Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Fashion Rarity: A Life-Sized French Mannequin, c.1765

Sunday, October 4, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Eighteenth-century Paris must have been an affluent consumer's dream, with every kind of shop to cater to every taste. Fashion had become both a necessity and an obsession that had reached the most dizzying heights of refinement, and dozens of craft and tradespeople were required to outfit a stylish lady or gentleman (see this post for an idea.)

It's not surprising, then, that the shops of Parisian mantua-makers would have set the trends in shop displays as well as in their wares. They were likely the first to replace the popular small fashion dolls - the "petite pandoras" that had been used to show styles in miniature to customers - with the new, larger dolls - the "grande pandoras" – that were the earliest life-sized shop mannequins.

This elegant lady is apparently the only survivor of those first mannequins, withstanding more than two centuries of wars and revolution and (most perilous of all) changing tastes. I spotted her via Instagram; apparently she was one of the most popular pieces in a recent exhibition, Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish which was shown at both the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in  Musée Bourdelle in Paris earlier this year. (If any of our readers saw her in either place, I hope you'll share your thoughts.)

Like all fashionable models, she's tall (5'9") and well-proportioned. Carved from wood, she wears a blond wig, paste jewelry, and what is surely her original robe á la Française - the now-faded pink floral silk matches the color and design painted on her wooden shoe. Her hands are a bit odd, with flexing fingers, and I'm guessing they was designed to hold some delightful accessory to tempt buyers further.

What I found most interesting about her, however, is how surprisingly realistic she appears. Her body isn't exaggerated to conform to an impossible-to-achieve fashionable ideal. Yes, her figure reflects the long waist and flat front that 18thc. stays (corsets) create, but every woman who came into her shop in the 1760s would have had that shape, too. While the earlier, smaller pandoras and the fashion plates of the same era show ladies with too-small waists and teeny-tiny feet, this mannequin seems almost...normal.

In other words, she's not at all like modern store mannequins that are so unnaturally proportioned that even the size 2 clothes must be pinned in the back. Was she designed to show dresses that women might actually try on and buy? Was she modeled after a real woman - perhaps even the owner of the shop? And were all mannequins of the time like this, or was she an anomaly?

Update: This lady was just sold on March 8, 2016 at auction by Sotheby's for 37,500GBP! 

Above: Painted wood mannequin, French, c. 1765. Pelham Galleries. Photographs copyright Pelham Galleries


Yve said...

It is an interesting thought that our idea of beauty would have been formed by people we saw in real life back then, so far more natural and dare I say "attainable". Our generation have been bombarded with airbrushed examples of extreme proportions and eternally youthful faces, so to our eyes she looks a little short and plump. How sad for us. I find it sadder still that my nephew and his friends base their idea of beauty on the perma-tanned, pot-toothed, surgery exaggerated weirdness of shows like "The only way is Essex" and the Kardashians. Fashion is a strange concept.

LP said...

It appears that her arms are adjustable. In the forward facing pic, her left arm is at about a 45 degree angle but in the rear facing pic, it appears at a 90 degree angle. That is pretty amazing (if I'm seeing this correctly) to have articulating arms. Very ahead of the time. This would be amazing to see.

Barbara said...

I am a new follower of your daily blogs. I find them so interesting and informative. Today’s was especially interesting to me as I am a doll artist and painter. Sculpting, painting and needlework are my passions. This exhibit hit on all of them! I have always been fascinated with the companion butlers painted long ago. Although my research has not brought me much information about them. I wish this had been in my area to attend. Thank you for sharing such tidbits of history with us all.

Susan G. said...

Since there was very little ready-to-wear clothing in the 18th c.(much of it made for sailors or workers, with sizes either adjustable or irrelevant) this lovely mannequin's dress probably showed the quality of the mantua maker's work; her gown was an example which could be closely examined, but was not necessarily for sale. That's not to say it couldn't have ended up being sold as "old clothes" eventually. That was the fate of used clothing given to body servants as a "perk." The servants, not being the right class, couldn't wear their masters' clothes, so they sold them -- making used clothing almost the only ready-made clothing available for centuries. Used second-hand finery then moved down through successive owners until it reached the rag man. (How lucky this gown remained with the mannequin!)Has anyone written the story of a dress, or coat, as the basis of a novel?

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