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!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.