Why, oh why does my dressmaker’s mannequin not resemble me? The short answer is that I’m too cheap to buy a custom dummy. So I’m left with Gloria Junior (her name) whose under-bust will never be as small as mine unless her waist becomes waspish, and her shoulders will never resemble mine unless they are raised at least an inch. And that’s just the beginning. So, why do I need her, anyway? I sewed my own clothes – and clothes for my sisters and my mother – for years without the aid of a mannequin. So, why now?
I was thinking about this when I was walking down the main drag in Stratford, Ontario about a month and a half ago with my husband, like you do when you’re there for the weekend to see two of their phenomenal plays or musicals that are part of the annual Stratford Festival every year (and, yes, it does sit on the banks of the Avon River with everything named after Stratford-upon-Avon in England, a Shakespeare park and all).
We stopped in front of a window display in one of the numerous boutiques that dot the street front. The mannequins made us laugh, and I started to think about how we rely on mannequins for a sense of the esthetics, and size, of the clothes that we think we’d like to have.
Of course, that also got me thinking about how mannequin use came to be – so I’ll share my history lesson!
Referred to by many as “glorified coat hangers” mannequins seem to me to have been, and continue to be, so much more than that. According to an article published by The Smithsonian, when archaeologist Howard Carter opened King Tut’s ancient Egyptian tomb in 1923 he discovered “an armless, legless, wooden torso, made exactly to the pharaoh’s measurements, standing next to the chest that held the ruler’s clothing…” Since King Tut’s demise dates from around 1350 B.C., it seems clear that mannequins have been around for a very long time – this might well have been the very first, or at least the earliest on that we know about.
Fast forward to eighteenth-century France and the court of Marie Antoinette who, it seems, sent fully-clothed mannequins regularly to her sisters in the way we might send a copy of vogue magazine to someone who didn’t have access to current fashion news. These mannequins had arms, legs, heads – the whole body, but it wasn’t long after that when they mannequins began to appear headless, armless, legless, fashioned wire, wicker and leather. As one writer put it, “with as much personality as a doorknob.”
It was in the late 1800’s during the Industrial Revolution when expanses of glass fronts on stores became a kind of runway for the mannequin – shop owners needed a way to display their wares. The mannequin had now regained her head, arms and legs.
In a fascinating history of mannequins, writer Leighann Morris sees the evolution of the mannequin in the twentieth century as a kind of history of fashion itself – the shapes have resembled Barbie dolls, Twiggy, androgyny, fetishism – whatever has been in fashion at a point in history. And then there is the whole visible nipple debate which isn’t over yet! (As a sewer, visible nipples at least provide a sense of where one should measure the figure breadth!).
But these have been the mannequins designed for displaying clothing – store fixtures for the retail trade. What about mannequins that we know and love as the dressmaker’s dummy? Well, they have evolved alongside.
What’s interesting is that in spite of the fact that women’s heights, weights and body types vary more today than ever before, commercial dress-maker’s dress forms all seem to be very similar. It is true, though, that you can have a custom-designed dress form made just for you – a clone of your body – as it is at this moment in time, it has to be said.
I did a lot of online research before I bought Gloria junior. In fact, I set a maximum budget of around $300.00 so I knew I was looking for an adjustable. She has those dials that get her bust, waist, hip and back length to my size, but there is just so much more that goes on in between.
First, there is the issue of that relatively small underbust that I have. Then there is the neck – hers is fixed in position. Then there is that fact that most women are concave under the collar bone, but sadly she is not.
Why do I need her anyway?
First, I do think that being able to fit and pin without having to be a contortionist makes life easier – and probably results in fewer unnecessary puckers. Second, I think being able to stand back and really look at how everything fits and drapes without just having the mirror to help improves fit.
Then, I really just like the idea of pinning my projects on a form as I go. It makes me feel just a bit more professional – a bit of a fashion fantasy, I’m afraid.
Anyway, my Craftsy course on drafting a moulage and bodice sloper is my first step to that custom-fitted mannequin.
I’ve drafted, cut and sewn my first one. Of course, as expected, there are a few issues that were not unexpected. I’m about to cut my second one this afternoon. I hope I have the stamina to do as many drafts as needed to get it right!
The madness of mannequins. https://mannequinmadness.wordpress.com/the-history-of-mannequin/
Leighann Morris. The complete history of mannequins: Garbos, Twiggies, Barbies and beyond. http://www.hopesandfears.com/hopes/city/fashion/213389-history-of-mannequins
How to Buy a Dress Form. http://www.craftsy.com/blog/2013/08/how-to-buy-a-dress-form/