By Judi Markowitz
I’m a mall walker during the cold and dreary winter months. I am there practically every afternoon , accompanied by my daughter Lindsay. She is disabled and I push her wheelchair as we careen through the mall looking at the sights— people watching and gazing at the window dressing of each store we pass. We typically walk about two miles a day.
Lindsay and I are also known to partake in some quick shopping along the way — a detour through our favorite stores. A few weeks ago, I noticed there was a newish retailer at Somerset Mall in Troy, Mich. — Moose Knuckles, a Canadian store. In the window, there were mannequins adorned with their recent coat and clothing line. There was nothing unusual except for the fact that all the mannequins were black.
I had never thought about mannequins before this close encounter. They have always been a staple in stores as long as I can remember. I am 71 years old, and it occurred to me that that the reason I hadn’t contemplated the color of mannequins is that they all looked like me — white.
This sighting piqued my curiosity and I wanted to check out other stores in the mall to see if mannequins of color were used. That day, Lindsay and I walked over three miles on our mission.
Somerset is a luxury shopping mall that has two separate sections of retail stores connected by a Skywalk, a 700-foot enclosed bridge, which gives a scenic view of Big Beaver Road. The south side is comprised of high-end stores such as Vince Camuto, Tumi, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and is anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.
The north side is equally as nice, including more affordable stores, and is anchored by Macy’s and Nordstrom. Stores such as North Face, Hugo Boss, The Gap, White House/Black Market, and Victoria’s Secret are among the 180-plus stores comprising the mall. Additionally, there is a food court on the third floor of the mall and there are usually long lines for its enticing restaurants.
I decided that Lindsay and I would investigate both sections. As we walked through the mall, I noticed that some mannequins of color have been sporadically placed in store fronts and inside the stores as well. But here it is, 2023, and I am left wondering about diversity in retail shops when it comes to their display mannequins.
As was true in my childhood, flesh tone models that mirror my skin color, are still a dominant figure in retail shops today. This may seem trivial to some, but Troy is in close proximity to Detroit, which is 77 percent black. That’s a big base of potential shoppers to reflect and influence.
During our search I realized there are many types of mannequins. Some are faceless with a smooth exterior, others have a full face — eyes, nose, and a mouth, and let’s not forget the headless mannequins which display clothing from the neck down. Unfortunately, these types appear like they were decapitated and don’t necessarily have the appeal of a full body form. The headless mannequins, at times, lack appendages too —it’s a strange look with shapeless clothing hanging from both sides.
On a positive note, these types of mannequins are generally beige, grey, and sometimes even gold —neutral is good. It is reported that “these bodies could belong to anyone and everyone — faceless anonymity.” Some even have a small prong emerging from the neck — this is a bit over the top. Do designers think this is fashionable? I’m sure these protrusions serve as a good spot to place a hat — I only saw a few while exploring the mall.
On the bright side, whether there’s a head on the mannequin, with or without a face, or headless, none of these mannequins sport those unattractive wigs used in past years— thank goodness for small gifts.
Relax News published an enlightening article in 2009 with the headline boasting, “Mannequins hit hard by discrimination—and loss of face.” The author, Hélène Lafourcade, who was the lead visual merchandising agent for the French department store Galeries Lafayette, took a firm stand: “Mannequins are very important. They’re not just objects you stand up in the store. They’re static salespeople.”
Lafourcade also added that mannequins probably multiply sales fourfold. Diversity could also be a tool for sales and the industry was just beginning to wake up to these issues.
The word “mannequin “comes from the French word that means “an artist’s jointed model.” Mannequins originated in the 15th century using miniature models to demonstrate fashion ideas to would-be customers. Later, milliners in the 18th century began to use wickerwork mannequins. Soon wirework mannequins became the rage and were manufactured in Paris.
As time progressed, artists were hired to create lifelike faces for newer models, and white was the dominant color. In the 20th century, couture started to use mannequins instead of live models when displaying clothes to wealthy women. In the 1950s and 1960s mannequins were commonplace for couture and ready- to-wear clothing. The trend has continued to this day, but all mannequins are not created equal.
Paula DiPerna, the author of a 2019 article in CFDA.com (Council of Fashion Designers of America)
came to the same realization about mannequin display colors as I did. When walking by one of her favorite stores in Manhattan, DiPerna was struck by the absurdity of using only white mannequins. She marched into the store and asked to speak with the windows manager. In no uncertain terms, DiPerna voiced her objection to the mannequins.
Still fired up, she followed this with a letter stating “I am not a woman of color, but I can imagine that shoppers of color who walk past your windows might wish to see at least a hint of themselves represented in your stores…As you know, society more and more has recognized the importance and value of diversity of cultures, and this includes diversity in looks and race.”
As time passed Paula noticed little change in the window dressing. Then, much to her surprise, there was a shift — half of the mannequins now had color and half were white. That was progress!
Somerset Mall has made changes too, but more needs to be accomplished. As Lindsay and I strolled through both sides of the mall that day, there were stores that still sported all white, shiny, egg-headed mannequins in their windows and throughout the interior of the stores.
Some of these retail outlets had windows filled with more than ten mannequins festooned with the latest in high fashion. Then, upon entering the store you are hit with more mannequins a few feet away from the entrance. It’s a mob scene of white.
I was happy to observe the stores selling sporting equipment, exercise clothing, athletic gear, and athletic shoes have recently changed their mannequins — dark graphite and light grey are the colors of choice. Many of the clothing stores have done the same and ejected their all-white display models. It was also nice to see more mannequins of color used in some of the larger anchor stores as well. However, the staple of white still dominates in these multi-floor outlets.
As a society we have certainly evolved with diversity in advertising, television programming and movies. Billboards illuminate our culture and inclusiveness is commonplace. Somerset is reported to be “among the most profitable malls in the United States.” This begs the question — why can’t retail stores integrate mannequins that reflect a wide cross section of society?
Instead of only using white mannequins, colors such as gray, black, or gold should be a priority. I have even seen a sprinkling of orange mannequins — they make the clothing pop. According to Fixtures and Displays.com “retail store mannequins are a sound investment and key to visually marketing apparel and other merchandise in any retail outlet.” The fix appears to be easy, but the effort must be initiated. It’s way past the time for stores to change up the color combination of mannequins and join the 21st century. Customers want to see themselves reflected in the shopping experience and mannequins provide that mirror.
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.