further enhanced their design and appearance.
In the mid 60’s Adel Rootstein a theatre prop and shop window display designer decided to change the appearance of mannequins and make them more animated and fluid in keeping with the new wave of the swinging 60’s.
She hired an unknown 15 year old who posed in such positions. By the time the mannequins hit the shops the young model Twiggy was an international megastar.
Many famous people have modelled for mannequins, Joan Collins, Sandie Shaw, Jean Shrimpton, Marie Helvin and Joanna Lumley to name just a few.
Faceless – Granada, Spain
Currently we are in the dark ages where the majority of mannequins are concerned. There is a disturbing trend to create them headless or with featureless blobs, that resemble rugby balls, as heads. That said it is still possible to photograph them and restore them to their natural environment….be it a surreal one.
Silver Girl – Macys Chicago
Flapper – Venice Las Vegas
One of my best most recent finds was in Venice, Las Vegas. Elegant glamorous creatures from yesteryear lived in a dress shop window. Perfect in every detail they were a delight to photograph.
Ice Maiden – Venice Las Vegas
Sadly when a mannequins life in a shop window is over and it may counted in days rather than weeks many are no longer wanted and are broken up. There are no historical mannequin museums and examples of these wonderful creatures through the ages.
I have rescued them from back streets in Istanbul to ghost towns in the USA and from New Zealand to Poland. It is getting a little difficult although not impossible to find classic examples of the species…..I suppose that is part of the challenge.
Spanish Eyes – Fenwick’s Newcastle upon Tyne
As Bruce Forsyth used to say “they are all my favourites”...... but I have a special soft spot for “Spanish Eyes”
Photographing mannequins is very much like photographing humans. The exception being that mannequins don’t move but you do and must to get the best angle to maximise the potential of the subject.
Shop windows are usually fairly well lit but the lighting is aimed at primarily showing off the garments not necessarily the model.
When shooting through glass reflections are the main problem. I would recommend waiting for overcast lighting and using a medium telephoto lens fitted with a large rubber lens hood. The lens hood can be pressed against the glass window: that way reflections will be reduced considerably. Using, say a hat to shield the camera and lens is also a good technique.
Some may think this is taking things a little too far, but on occasions I’ve used folding plastic steps to gain extra height when “shooting” particularly tall or mannequins on elevated displays. No one has ever questioned what I’m doing…..possibly because they think I must be barking mad!
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