Vintage Mannequins

It was about 25 years ago that a Cologne antique dealer asked me for the first time to restore a mannequin from the 1920s for her. This would not be the only one.As with every new task I had to start getting familiar with the new subject. The mannequins often arrived at my studio in a pitiable condition: at times hopelessly broken; bloated from humidity; chapped. The different materials, and last but not least, the contemporary make-up were a continuous and interesting challenge for me.

Each mannequin - whether bust, head or as a whole - required a fashion representative of its time for individual treatment. It takes a high degree of experience and historic knowledge to find out whether the colours of the damaged piece are original or have been changed at a later stage. The first step was to repair the damage by fixing; stabilizing; glueing; patching up; jointing; remodelling missing parts; using sandpaper and smoothing out. The most difficult part of the restoration is the face. Here you have to work with colour. With thin hair brushes and the finest airbrush techniques - depending on the time - must be covered up features. Mouths are formed into pouts or little hearts and eyebrows are transformed into bold curves in order to bring out the eyes. I have restored figures from 1900 to 1960. One time it was a bust made from wax with real hair and glass eyes  from around the turn of the century.

In clothing fashion life-size figures were needed. Jewellers, hatmakers and hairdressers usually needed busts. Since clothes, lingerie, jewellery, hats, hairstyles and make-up are dictated by fashion, the figures and busts woud become useless and were thrown out regularly. Type, figure, make-up and hairstyle did not fit in with the latest fashion trend and with the current ideal of beauty. So they were replaced by the latest mannequins. Only very few of them 'survived' and then were rediscovered in attics, basements or storage rooms in Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany fifty to sixty years later. The long time in exile had left its traces. At many times quite rotten and in a deplorable condition, they then found their way into my studio.

The French term 'mannequin' describes a simple coat stand in the shape of a tailor`s dummy. It derives from the Dutch 'maneken' which means something like 'little man'. Today we see 'mannequins' parallel to the English model as a professional presenter of clothes. Mannequins as such only appeared when fashion -  in the time of industrial expansion - developed into a thriving business and the big department stores were founded in the big cities. Emile Zola reported on over 500 department stores in the year 1860 and wrote about big display cases situated at the same level as the pavements. The first couturiers started their businesses contemporaneous with quick progress in the ready-made clothes industry - a German or rather a Berlin speciality! The cut- to- size technique was a German invention as well. Designers won the upper and lower middle classes as regular customers and managed to turn fashion into one of the most important industries at the end of the 19th century. It had a potential for growth that many industries of today can only dream of.

At the end of the 19th century, mass production started in the whole of Europe. In Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Rome and London workshops were set up with as many as 300 cutters, seamstresses, wigmakers, wood carvers, painters and varnishers. Workshops, like, e.g., "Pierre Imans”, “Siégel-Paris”,  “Création Novita Bruxelles”,  “Figuren Kralik”, from Dresden, “Werbeplastik Ludwig Klasing Bremen”, or “Figuren Moch” from Cologne, used to manufacture figures from wax, papier-maché  and from a mix of chalk and glue from bonemeal. The faces sometimes had glass eyes, and real eyelashes, and hair woud be implanted one-by-one into the head`s skin (made from wax and later from plaster or gelatine) just as in the laborious manner of manufacturing wigs. In one case, they  formed the eyelashes from delicate copperwires.

Mannequins possessed features of a variety of characters: the sweet-devoted; the self-confident strong or the snooty arrogant. Some models remind one of figures by Amedeo Modigliani or by Oskar Schlemmer.
From 1950 a lot of new materials were tried out. The mannequin made from plastic was eventually born and has prevailed due to its lightness and because it is malleable.

