Mannequins have been used since ancient times.

The earliest known dressmaker model was found when Tutankhamun’s tomb (dating from 1350 BC) was opened. An armless, legless, wooden torso, made exactly to the pharaoh’s measurements, stood next to the chest that held the ruler’s clothing.

Tutankhamun Mannequin (public domain image)
Tutankhamun Mannequin
(public domain image)

Mannequins and fashion dolls remained popular among the rich and powerful right up to the 18th century. These ranged in size from about 30 centimetres tall to life size.

For example, the Roman Emperor Nero’s wife used a mannequin to model her clothing. In 1391, Charles IV of Spain shipped a life-sized doll, dressed in the style of the French court, to the Queen of England as part of ongoing peace negotiations. Henry IV (who ruled from 1399 to 1413) sent miniature, elegantly-attired dolls to the de Medici women in Florence to update them on English fashion trends.

After the French Revolution (1789), expensive fashion dolls were replaced by cheap dress forms made of wicker or, from 1835, from wire.

French mannequin from 1800 (public domain image)
French mannequin from 1800
(public domain image)

As consumer goods became commonly available after the Industrial Revolution, shopkeepers wanted an eye-catching way to display their goods in their newly invented plate-glass windows. Their need was met with wax mannequins. By 1870, female wax mannequins were available in three poses – left foot forward, right foot forward or feet together – for $15 (about the cost of renting a cottage for a month). They came with false teeth, glass eyes and real hair. Their feet were made of iron to keep them upright and their arms and legs were usually wood.

Did you know?

In 1898, L Frank Baum, who later wrote the Wizard of Oz, was fascinated by these mannequins. He wrote that “Without such displays, the merchant sinks into oblivion. The busy world forgets him and he is left to himself to rust, vegetate or fail ignominiously”.

It may well be that idea for the scarecrow and tin man in the Wizard of Oz came from L Frank Baum imagining mannequins coming to life.

But there were some major problems with wax mannequins – they were hard to keep clean, they broke easily and, worst of all, they melted!

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