The theme for assignment 3 is evolving. The initial idea was to focus on the changing face of small southern towns as viewed through the reflections in high street windows but, whilst this offered some interesting results on test shoots, it began to feel too premeditated and potentially exploitive. The most interesting “reflection” test shots feature mannequins and these shots are further lifted when the same window displays include photographs. This gives at least three layers of image – the reflection of the street, the mannequins and the photographs and this complexity is often multiplied when the opposite side of the street or the tops of buildings are included in the reflections. In terms of composition and design I am exploring how these these layers relate to each other.
This exploration has been done by visiting several towns, often just for an hour, to capture pictures at different times of day and in different high streets. To some degree it is easier to think more clearly with a camera in hand and I can test DoF, angles, subjects, and lighting far better on location than by trying to create pre-meditated story boards. The nature of the subject makes planned shots especially difficult as the images are often complex with, by intent, crowded frames containing lots of detail and the multiple layers of subject bringing an equal number of layers of light with differing intensities. The reflections are the common thread that hold the physical aspect of the theme together. In parallel , I am developing a theme of these displays as reflections in a more metaphysical sense. The mannequin represents an ideal, an aspiration, a style model for us to mimic and over the centuries mannequins have gone beyond being glorified coat hangers displaying current fashions and styles. These shop window dummies have followed their own fashion trends and thereby reflected society in both an obvious and sometimes quite subtle way.
In their article for the Smithsonian Magazine in 1991 Emily and Per Ola d’Aulaire * (1) describe how fashion dolls in the 14th century evolved to become today’s mannequins and how their shape changes to reflect how society wants to see itself. In the 1890’s they were big bosomed with impossibly narrow waists, during the great depression the trend was to appear affluent and well-fed, during the two great wars they were patriotic, in the 1950’s demure, in the 1960’s they became as skinny as Twiggy with short hair and slender thighs (here) * (2).
In the United States the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, one of the driving forces behind prohibition in the 20s, declared mannequins as vulgar and campaigned for their destruction and today the debate still appears to phase in and out of the headlines. The normal female mannequin is a size 8 or 10 and as the average women in Britain is a size 14 it is often argued that these skinny mannequins damage self-esteem by promoting an unrealistic body shape. On the other hand, when the Swedish equivalent of John Lewis used size 12 mannequins it came under fire for promoting obesity * (3). In early 2014 mannequins again made the headlines when American Apparel, a large clothing chain with stores world wide, featured a display of mannequins with pubic hair, an action that kept this particular retailer front and centre of the debate about whether ever more realistic mannequins court controversy or are a empowering statement of the female body. * (4)
Without intending to take or promote any position in this debate it is an interesting to wonder why the mannequin is the only shop fitting that has the ability to stir such strong emotions. This inanimate model has variously been the subject of films, possibly even the inspiration behind the Wizard of Oz *(1), love stories and, in December 2013, even a music video to promote Daft Punk’s latest release “Instant Crush”, a video that dramatises the love affair between two museum mannequins. The obvious conclusion is that we identify with a paper mache or fibre glass object to such an extent that it doesn’t just reflect our aspirations but has an assumed personality and assumed values. Not all models of people have these attributes so it is not simply the human form that creates this relationship between human and dummy it must also be the setting and the context in which we see them.
In my current project I can see that the trend, at least in this corner of England, is to de-humanise the mannequin with many shops using headless torsos or wire frame heads but then to display these models with photographs of models wearing the same clothing lines. The body shape is on display but with no personality but a large backing image shows how attractive or happy we will become if we dress this way. This relationship between dummy and photograph is yet another sub-plot. It is not clear to me whether this fashion for headless mannequins is for aesthetic, marketing or economic reasons. The manager of Reebok Guildford was not sure why his mannequins seemed to have the most personality in town but he did suggest that “personality costs money”.
* (1) D’Aulaire, Ola and Emily. (1991) – The Mannequin Mystique, originally published in the Smithsonian Magazine April 1992 and reprinted with the author’s permission on the Manequine Madness Blog – http://mannequinmadness.wordpress.com/the-history-of-mannequin/
* (2) Voices of East Anglia. Mannequins – Brochures for Dummies. http://www.voicesofeastanglia.com/2012/06/mannequins-brochures-for-dummies.html
* (3) Mail Online – Department Store Uses Normal Mannequins – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2299498/Swedish-department-store-hl-ns-reignites-body-image-debate-photo-normal-sized-mannequins-goes-global.html
* (4) Huffington Post – American Apparel Pubic Hair mannequins Stop Pedestrians In Their Tracks – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/16/american-apparel-pubic-hair-mannequins_n_4610688.html
* (5) Daft Punk – Instant Crush Video – http://www.mtv.co.uk/daft-punk/news/daft-punk-debut-new-video-for-instant-crush