The Dutch model maker Pierre Imans was one of the most famous manufacturers in the first half of the last century and the only one who signed his models. He, too, worked for many decades for the workshop “Siégel-Paris”. His faces are pieces of art: beautiful, with life like naturalism but also stylized, aloof and androgynous. The main attraction at the world EXPO in Paris in 1900 was a wax figure anatomically true to life that he had created. Imans was influenced by the Japonism of the 1920s during a brief fashion trend at the time . His figures were striking because of their elegant and subtle silhouettes and their long and slender hands. He was known for including features of famous people from politics, theatre and film in his figures which served as female  and male  mannequins in shop windows displaying the newest designs and thereby stimulated the world of fashion.

In New York Lester Gaba created a series of mannequins resemling  famous film stars of the time, e.g., Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Brigitte Helm or Clarke Gable. It seems that after 'the roaring twenties' the thirties were a time to become bewitched by one's dreams with devotion and passion. Lester Gaba fell in love with one of his creations, that he called Cynthia, and he appeared in public and at the opera and clubs in her company. Anita Berber (1899-1928 ) the revolutionary dancer of the twenties, danced in Berlin to her own  choreography in which a mannequin woud awaken from its stiffness come to life and dance.

In Germany the first companies for mannequins were founded shortly before 1900.  The figures did not have their origins with established companies, but rather were on the whole from workshops or studios of tinkerers and artists. Every figure was created individually and carried the personal signature of its creator. The industry's success peaked, however, in the 1920s and 30s. After the terrible first World War, fashion turned into a lavish celebration by creative people where artists, filmstars, dancers, advertising people - and above all the modern self-confident woman freed from the corset - danced together. The mannequins in  the window displays where fabulous. The director of the department store Lafayette let artists, such as producer Fred Stockman, design from real models as well as from drawings by modern artists. In 1925 when the fashion industry, along with modern industry and well-known artists, celebrated their status at the Expo in Paris, the fashion magazine VOGUE  talked about   'L'art du mannequin', i.e., the art of the mannequin. Never again has the fashion industry - in Paris or in Berlin - been so closely interlinked with cultural life. It is interesting to note that Emile Aillaud, the architect of the Haute-Couture-Pavilion at the Paris EXPO, gave the young sculptor Robert Couturier the order to design mannequins in 1925. The result was a scandal at the beginning, because the heads were nearly faceless. An enthusiastic femaleaudience however, applauded: 'We like it because each of  us can place herself there'.

The mannequin as a photographer's subject was for many surrealists a central theme, e.g., in the art by André Breton; Max Ernst; Salvador Dali; Man Ray and Juan Miró. For the 'Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme' in 1938, the surrealists put on stage a 'Street of Mannequins' which was populated by their absurdly designed, hybrid-like mannequins. Surrealism plays  with the mannequin's suggestive power of seduction. Man Ray was interested in the confrontation of mannequins and people. For Edward Steichen, the main photographer at VOGUE magazine in the 1920s and 30s, the models were no more mannequins that wear clothes, but rather were living characters. This was revolutionary and could only be expected from a photographer who was an artist.

I was enthusiastic about every mannequin anew and  did not part with them easily since they dominated my life and daily routine over weeks. Through the intense work on them, they acquired a soul and a characteristic name. Even in their damaged condition, the faces and bodies radiated a very specific fascination. I photographed them among flowers, bushes and trees. With the time, a varied documentation of their development emerged. Most of them disappeared in private collections later.

The mannequin of the first half of the last century is indeed a cultural asset that keeps on disappearing from the scene. Literature and photos are a rarity. I am amazed how unknown the mannequin is as a reflection of its time and a portrayal of the customs and morals of their respective eras. But I am also pleased with, how enthusiastic men in particular were; during my photo exhibitions, men either stood in front of their easthetic ideal grinning or were full of disapproval. Distinctive male reactionswere engendered by these women of distinguished elegance; ladylike aloof;  daringly self-confident arrogance or the well behaved manners of a conservative bourgeoise. The topic still generates discussion about the different types of women and men in those times and today.

I have compiled 170 of the prettiest  LOST  BEAUTIES   in these three volumes in order to rescue them from entirely disappearing into oblivion. Nowadays it rarely happens that a beauty finds its way into my studio.

Helga Heubel
2003