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We Might Be On the Verge of a Mannequin Revolution

If most store mannequins were people, they’d be dangerously underweight. But is that about to change?

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It’s not exactly a secret that the advertising industry isn’t kind to women. Bad Photoshop blunders make it easier to take back — with humor — the unsettling messages sent to women about how they should look (“with chunks of their bodies missing!”). But what about the way women are depicted in stores? It’s a little less comical.

In recent years — and with the help of social media — women have publicly criticized retailers for mannequins that idealize unhealthy figures. Primark was lambasted for a mannequin with visible ribs. Topshop, a frequent offender, got called out in 2014, 2015, and this spring. Now, science has something to add to that conversation. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, mannequins represent an even bleaker reality than just absurd fashion ideals — if they were human, they would be severely underweight. According to the study, this was true for 100 percent of the female mannequins surveyed in high-street fashion retailers in two cities in the UK, and only 8 percent of males. Of course.

Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY /Getty Images

Though the researchers’ study was limited to the UK, a cursory glance at mannequins in many American mall-based retailers will show that pencil-thin female mannequins remain a predominant force in merchandising. Though it’s not really a surprise to anyone (I hope) that these renderings of human bodies are often painstakingly slim, the empirical evidence takes the whole “if only the clothes looked as good as me as they did on the mannequin” to an uncomfortable extreme; society already places such unrealistic expectations on women, now this? If mannequins are supposed to suggest ways to wear clothes, how do unrealistic mannequins even help sales? And do retailers owe it to women to step it up?

Well, of course they do. But there’s nothing forcing stores to showcase more realistic bodies. “By law, the retail industry probably does not have a responsibility to represent woman accurately, but they should have a moral obligation to do so,” one of the study’s authors, Eric Robinson, Ph.D., a psychologist and lecturer at the University of Liverpool, says in an email. Some have actually pushed for advertisers to be held to a standard by law: France proposed a bill prohibiting too-thin models on its runways and requiring advertisers to disclose retouching; the US proposed the Truth In Advertising bill asking advertisers to denote retouched images.

“The mannequin study is part of something bigger, of course — the way we glamorize ultra-thinness as a society is very damaging to body image,” Robinson says. “Mannequins are one example of something in the environment that reinforces this ‘ultra-thin idea.’ We need to remove the ultra-thin ideal from society.”

Fetishizing thin women has sadly become par for the course for the fashion industry. This obsession began somewhere around the ’60s, says Rochelle Brunson, Ph.D., an apparel merchandising lecturer at Baylor University. It’s taken the industry years to recognize that curvier women are glamorous; only this February, Ashley Graham made history when she walked the runway for Michael Kors during New York Fashion Week. Given calls for equal body representation, pin-thin mannequins seem not just harmful, but tone-deaf.

Ironically, mannequins have a history of representing actual human bodies, Deidra Arrington, an assistant professor of fashion merchandising at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains. Originally, she says, mannequins were made from dress forms — the very body-shaped items that fashion designers use when making apparel. Further, mannequins had a more realistic (to an extent) shape to them. (Arrington concedes that sizes were different back then, though; a 6 then is not a 6 today, for example. That implies that showing off higher sizes doesn’t necessarily mean larger women were represented.) According to a Collectors’ Weekly story detailing the history of mannequins, these objects’ bodies have actually changed over time as consumers’ ideals have shifted — there was even a point in time when mannequins had painted facial features (creepy or cool? Your call!). The mannequin we’re familiar with today — super slim, almost more of a long, linear object — became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, Collectors’ Weekly notes, adding that versions without heads became popular in the ’90s.

This, primarily, is what consumers have been stuck with since — but what’s evident is that these mannequins we’re all retaliating against weren’t supposed to be real, but were, rather, an “artistic or creative expression,” as Arrington puts it (which, she recognizes, can be offensive to women who don’t look that way). They’re slates for clothing and accessories — which is a little confusing, since they take on a human(ish) form.

In fact, when Topshop got called out for its too-skinny mannequins, the retailer implied that one reason they were that size was to make it easier to change the outfits on display. “Mannequins are made from solid fiberglass, so in order for clothing to fit, the form of the mannequins needs to be of certain dimensions to allow clothing to be put on and removed; this is therefore not meant to be a representation of the average female body,” the brand said in a statement to the Guardian. Mannequins, therefore, are about one thing and one thing only: the clothes, not the women buying them.

By keeping with this school of thought, retailers are subtly suggesting we shouldn’t be so imaginative — that we should use our brains, and not our hearts, when we’re shopping. But shopping is often an undeniably emotional experience.

