“Was will das Weib?” Sigmund Freud famously asked—What does woman want? A few months ago, in this space, we pondered the significance of the eyeless, and even headless, women who have proliferated on the covers of historical novels in recent years—novels that are, in large part, marketed to women, and the covers of which are meant to attract the attention of potential buyers. This week, in the Thursday Styles section of the New York Times, fashion critic Cathy Horyn ponders the meaning and morphology of mannequins.
Like the ladies who line the bookstore shelves, these storefront sirens, dressed in the latest styles, are there to lure potential buyers:
It is said that the ideal time to view store windows is at dusk. One evening a few weeks ago a friend driving past Saks looked and said, “I wonder what mannequins tell us about who we are.”
At their best they tell us how we stand and carry our bodies; whether we want to be tall, willowy, athletic, busty, Amazonian, and if we need to pay attention to our arches. But even at their worst—headless, colorless, listless—a mannequin tells us something about ourselves.
Twenty or 30 years ago, it was relatively easy to walk down Fifth Avenue and see differences in mannequins, differences not only in color and ethnic characteristics but also attitude and even emotion, which were conveyed by the novelty of the displays and, of course, the fashion. Nowadays, though, with few exceptions, the great avenue provides a window into limited resources and eroded convictions. By using the generic-looking mannequins, stores seem to want to erase the issue of race and ethnic identity—as much as blogs now serve to highlight these distinctions.
“A lot of stores just avoid that issue by spraying everything gloss white and not putting any features on the mannequin,” said Michael Steward, the executive vice president of Rootstein, a top specialist in realistic mannequins based in New York and London. “They don’t want to make a mistake.”
Similarly, he said, a designer client will spend $50,000 a day for a model for an advertising shoot but will fret over the choice of mannequin until finally saying, “Oh, just make it headless.”
Was will das Weib?