Eleni Holloway is an assistant curator with the Australian War Memorial. She specialises in textiles, reconstruction, handicrafts, fashion and decorative arts, and is currently completing a Master of Studies in Museums and Art History.
A perennial issue that confronts the dress and fashion curator is that of the mannequin. The humble dress form has the potential to arouse disgust, fear, empathy or indifference in us. As a museological tool, mannequins have the ability to vividly invoke the original wearer’s physical presence and in so doing bring an audience ever closer to the historical, social, and political realities of the past. I believe they are not only central to the interpretive function of a dress or fashion exhibition but can profoundly shape a visitor’s perception of the institution, its professionalism and quality of exhibits. How many times have you visited a museum where an old, haggard mannequin on display has made you laugh uncontrollably or scream in horror?
Professor and curator Lou Taylor in her seminal work Establishing Dress History, traces key historical and contemporary developments in mannequin design and display devices. Taylor identifies four types of mannequins that have historically been used to display costume and fashion in museums; the artist’s lay figure, wax figure, commercial or retail mannequin and the high-expense custom-made museum mannequin.
Today in museums across Australia, you can see a range of mannequins used in exhibitions. In the museum where I work as an assistant curator, a host of mannequin forms and props grace old and new permanent exhibition spaces (albeit the wax figure). These mannequins are a constant reminder of the changes in display strategies and curatorial tastes over the last hundred years from hyper realistic to stylized forms. A historical account of these changes has already been explored on Worn Through by Trove Hermanson in an excellent three-part series. I will briefly touch on a few of the issues with the stylized and realistic mannequin, by using examples from my workplace.
Beginning in our colonial galleries, this New South Wales lancers scarlet uniform is worn by one of the few remaining realistic mannequins in the museum. Complete with facial hair and veins, the hyper-realism of this mannequin often causes unease in me and other viewers. From afar this mannequin appears real yet I know it is an inanimate object. This unease has been explored within the field of aesthetics. Recently curator and dress historian Dr Ingrid Mida expanded Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the uncanny in Animating the Body in Museums of Fashion and Dress:
“This unsettling sensation may arise when an object suggests both the illusion of life and a harbinger of death. For example, when an item of clothing is displayed on a mannequin, it may remind the viewer that the person who once wore the garment is no longer present.”
This is a sensation that I feel often when I look at this realistic mannequin. For a split second, I am unsure if it is real or not. But it is a feeling not restricted to realistic mannequins. Stylized and simplified mannequins can have a similar effect. They are a constant reminder of the absence of the original wearer, and of loss through a physical deconstruction. The headless and limbless mannequin simply highlights the missing body parts and the associated details. For some, this has the potential to arouse dread and anxiety.
This handmade silk wedding dress and hand knitted Victory vest (below) from the 1940s are mounted on simplified forms. These types of mannequins and mounts have their place within the museum, and are widely used today. The effect is one in which the aesthetics of the garment, its shape, construction and texture is highlighted, while the original body recedes.
The separation of a garment from its original context (the human body) has been examined by curators and dress historians alike, eager to explore this chasm. British dress curator Doris Langley Moore questioned what was lost in a stylised display which stripped context information and did little more than add shape to garments or ‘faintly suggest a human form’. Moore worked initially at the Museum of Costume at Eridge Castle in the early 1950s before establishing the Museum of Costume at Bath in 1959. An authority on fashion plates, she went to great efforts to complete her dress displays with finely sculpted wax ‘lifelike dummies’, and aspired for the highest quality of realism. According to Moore, displays were ineffectual ‘without their corresponding headgear, footwear, and so forth’. Dress could only make sense in relation to the rest of the body, as it was originally worn. The complementary accessories, hairstyle and jewellery frame and provide valuable context within a museum setting.
The history of mannequin design invokes the ongoing conundrum for dress curators. How can a mannequin stand in place of the real thing? The short answer is that it cannot. But we can get close with varying results.