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In the past few years, the mannequin has become increasingly realisticin the late '90s she often had a stub, knob, or spike, instead of a facebut there are limits to her newfound personality. "She's so sedate and sweet sometimes it'sI don't knowpainful," says Anthony Lombardi, the visual director at Saks, who says he misses the days when mannequins sipped gin, used knives, and wore gas masks.
As shoppers' budgets for accessories expand, there's more incentive for stores to use full-size mannequins with all the appropriate limbs, digits, and lobes. Some companies now make their mannequins with enhanced ear wells for iPods and create models of purse-size dogs. With all her body parts intact, the average fiberglass woman is a caricature of conventional beauty. The H&M on Fifth Avenue has more than 100 mannequins who show off their flexibility and long ponytails by standing on top of 15-foot racks of clothes; they wear rings, fishnets, and crowns.
Appealing to a baby boomer's sense of what's cute and familiar, last year Goldsmith, one of the largest mannequin manufacturers in the country, created a new face for their child model, loosely based on the young heroine in Dare Wright's 1957 cult classic, The Lonely Doll. Her nose is a tiny nub, lovely and inoffensive. "The psychological parallels between mannequins and dolls are very clear," says Ronald Knoth, an associate at Goldsmith. "It's nice to revisit something from the '50s because in many ways the tenor of the times today is similar: the yearning for safety and comfortalthough that little girl is also very sexy."
Some people are so seduced by the image that they come into stores and, for their own purposes, try to purchase the actual mannequin. Whatever the models are wearing usually sells, including her hairdo. "A couple weeks ago, a woman spent more than one thousand dollars on the mannequin's complete outfit," says Wendy Iza, the manager at Item, a small store on the Upper East Side. "She didn't like the jeans when she tried them on herself, but she bought them anyway."
The logic seems strangely simple: the more beautiful the mannequin is, the better her clothes sell. At Bergdorf Goodman the models are glossy and demure; they stand in clumpsone curls up on a loveseatwatching the real people go by. Their legs are long and sleek and naturally segue into built-in high heels. "There's a return to a more, if I may use the word, "glamorous" look," says Joe Cotugno, the director of visual presentation at Bloomingdale's."People want some drama and excitement."
But as mannequins become more life-like, shoppers get increasingly emotional, even hysterical, about the implications of the displays. Lombardi says he no longer feels comfortable hanging mannequins from the ceilings, "ever since the prisoner episode in Fallujah," or putting them in cages (people complained when he tried this in a recent animal print exhibition). "Shoppers shouldn't take the mannequins so seriously," he says. "She doesn't speak back. That's why we use her. You can knock her feet off and put shoes on, and she won't say a word."