In fashion, things change constantly—clothes fray, seasons end, trends go out of style—but the biggest shifts are always incremental. Take, for instance, retail advertising’s decades-long transformation from modesty to sex-fueled provocation, or the 100 years it took for women’s clothing to move away from long skirts and waist-cinching designs.
Or another curious evolution: the century-long shrinking and stretching of fashion mannequins.
Women’s mannequins have always been tall and thin. But fashion experts and merchandisers alike say that these two characteristics have been exaggerated since the 1990s, and now shoppers are voicing blunt discontent. This year, several retailers were accused of going too far, putting out window displays of matchstick-thin legs and protruding ribcages that drew shock and outrage on social media.
Mannequins, visible and iconic, can affect the self-image of millions around the world, and influence their behavior. But if—as some shoppers have argued—the ultra-skinny mannequin is truly a problem, where does the responsibility lie?
Clothing stores may receive the most complaints, but there’s a larger system in play in the shadows. It involves an evolving mannequin-manufacturing process, the advent of fast fashion, and even customers themselves.
Just a piece of plastic
What’s the big deal about a 6’2″ mannequin with twig-like legs? It’s just a piece of plastic.
For stores, mannequins are thought to wield mighty influence over sales. The lifeless figures don’t just display clothes; they also serve as the face of the store, drawing in customers while touting a cohesive brand. “We find anything we put on a mannequin sells out,” a JCPenny executive revealed to Reuters in 2012.
Retailers like ultra-thin mannequins because they mimic the young, elongated look of today’s most popular runway models, industry experts tell Quartz. And as Bloomingdale’s visual director Roya Sullivan explained to the Chicago Tribune in 2007, clothes are believed to look better on “tall, thin, abnormal bodies.”
But do they? In 2011, when Gap put forward one particularly thin mannequin, social media users derided it as “death-camp chic.” Last year, high-end lingerie store La Perla was forced by public pressure to apologize for displaying a mannequin with spiky ribs. And this October, British brand Oasis became the latest retailer to be called out on social media for mannequins that were, in the words of writer Rhiannon Cosslett, “disgusting, damaging, and irresponsible—not to mention really weird.”
“If you’re a 13-year-old girl with any insecurities, you can easily think ‘If only I could fit into clothes like that mannequin…’ when you should be worried about a lot more legitimate things,” Allison Belger, a California-based psychologist who specializes in health and wellness, tells Quartz.
Belger names a problem that some say the fashion industry has deliberately propagated: “Having mannequins who look like that gives off the idea that it’s the standard of beauty we’re all striving for.”
Art imitating life?
Some brands argue their mannequins are just sculptures, not role models. When shoppers reacted unhappily to ultra-lithe mannequins in store windows at Topshop this summer, the popular British brand responded on Facebook: “The form is stylized to have more impact in store…This is therefore not meant to be a representation of the average female body.”
Lisa Maurer, vice president of longtime mannequin manufacturer Siegel-Stockman, agrees, telling Quartz, “They’re being artistically expressive. You can’t fault them for choosing to show that aesthetic, same as how you can’t fault Botero for putting a chubby woman in a painting.”
She adds: “I would be horrified if young girls are looking to fiberglass for their role models instead of real women.”
But it’s not all abstract artistic expression.
“I would be horrified if young girls are looking to fiberglass for their role models instead of real women.” According to Smithsonian Magazine, mannequin design goes hand-in-hand with contemporary beauty standards: Mannequins in the 1870s were “big-busted heroines” that reflected the look of that age—tiny waists and full bosoms. Today, the West’s well-documented obsession with bonier body types is reflected in the shapes we see in shop windows today.
Changes in the mannequin industry also partly explain a gravitation toward thinness, industry experts say. Historically, sculptors molded mannequin casts out of real men and women’s bodies. But in the 1990s, a minimal aesthetic and the demands of mass production led to the dominance of more streamlined forms.
That shift also coincided with something radically new. Fast fashion.
Growing out of the 1990s, Forever 21, Zara, and their peers are a new breed of retail, catering to teens and young adults with astonishingly low prices (who’d buy $200 jeans when you could grab a pair for $10?) and furiously rapid design cycles.
Because clothing is more disposable now, the market is younger. Many stores are trying to parrot that youth—thus the ultra-thin mannequin that is almost childlike in its thinness, Maurer says. She tells Quartz:
Teens and early 20s are the go-to customer base. Typically, teens have skinny teenage bodies—so if you’re going to reflect your mannequins to your ideal client base, it’s going to be smaller.
Helen Hart, vice president of sales at mannequin-making company Bernstein, tells Quartz the same thing. (As a caveat, Maurer adds that plenty of older retailers still order bigger shapes and sizes.)
The explanation is not uncommon. “Mannequins are getting smaller and smaller, but at the same time, consumers are kind of requiring retailers to be more focused on that target market,” Katherine Shaw, a fashion merchandising professor at Eastern Illinois University, tells Quartz.
But it’s worth noting that while teenage girls may be one of the main shopper demographics at fast fashion stores, most are not actually mannequin-skinny. In the US, more than one-third of kids and adolescents are overweight or obese, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). CDC data further shows the young adult population—on which fast fashion has also set its sights—isn’t particularly waif-like, either.
The retail juggernaut
A few retailers are bucking the trend of the ultra-skinny. Maurer says Siegel-Stockman has sold “hundreds” of size 14 models this year, even though its most popular order size remains a four; Swedish store Åhléns was praised for stocking thicker mannequins in 2013 via a photo that went viral.
When it comes down to it, though, even plus-size mannequins are designed to target and appeal to a certain market. And that’s one reason skinny mannequins aren’t likely to go away any time soon: Consumers can use the social media amphitheater all they want to voice disgust—even, in some cases, getting stores to apologize and take down the offending objects—but unless they stop shopping, stores won’t change what’s been mostly working for them.
Shaw, the fashion merchandizing professor, isn’t optimistic about consumers’ ability to do that. “Ultimately, the designers and the retailers are going to do whatever the consumers demand,” she says. “I can train my students to think about the psychology of people as they’re shopping and dressing … but they’ll go out into the industry and it’s completely different. [Body-conscious mannequins] are not what consumers care about. They care about getting the best bargain.”
But retail is changing—slowly, but surely. Window-shop fashion, right now, is at a critical time. As online shopping snares more and more shoppers, brick-and-mortar stores are slowly fading—which could eventually leave them more than ever at the mercy of customer approval. Now may be the perfect opportunity for customers to bat brittle-thin mannequins out of shopping malls and store windows.
After all, if it’s true that whatever you put on a mannequin sells out, perhaps it’s time more shoppers start questioning whether they want to be sold an unrealistic body image in the first place.