Off With Their Heads! Mannequins Get Chopped

Hanging arms and legs. Detached heads. Pumpkin heads. The storefront last Halloween at the Ralph Lauren men’s store in New York City’s West Village looked like a scene from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But while the spirit of the attraction screamed, “Boo!,” its theme of dismemberment alluded to the latest trend in visual merchandising.

Once so lifelike that you might mistakenly ask one for directions, many mannequins today are piecemeal: a pair of tailored trousers on a lonely set of legs, a lacy bra strapped to a severed torso. The model in the window hasn’t always been so disjointed. Elongated, abstract mannequins of the 1920s were a reflection of the art deco movement. Shorter mannequins after World War II reflected the scarcity of the time.

Now, in the midst of new economic woes, the contemporary look is more akin to evidence at a murder scene, with multiple body parts positioned in different places and heads nowhere in sight.

Judi Townsend, owner of Mannequin Madness in San Francisco, a national supplier of these fiberglass doppelgängers has noticed a significant increase in the sales of headless mannequins over the past 10 years. Not only is it cheaper to buy one leg versus an entire body, stores also find the headless breed accentuates the clothes, requires less maintenance and helps customers think, “I would look great in that outfit,” rather than, “I don’t look like that mannequin.” But some retailers are rebelling against the trend, trying to make the full-body mannequin chic again.

It’s ironic that most mannequins mimic females, when the Dutch root word, “manneken,” literally means “little man.” Since the 19th century, when department stores became popular, these “little men” have been decorating display windows and intriguing customers with their wares. Even in the late 16th century, Henry IV sent miniature mannequins to Marie de Medici to keep her aware of the latest French fashions. But the true origins of the mannequin have been traced back to King Tut’s tomb, where a wooden torso was found.

Today, customers are lured to a whimsical window scene inspired by “Alice in Wonderland” at the fashion boutique Mariel, in downtown Denver. Two-foot feathers shaped like butterflies and blue hydrangeas accompanied with white, purple and pink flowers create a miniature garden in Mariel’s front window. As a tribute to Alice, a blue Sue Wong gown shines on a mannequin without a head or arms. Denise Snyder, who owns the 24-year-old boutique that she named after her daughter, offers a practical reason that the shop’s 30 displays work best without heads.

“We have people trying on our stuff all day, and the mannequins I have are really easy to get off in two seconds versus the ones with heads, arms and torsos,” she explains.

At the fitness clothier Lululemon Athletica, near New York City’s Lincoln Center, another alluring window looks like the scene from the “The Wizard of Oz,” in which the Wicked Witch’s legs stick out from under Dorothy’s house. Multiple pairs of legs covered in neon pink running tights are cleverly positioned, their feet pointing in all directions. Munchkin-like, they’re only half the size they should be, but with all legs and no torso.

Lululemon Athletica’s designers want their inanimate models to be discreet and abbreviated, says Cindy Lecomte, the brand’s strategic merchandising manager in Vancouver, British Columbia. With less emphasis on the mannequin, they believe that their creations get more attention. Body parts are strategically positioned so torsos showcase the nylon tops and sports bras, while legs don the yoga pants and running shorts. Lecomte says the hope is that the athletic garments the company sells will be more appealing to customers if they can easily spin, turn, touch and feel the product on a smaller model.

Clinton Kelly, fashion expert and co-host of the Learning Channel’s “What Not To Wear,” agrees. He says you have to downplay mannequins to show off the product, and “the only way to do that is to chop off all their heads!”

Money saving and universal appeal also explain why retailers prefer headless models. Mannequins with heads age faster from wear and tear; a noticeable chip of paint on the cheekbone can be a ticket to the dumpster. With no head, there is no need to touch up their makeup or restyle their hair.

Another incentive for going headless is to appeal to as many potential customers as possible. A headless model cannot be accused of looking typical — Caucasian, blond and blue-eyed. “If someone doesn’t have the money to get more diverse mannequins,” says Judi Townsend, “then they can get more bang for their buck with the headless mannequins.”

But some retailers are unwilling to cut corners — or limbs — preferring instead to pay top dollar for the full body. “Fashion today isn’t the clothes, it’s the whole look,” says Kevin Arpino, creative director for Adel Rootstein in London, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of mannequins.

For Arpino, who has been at Rootstein for 27 years, designing mannequins is an art form, from head to toe. He has to anticipate fashion trends 18 months in advance to prepare his models for the latest styles. Arpino’s customers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Zara have a unique look, which he completes with a head.

“A headless mannequin to me makes no sense,” he says. He doesn’t understand why some designers will spend millions of dollars on high-paid, skinny models for their magazine advertisements and then use a cheap headless mannequin for their display.

Bargain retailer Old Navy apparently got the message. Its “SuperModelquins” advertising campaign features full-figure mannequins that not only model clothes but also talk.

Launched last year, the television ads show off the SuperModelquins in all shapes, sizes and colors. Whether they represent children or a particular ethnicity, the SuperModelquins may mark the return of more realistic mannequins. They act like real people but speak without moving their mouths, typically to joke about their plastic bodies. In one ad, the arm of the athletic mannequin, Rec Tech guy, is lying on the ground. One of the other mannequins yells, “We need a cleanup in menswear!”

At least he hasn’t been guillotined by the fashion police.