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Essay: A Model Society

by Harriet Walker on 20 July 2010

Fashion journalist Harriet Walker on models and mannequins.

Fashion journalist Harriet Walker on models and mannequins.

Cristóbal Balenciaga was outraged when he learnt that the heads of models wearing his clothes for a shoot in French Elle had been cut off in a final edit of the pictures. He said the move de-personalised the intrinsic values of his creations - which were, after all, designed to be seen on real women with real heads.

But Balenciaga is also often accused of having handpicked less-than-perfect girls for each of his salon presentations, reasoning that one model's beauty should not detract from – or indeed, attract to – the dress she is wearing.

Such is fashion's relationship with the body: a tricky one whereby we expect, at the very least, the fundamentally humanoid (and are often distressed at its absence) but we dislike the overtly human (and spend our time sniffing at bent noses, blotchy skin or a roll of stomach). 'A mannequin is not that wooden instrument, unprovided with head or heart, on which robes are hung as on a clothes hanger,' said Poiret, of the distinction between a model and a dressmaker's dummy. 'The living mannequin is a woman who must be more feminine than all other women.' Which, essentially, reduces her to the level of a dressmaker's dummy once more. The dichotomy between the tailor's dummy – on which Margiela famously based a linen bodice for Autumn/Winter 1997 – and the living object is a confused one. Models in catwalk shows exist hypothetically in the clothes we know we should want; mannequins in shop windows pose in another dimension to entice us, in the liminal space not between the shop and our faces, but between our reality and that of our wallets.

Modern dummies display all the characteristics of humanity, but none of the necessities.

Dating mannequins is like counting tree rings: wigs from the Seventies; eyeshadow from the Eighties; oddly elliptical heads from the Nineties. Modern dummies display all the characteristics of humanity, but none of the necessities: rarely are breasts a focal point; legs become mobius strips with no resemblance to the things which actually march the mortal consumer right up to the cash register.

The Kyoto Costume Institute uses headless mannequins with indistinct extremities, yet they are accurately sized according to the era of the clothes they are wearing. They enact the past more vividly than any well-nourished modern onlooker ever could.

Mannequins are a practicality, of course. When Rei Kawakubo first began showing her pieces to retailers in 1975, she had to create catalogues to take with her. Thanks to their idiosyncratic cuts and proportions, Comme des Garçons garments with no human filling often look like padded offcuts of tablecloths or an arbitrarily slashed pair of curtains. So she provided a photographic dossier of models wearing them, that buyers might understand how the product was supposed to look.

This is the importance of the fashion body. Without it, clothes are flat objects with little purpose. It is not that we want to see other people wearing our clothes, it is the need for reassurance that someone else might want to. It is the understanding that fashion is not fashion without the body, it is simply clothing.

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