Sunday, 3 February 2019

Not just dummies: mannequins in costume display

First of all this week, I must thank American Duchess for posting a link to this article, which reminded me that I had intended to write about this topic.

The idea came from visiting the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at the V&A last year. Very early on, the mannequins caught my eye, especially the rough, papier-maché like texture of the heads and necks. I didn't recall having seen them before.

Two views of the new mannequins - with 18th and 19th century dress

As can be seen in the image on the right, not all of the mannequins included heads. Of the female ones which did (I don't recall seeing any male heads), the same 'hairstyle' was used for all periods.

Front view

The layers of material used in the construction appeared to be a deliberate feature.

Side view showing the patched effect

The section of the exhibition on nature as it related to more recent fashion also had new mannequins. These had facial features, and a (limited) variety of hairstyles, all short.

Front and back views

Other hairstyles

This got me thinking about mannequins in costume exhibitions. Should you even notice them, and if you do, is this a bad thing? Do they detract from or enhance the clothes? Which is the most disconcerting: headless; featureless heads; or entirely realistic heads? I don't have answers to any of these questions, but it did prompt me to go back through the many, many photographs I have taken over the years, and attempt to get a feel of how costume display has changed.

I should add that none of what follows is in any way a criticism of the museums or exhibitions mentioned: I fully appreciate that much of the time the curators simply have to work with what is available. These are just my observations on different displays. I also apologise for the quality of some of the images. Not only have I clearly got a lot more fussy about taking photographs for this blog since I started it, but some of the photographs in this post were taken for my own reference only, not with a view to putting them online.

Most of the photographs are from the V&A and the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, and the Fashion Museum in Bath. I have been to all three of these venues many times over the years, so they provide a good narrative of changing styles. There are also some images from other museums, especially ones with new or recently updated displays.

'Realistic' mannequins, with features and wigs, seem very much in the minority now; and as a result, appear quite old-fashioned. These examples are from the now-closed Snibston Museum, and Platt Hall in Manchester (closed for 2019). Even here there is a difference between the painted figures of Snibston, and the plain white ones of Platt Hall.

Snibston (2011) and Platt Hall (2014)

Using paper or similar materials for wigs seems to be a less popular approach now than it was in the past: the only example I could find in the V&A was this one, in the British Galleries.

Regency hairstyle in paper

The Fashion Museum also used wigged mannequins in the past, for example in its Fifty Fabulous Frocks exhibition in 2013, where they were mixed with headless models.

Chanel suit - 1960s, hair and make-up - not 1960s

In some cases the exhibition got round the issue of trying to match the mannequin to the style of the dress by using obviously vintage models.

Clearly not modern mannequins

Vintage mannequins were also occasionally used in the main collection at the Fashion Museum. This rather racy bust is in stark contrast to the demure Victorian bonnet displayed on it, and also to the presentation of a similar bonnet in the V&A.

Very different display styles, both from 2012

The Georgians exhibition dispensed with headed mannequins, and this seems to have been the policy of the museum ever since.

From Georgians (2014) to Royal Women (2018)

The only exception is when the outfit includes headgear. Then the head is wrapped in white fabric, which I do find quite disconcerting; especially on the armless version!

Examples from A History of Fashion in 100 Objects (2016-present)

The Fashion and Textile Museum uses a variety of mannequins in its displays: headless; featureless; and with unpainted features. This scene from 1920s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs (2016) contains all three.

A variety of mannequin styles

Usually the headed mannequins are only used if there is a hat or headdress to display. The exception was the 2016 Missoni exhibition, where the ranks of closely-packed, identical figures were an important part of the overall look.

Slightly sinister figures at Missoni

Mannequins with a particular aesthetic also appeared in the Anna Sui exhibition.

The style of mannequins used in the original Anna Sui boutique

What I don't know is if these two exhibitions originated elsewhere, and if the decision to use the mannequins in this way was therefore made by someone outside the museum. The recent Night And Day exhibition was conceived 'in house' however, and I loved the choice, rare for the FTM, to wig the singer in the 'nightclub' scene - it really made her stand out.

The wig differentiates the singer from her audience

One thing which mannequins featured so far have in common is that they are all white. The author of the article referenced at the start of this post mentions that this is increasingly becoming an issue in the museum world, and it's interesting to see how three capital city museums have begun to address it.

Two of the V&A's recent exhibitions, Balenciaga (2017) and Ocean Liners (2018), have used non-white mannequins for some of their displays.

Balenciaga  (left) and Ocean Liners (right)

The Museum of London's Pleasure Gardens exhibit was opened several years ago, and refurbished last year. I can't remember what the original looked like, but the new version uses black mannequins.

Part of the Pleasure Gardens display

Another approach, used elsewhere in the Museum of London, is to (apparently) do away with mannequins altogether.

Look - no body!

Even when the outfit to be displayed includes a headdress.

No head either

These displays still use a support on a stand, but the Fashion Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh takes things a step further. Some of the exhibits seem to float in mid-air.

Dress by Lucile, c1918-20

Even the hats are displayed on transparent stands.

Keeping a clear head

The Fashion Gallery was only opened a few years ago, so this may represent current thinking in costume display.

I will finish however where I began, at the V&A. This may well be my favourite use of a mannequin (or part of one) - in a small section of the permanent display, devoted to 1930s Surrealism.

Having your jacket to hand

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