Great Moments in Mannequin History - Medallion Retail
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Great Moments in Mannequin History

POSTED ON: 01/31/17 Retail Display

Remember when the internet came to a standstill?

It was the Mannequin Challenge, in which people froze in place as Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” played in the background. The camera surveyed the motionless landscape, building suspense as viewers took in a scene in which life had eerily stopped.

It feels Mesolithic in internet years, but the original Mannequin Challenge is preserved as well as any Florentine sculpture, on Twitter, dated October 26 by a user named @pvrity___ (Jasmine Cavins). In it, a group of teens at Edward H. White high school, in Jacksonville, Florida, remain completely still in class in mildly interesting poses.

For all its inertia, the trend rapidly picked up steam. Five thousand Retweets later, by November 7, Hillary Clinton was doing the Mannequin Challenge on her jet, accompanied by Bill and her staff. That’s right – within two weeks, even your mom was into the Mannequin Challenge. Which is why it’s pretty much done.

(Except for MMA fighter David Rickels, who staged a Mannequin Challenge for his walkout at Bellator 171 last week. But I’m not gonna tell him that this motionless ship has sailed.)

In honor of the passing of the Mannequin Challenge, here are seven other great moments in mannequin history.

Hail the king of the mannequins.

When archaeologists opened King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, they found a wooden torso bearing the king’s likeness near a chest containing the young pharaoh’s wardrobe. This is considered the oldest-known forerunner to modern mannequins. This bust was likely used to model Tutankhamen’s elaborate garments and jewelry, providing a stationary figure matching the king’s specific measurements to assist with clothing design and adjustment.

She’s so shy.

As their realism increased, mannequins became an easy proxy for larger cultural tensions, especially fears about sexuality and body image. In 1899, a wax figure dubbed “Miss Modesty” made her debut in shop windows, with her arms and hands raised to cover her face in embarrassment, as she was explicitly designed to sell undergarments. Miss Modesty acknowledged her own sex appeal, and made it all the more alluring with her mock shyness.

Around the same time, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a group supporting the prohibition of alcohol, began pushing for limitations on the spread of such “vulgar” mannequins. Though the WCTU didn’t win its war on the figures, it did inspire some cities to pass laws that required windows be completely covered anytime a mannequin was being undressed.

Hot lights, big city.

Though wax allowed 19th-century sculptors to create highly detailed bodies and facial features, the switch from gas lamps to electric lights exposed the material’s weakness. Under the intense heat of store window light bulbs, wax mannequins began to melt. One window trimmer in the late 19th century recounted the construction of a lovely dinner party scene, centered around a wax hostess raising her wineglass in a toast. When he returned the following morning, a crowd had gathered around the window, staring at the now-deflated hostess whose melted torso was slumped over the table as if she were drunk.

Pleased to meet you, Cynthia.

Her face was always completely blank, wearing the same empty stare at the theater, Bergdorf’s, a private dinner party and even her regular hair salon. Everywhere she went, Cynthia tantalized the paparazzi and her adoring public, always seen on the arm of the fashionable Lester Gaba.

Of course, that’s because Cynthia was a mannequin, crafted by Gaba to promote his retail display business. In 1937, Gaba’s irreverent experiment captivated the public by spotlighting our larger fixation with mannequins.

Gaze upon new shades of beauty.

As mannequins grew more dynamic in the early decades of the 20th century, designers like Pierre Imans took the genre to new heights, designing sleek modernist figures arranged in unique poses. Imans adopted his aesthetics from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, imbuing the human form with a geometry of smooth, graceful lines. Imans also created some of the first mannequin figures with darker skin tones, including a figure modeled after Josephine Baker that incorporated a head designed by the fashion illustrator Erté.

What did they expect?

In 1939, Bonwit Teller hired several Surrealist artists, including Salvador Dalí, to rework their store windows. The retailer underestimated just how provocative they could be. One of Dalí’s windows featured a bathtub lined with Persian lambskin, its darkened water sprinkled with narcissus flowers. Several disembodied arms reached from the water, holding mirrors aimed at a decrepit female mannequin from the late 19th century standing nearby. Her body was clad only in feathers, while her head was topped with a blonde wig crawling with fake bugs and blood-red tears streamed from her eyes. Bonwit Teller quickly replaced the scandalous figure amidst the ensuing public outcry, to which Dalí responded by storming the display and tossing the bathtub right through the plate-glass window. (Though it is also said that Dalí considered it a performance.)

She looks familiar.

Heading into the supermodel era, mannequin faces began to resemble recognizable celebrities, like Adel Rootstein’s famous Twiggy mannequin. Los Angeles-based display designer ChadMichael Morrisette calls Twiggy the “holy grail” of vintage mannequins, since only around seven are known to exist. “She was made in 1966,” Morrisette explains. Twiggy was a teen sensation at the time, so she was made as a junior mannequin.”

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