After scoring a few plum cosmetics contracts, we imagine the final frontier in model-land must be landing a deal with a famous mannequin company. Nothing backs up the claim “I’m prettier than all you witches”—or whatever models whisper behind each other’s backs—than having your face and body replicated, mass produced, and distributed to department stores and retail chains across the country. Your mug and figure selling Galliano couture and the season’s ugliest cropped jeans in windows simultaneously—now that’s an achievement. At Roostein Mannequin‘s 50th anniversary party, we spent most of our time contemplating what one does after having been replicated in mannequin form. Keep a few around the apartment for creepy bragging rights? Toss off a casual, “Hey, check me out at the Cherry Hill mall,” at social functions?
The Rootstein mannequins are everywhere: H&M, Zara, Neiman Marcus, Saks. Stores have the option of changing the hair and eye color, but you’re still looking at the same faces in many department stores and retail chains around the country. For the past 50 years, the company that Adel Rootstein built has made its name translating beauty ideals from every decade into timeless fiberglass form. Many of the posers, naturally, have been supermodels, including Twiggy and Chanel favorite Erin O’Connor.
If fashion trends are a mirror on the socio-political climate of an era (miniskirts in the swinging 60s, Armani power suits in the Wall Street-worshipping Reagan years) the same can be said for fashion mannequins. Female dummies had a warm smile to welcome the boys home after World War II; they grew nipples during the sexual revolution; in the fitness-obsessed eighties, both they and their male counterparts became more muscled. (At the party, we even noticed a display of Helmut Newton photos included mannequins with actual pubic hair, but Roostein’s creative director assured us they were taken from Newton’s own fetishistic, private stash.)
And speaking of fetishes and mannequins: All the sculpted perfection at the Rootstein party—whether fiberglass or flesh—made us think back to our favorite mannequin story of all, that of the 1930s soap-sculptor-turned-mannequin-designer Lester Gaba. Gaba once became so enamored with one of his pieces, a socialite-like mannequin named Cynthia, that she accompanied him on “dates” to the Stork Club and the opera. Cynthia lived a life of fame and fortune most young New York women only dream of: Cartier and Tiffany sent her jewels; designers gave her clothes. It was the perfect romance—until one fateful day at the beauty salon, when poor Cynthia slipped from a chair and broke into a million pieces.
Because of their unique position in the fashion industry, mannequin companies like Rootstein have played a significant role not only in documenting current standards of beauty but in promoting new ones.
To its credit, Roostein occasionally moves beyond immortalizing only models—legendary New York nightlife fixtures Susanne Bartsch and Diane Brill have both posed—and the company is known for having crafted the first African-American mannequin with realistic features. For its 50th anniversary, the company is reissuing a mannequin of famous ’70s African-American model Pat Cleveland and creating new ones of her children.
Still, most of the world fits a plus size, and we couldn’t help but notice that the presence of a plus-size mannequin was notably absent at the Roostein 50th anniversary party—just like it is in most shop windows. Where are all the diverse mannequin types that manufacturers have purportedly created over the years, and how come we haven’t noticed many of them in stores? And, we wondered further, does the onus fall on companies like Roostein—or their customers, still buying the same old doll?