The Secret Lives of Mannequins

Entering the secret lives – and discovering the economic ?significance – of mannequins.

Entering the secret lives – and discovering the economic 
significance – of mannequins.

As you wander the malls and retail streets of B.C. this month – seeking that killer January sale or white sale or Boxing Day-cum-Boxing Month-cum-
we-need-to-clear-this-crap-out-and-hit-our-numbers sale – consider the lowly mannequin. She (it’s often a she) stands guard at shops across the province, quietly going about her job to convince you that you too could look that good, that stylish, in a herringbone cape or double-wide bubble skirt. That maybe, if you stop and stare long enough, you might be tempted, walk in and make that impulse purchase. 


Many of us apparently have. B.C. weathered the recent economic storm better than most provinces, and the retail sector shone brightest of all. As of November 2010, we could claim the fastest annual retail sales growth in the country at 6.6 per cent. B.C. consumers spent six per cent more on goods and services in 2010 compared to 2009, including a six per cent year-over-year rise in August – the month after that much-hated, consumption-shrivelling HST was introduced. How could it be? 

Russ Willis has some thoughts. Willis is president and co-owner of Burnaby’s Superior & Allied Retail Equipment, one of B.C.’s top suppliers of mannequins and other display and store equipment. He has been with the company since 1981 and says a good window display has a huge impact on whether or not a store makes that pivotal sale. As for the HST, Willis notes that this past fall was one of his best falls ever: “The September numbers alone top anything we’ve seen in the past 10 years.”

Visual stylist Bobbi Irons dresses a full-body mannequin for a display at Holt Renfrew in downtown Vancouver. Superior & Allied Store Equipment endeavours to keep stylists such as her well stocked in everything from full-body models (which go for about $300) to mere hand units (yours for only $15).

In the three decades he’s been in business, Willis says, mannequins have changed a lot. In the 1980s, most of them were made in North America, and your typical full-body model sold for about $2,000. Today most mannequins are imported from China, with Superior & Allied selling full-body models for about $300 each. And unlike the fashions they don, mannequins are priced the same regardless of whether they target male or female shoppers. 

Another major change in the intervening decades is in volume and type of buyers. When Willis started, he says, department stores such as the Bay and Woodward’s were buying mannequins “by the truckload.” These days he’s lucky to sell 100 a year. And most of those are not going to traditional retailers, he adds, but rather to specialty markets such as yoga stores (the ladies form with removable arms, selling for $139.90, is made exclusively for the yoga trade) and, increasingly, the film industry (“They buy them to blow them up”).

The French are often credited with creating the first full-bodied mannequin. In 1396 Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of Charles VI of France, sent a life-size doll dressed in the latest French fashions as a gift to the English queen. It started a trend in the royal court: Henry IV sent miniature dolls to his fiancée, Marie de Medici, to keep her abreast of French trends. And Marie Antoinette did similarly with her mother and sisters in Austria. By the time the 19th century rolled around and the Industrial Revolution had brought plate glass windows, electric light and mass-produced clothes to cities across the continent, figurative window models became de rigueur for any retailer worth his salt.

Over the years, the physical look and feel of mannequins has changed with the times. Mannequins from the 19th century – often made with feet of iron, legs and arms of wood, hips and abdomens of papier mâché, plaster or wood, and chests and heads of solid wax – could weigh upward of 140 kilograms and mirrored the voluptuous “ideal woman” of the day. Today’s mannequin, made of fibreglass, typically weighs closer to 11 kilograms and comes in all shapes, colours and, of course, gender. “We sell pregnant mannequins, big-chested mannequins – whatever the store owner wants,” says Willis.

As orders for mannequins go, so, it could be argued, goes the economy. Willis says that so far, 2011 is looking promising. Several stores slated to open have called to place orders, and Willis is planning to expand the custom-build side of his business. But he also thinks he may soon start cutting back on his number of imports, including mannequins: “Frankly, there’s no money to be made there.”