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Heads Are Back!

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Two years ago, newspapers made a fuss over “Sex,” a new mannequin
with a vaguely enlarged butt who is “curvy,” “full-bodied,” and
“voluptuous.” The articles and accompanying pictures, which focused
closely on her inner thighs, would make you think she’s a true fatty,
“full of attitude.” In reality, she’s size four. She has perky
breasts and lanky, child-like arms.

In the past few years, the mannequin has become increasingly
realistic—in the late ’90s she often had a stub, knob, or spike,
instead of a face—but there are limits to her newfound personality.
“She’s so sedate and sweet sometimes it’s—I don’t know—painful,” 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 comfort—although 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 clumps—one curls up on a loveseat—watching 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.”

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