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August 01, 2016 4 min read

When we hear the phrase “dress forms” we automatically think about clothes, apparel stores, body shapes, so on and so forth. For those who are not very familiar with this concept, we can simply characterize dress forms as mannequins without arms, having a woman or man’s body shape from the shoulders to the thighs, mounted on a stand. Most of us know how dress forms look and are used nowadays, but what was their function and how were they perceived in the past, in the early times of fashion history? Well, we are about to find out.

The beginning of dress forms and mannequins

The very first dress form in the not so long history of fashion dates back to the early 20th century, when most of them were made of wood or solid wax. They were primarily used in tailoring, dressmaking or in the garment industry. The fact that the first dress forms used to have a pretty short length, from the shoulders to the thighs can be explained if we take into consideration the form and structure of the first historical proof of a dress form. Historians and fashion experts talk about the dress form found in the tomb of the famous Tutankhamun, the Pharaoh who led the 18th dynasty of Egypt.

The industrial revolution had perhaps the strongest influence in the history of dress forms and mannequins. This event led to the transformation of the shop-front into a space of action. This is the time when the dress forms and mannequins entered the stage and never walked out. This is the time when the using of dress forms and mannequins was extended from sewing and tailoring to displaying and eventually selling clothing.

In the early years of the 20th century, we can find the first dress forms having legs. They were very big busted and could have been used in three positions: with both legs placed together, with only the left foot forward and with just the right foot forward. So, for the very first time, dress forms became more “human”.

The bust was not the only part of the body who “suffered” a change. The waist was also modified, dress forms using very thin waists, also known as “wasp waists”, in order to display corsets. The beginning of the 20th century was also the end of the Victorian Period. What this has to do with dress forms? Well, once the Victorian Period ended, there was a very important change in the history of fashion, because the so-called “censorship” of the female body declined. This was the moment when dress forms started to resemble more with the female body.

This was a good thing both for the ones who had clothing stores and for those who wanted to buy clothes, because the first could present their products in a more attractive way and the latter could see much clearly what they really wanted to buy. Even though this was a good thing, it happened a little bit too early and, as a result, there was a shock among some Christian women when they saw corsets displayed on dress forms.

Those “shocked” women put pressure on the local administration, and in some cities, dressing and undressing dress forms without covering store windows was banished. Most of these laws were abolished in the 60s. 

Another important moment that changed again the form and appearance of both dress forms and mannequins was the beginning of the World War I. The fact that men went to war put women in the position of replacing them in most of the laborious jobs including weapon manufacturing. As a result, the social change started to reflect in both dress forms and mannequins.

Thus, dress forms and mannequins dropped out corsets, started to display more parts of the leg, like knees and ankles, becoming more varied and realistic. In other words, the practicality of the woman of this period started to be reflected on the form and appearance of the dress forms and mannequins. The immediate period after the World War come with another slight, but important change regarding mannequins, which, because of the invention of the so-called movable limbs, became more expressive and relaxed.

The inter-war period had also a big influence on dress forms and mannequins. The Victorian woman’s body shape is history, its place being taken by the easy-going, even boyish body shape. This shape was characterized by the very simple and straight figure, without forgetting the flat chest.

Fashion experts insist on the fact that dress forms and mannequins of this time reflect some interesting influences in the construction and representation of the human form, like that of Art Deco or that of so-called Art Nouveau movement. Even the materials used to make dress forms and mannequins became innovative.

So, in this period, dress forms and mannequins were made from papier maché (a mixture of paper and glue, sometimes glue being replaced by flour and water, which becomes hard when dry). Unlike wax, the previous material used at the beginning of the 20th century, this new material shared the advantage of being heat-resistant.

Regarding mannequins, we have to say that they started to look more realistic, because of the neck, which became more elongated. Another important thing that worth mentioning here is the courage of Pierre Imans, the well-known mannequin manufacturer, who created a mannequin with darker skin tones for the first time in the history of fashion.

It seems that the source of such an inspiration was the multi-talented Josephine Baker, who started as a dancer and singer and after that becoming an actress. Even though the easy-going and boyish features reflected in the mannequins of that time were the result of the US prohibition, that image became the ideal figure of women.

The early period of dress forms and mannequins shows us that the evolution and innovation in retail are very strongly linked to the most important events in the history of mankind.