And a negative emotional experience could totally offset the mannequin’s intention: to sell. “Mannequins are the strongest method of ‘silent selling’ — sparking a customer’s interest through visual merchandising in the retail environment,” Lorynn Divita, Ph.D., associate professor of apparel merchandising at Baylor University and author of the textbook Fashion Forecasting, explains. Functionally, mannequins let people know what’s going on in a department without having to read signs.

It’s like saying to mannequins, you had one job. And, to put it simply, “an ineffective display doesn’t sell the product on it,” Michelle Alleyne, founder of MSHOP and Parsons School of Design professor, says. A mannequin that lends itself to better sales, she says, is “one that looks or is shaped like the customer.”

That’s not to say that certain retailers haven’t tried to make steps to return toward realism. The now-purchased and long-struggling American Apparel, for one, displayed mannequins with pubic hair in 2014. It worked: the brand told the AP in a statement that the move helped boost foot traffic by 30 percent.

Photo: Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images

That same year, J.C. Penney displayed mannequins with realistic figures, including a curvier person and one in a wheelchair, in 2013, to send a message about how the fashion industry should shift its ideals. (The latter was similar to those created by disability advocacy group Pro Infirmis, whose mannequins were modeled after disabled people — with scoliosis and missing limbs, for example.)

David’s Bridal also implemented mannequins with fuller bodies, a decision the company remains proud of (it also claims it’s seen a financial payoff, but the company does not readily or openly disclose finances without approval). “Size 18 mannequins allow us to reinforce the notion that David’s Bridal supports inclusivity — we believe that no matter a bride’s budget, style, or size, that we are there to help her complete her fairytale,” chief product officer Catalina Maddox-Wagers says in an email. “We are proud to be an industry leader in providing plus sized brides a best in class fit especially tailored to flatter their every curve.”

“By showcasing various sizes throughout the store, it helps brides connect with how the gowns may look on them. It makes the product more approachable and easier to visualize, which is helpful for all customers, regardless of their size,” she adds, also noting another reason why they’ve implemented curvier mannequins — so that women could “see the intent of the design beyond the hanger.” It turns the whole you-have-to-squeeze-into-your-wedding-dress trope on its head.

Additionally, some retailers in Miami showcase mannequins with bigger bottoms, Alleyne says. Why? Because women want to see things that look like themselves. She believes that more realistic mannequins are inevitable, because women are calling for them, even if some retailers aren’t listening.

“Some retailers are still stuck in that Twiggy era,” she says. “However, as society moves further into the ‘real women’ phase and on every level, more realism is inevitable. If you look at the history of mannequins, they usually reflect how society views women, and as women grow in voice, mannequins change in shape.”

As a response to this, the retail industry — if not couture runway brands — has slowly been making progress in its advertising, and the results have been positive. Research from Cambridge University in 2012 suggested that curvier mannequins could help brands be seen in a better light by women (though that should be fairly obvious). Think about American Eagle’s much-lauded underwear company Aerie, which famously promotes different bodies and un-photoshopped models. It’s seen a massive payoff for that choice, in the form of consistent double-digit comparable sales growth. In its most recent quarter, comparable sales for the store were up 25 percent, suggesting that realism isn’t just what women what to see — it’s what they want to buy.

Wedbush analyst Morry Brown confirmed to MarketWatch that the utilization of plus-size models translates into improved sales. You’d think that retailers would extend that logic to mannequins, especially when many mall retailers are struggling to improve sales, shuttering stores, and fighting tooth and nail with online shopping. It’s almost hard to see why retailers wouldn’t want to make changes that would help their sales improve, but if some retailers still haven’t even latched onto embracing curvier models, they probably won’t be jumping to pay for curvier mannequins, either.

Because don’t forget — if this is all about finances, mannequins are expensive. “Typical department store mannequins can cost, on average, $500 to 900, and it can cost $150 just to repair a joint on a broken mannequin, so some department stores actually refer to them as ‘assets,’” Divita says. “In some stores in New York, where the retail industry is widely unionized, the sales associates are not allowed to touch the store mannequins; that responsibility is solely for visual merchandisers as a means of protecting the store’s investment.” Consider how many units a brand might have. Replacing all the mannequins could cost a lot of money, and it’s an investment that a retailer might not be quick to make.

Photo: Cristina Arias/Getty Images

In fact, back in 2014, the AP reported that the reason mannequins hadn’t been realistic for so long was because the simple, headless, uniform mannequin was cheaper... around $300. Realism — or a curvier, more specialized mannequin — had a price: around $1,500.

So now, there are retailers who might be cautious of lofty investments (especially when they have other issues, like the clothes themselves) — and progressive retailers who want women to know they care and are listening to what they’re saying. Or, at least, let them think they know they care, because retailers typically care most about one thing only: the bottom line. The only way to win that bottom line, though, is through consumers.

“A retailer’s job is to always satisfy the consumer,” says Arrington. “That’s the only reason the retailer is in business.”

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