Why Some Mannequins Are Turning Blue, Taking a Dive and Putting on Weight

Why Some Mannequins Are Turning Blue, Taking a Dive and Putting on Weight

November 13, 20184 min read

Baylor University fashion expert and author explains new twists in 'silent selling' -- and why frustrated customers may be relieved

Women have long griped about pencil-thin mannequins in clothing displays, saying they bear little resemblance to real women’s bodies and make shopping frustrating and depressing.

But the criticism is beginning to make inroads, and some members of the apparel industry are introducing changes to stop idealizing thin bodies and make mannequins more inclusive — among them creating mannequins with curvier shapes, modeling the figures after disabled people and, in a very different approach, fashioning forms that are totally unrealistic, says Baylor University researcher Lorynn Divita, Ph.D., co-author of the textbook "Fashion Forecasting” and associate professor of apparel merchandising in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.

And more change may be in the works, prompted by research.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders found that 100 percent of the female mannequins studied in two large English cities represented an underweight body size — one that would be “medically unhealthy.”

(Note: While female mannequins look scrawny, many of their male counterparts are brawny. Only 8 percent of male mannequins represented an underweight body size — although many appeared “unrealistically muscular,” researchers said.)

Divita, who conducts research on the apparel industry, tracks trends and makes fashion predictions, offers some observations in this Q&A:

Q: If mannequins are supposed to be a “silent seller” and a strong method for attracting customers, why are they so skinny that it is discouraging to women who are average or bigger? Why can’t their makers pack a few extra plastic pounds on them?

A: For one thing, mannequins are expensive. The material for one that’s larger is going to cost more, the same way it is for plus-size garments, because you use more material. 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. In New York, where the retail industry is widely unionized, in some stores 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.

Another reason smaller mannequins have been appealing to retailers is that smaller dimensions make it easier to put on and remove clothing.

Q: Wouldn’t it be worth the investment to make them bigger to showcase more realistic or inclusive figures and attract those customers?

A: I recently visited the corporate offices of plus-size design company ELOQUII in New York, and their creative director, Jodi Arnold (B.S.H.E. ’88), shared with me that 65 percent of U.S. women are over size 14. Yet they represent only 17 percent of apparel spending. It’s hard to determine cause and effect: are they not spending on apparel because a wide variety of options aren’t available? Or is it that a wide variety of options are not available because this market does not spend on apparel?

ELOQUII is betting on the former. In addition to their online store, they’ve recently begun opening brick-and-mortar storefronts which, unlike their website, feature merchandise on mannequins. Hopefully as the plus-sized apparel market continues to grow, the increased demand for plus-sized mannequins will result in wider representation of mannequin body types overall.

Q: If most mannequins don’t reflect the majority of women’s physiques, where does the inspiration come for their sizes and shapes?

A: Many mannequins can be sculpted using the measurements of live models or even have their proportions based on a celebrity who has a widely admired figure. Just like there is no standard apparel sizing system for women, there is no standard sizing system for display mannequins.

Q: Besides beginning to be a bit more realistic in size, how are mannequins evolving?

A: We are used to traditionally seeing mannequins in static poses like standing or sitting. With the rise in popularity of activewear, stores are devoting more floor space to this merchandise category, and it only makes sense to put those mannequins in dynamic positions like doing yoga poses or running. Another great example of dynamic poses can be found in swimwear: there are some great displays of mannequins diving. The impact of dynamic poses such as these are heightened when mannequins are displayed in groups of five or seven. Dynamic poses are currently being taken to the next level by actually suspending mannequins from the ceiling, so who knows how far this trend can go?

One way to address representation is to go in the opposite direction and make a mannequin that is totally unrealistic. The last time I was shopping, I saw an entire section merchandised with glossy light-blue mannequins. This is actually a very clever way of appealing to everyone by targeting no one.

Another interesting thing is that new technology allows visual merchandisers to creatively alter a mannequin’s appearance without changing it permanently by printing vinyl stickers to affix to mannequins’ faces. Merchandisers can print out bold lips or dramatic eyelashes, affix them to the mannequin in the display and easily take them off when they are done, which gives visual merchandisers yet another way to attract our attention.


Divita is the author of the textbook “Fashion Forecasting” (Fourth edition, Fairchild Books). Her publications have appeared in the Journal of the Textile Institute and Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, both published in England; Clothing and Textiles Research Journal and Journal of Textile and Apparel Technology and Management. She is the United States editor for the Bloomsbury Fashion Business Case Studies project and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Fashion, Style and Popular Culture. Divita received her B.A. in French and B.S. in fashion merchandising from California State University Chico, her Master’s degree in apparel manufacturing management from University of Missouri, and her Ph.D. in textile products marketing from University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Connect with:
  • Lorynn Divita, Ph.D.
    Lorynn Divita, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Apparel Design and Merchandising

    Dr. Divita's areas of research are fashion forecasting and trend contagion; and textile, apparel and retailing industry topics.

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