When the Fantasy Is a Size 16: Retailers Introduce Voluptuous Mannequins

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Debenhams / Anne Marie Sanderson / AFP / Getty Images

British Equalities Minister Jo Swinson poses with size-16 mannequins at Debenhams department store on Oxford Street in London on Nov. 6, 2013

British department store Debenhams has introduced a line of mannequins that are more like the size of the women who shop there. Meanwhile in Venezuela, the trend is for mannequins with exaggerated breasts and buttocks, which also look like local women, but only the ones who can afford surgery. Is there change afoot in store windows?

The British store, a sort of midlevel clothing retailer like Macy’s, will place the new mannequins, which are equivalent to a size 14 in the U.S., next to the standard size-10 dummies on the women’s-clothing floors at its shop on Oxford Street in London. Eventually it plans to roll out the larger painted ladies to all 170 of its stores in the U.K. The Venezuelan mannequins are not new, but they have become more popular in that country recently.

Debenhams may have been inspired by the publicity conferred on Swedish chain Ahlens, which has been using fuller-figure mannequins among its lingerie displays for about three years, but which got a lot of attention earlier this year when a photo of one of its displays was picked up by a women’s-rights group and went viral. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Ahlens, one of Sweden’s biggest department-store chains, is owned by a woman, Antonia Ax:son Johnson (not a misprint, that’s the correct spelling, pronounced Axelson).

(MORE: Woman’s Quest to Avoid Mirrors for a Year Raises Questions of Body Image)

In speaking about the change, Debenhams director Ed Watson said the store had been working on the project for about 10 years. “We hope that it will help people in some small way to feel comfortable about their bodies and, crucially, that other retailers will follow,” he added. Crucially, one imagines, for his bottom line especially.

The story is a little different over in Venezuela, where the mannequin change came from the bottom up (sorry). Struggling mannequin makers were looking for something that might make their product stand out, so they enhanced the body shapes’ curves, giving them larger breasts and buttocks. The bodies look disproportionate, but those mannequins became the best sellers, perhaps because breast augmentation is a sign of wealth and success in Venezuela.

Most mannequins in the U.S. range from a size 2 to a size 6. And even then the clothes in the windows are often clipped at the back to look more fitted. The reasons for this are, as they say, just business. Fashion is aspirational. If people only bought the clothes they really needed, there would be no fashion business, no Vogue magazine, no Louis Vuitton, no Project Runway.

So when appealing to women’s dreams or sense of self or desire to express who they are, the windows of any department store have got to be a fantasy. Some of the fantasy we don’t even notice. For example, most mannequins are a Kate Middleton–size 5-ft. 10-in. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American woman doesn’t hit 5-ft. 4-in., unless she’s in heels. Until people start having surgery to change their height, though, it’s the unnatural thinness that has become a cause for concern in recent years.

(MORE: ‘Thigh Gap’ Latest Goal for Fashionable Teens)

But let’s be clear here. Size-16 mannequins are as much a fantasy as the size-2 mannequins or the extravagantly pneumatic versions that have become popular in Venezuela. It’s just that the dreams are a little different. The standard lithe mannequin communicates youth and health and proportions. In Venezuela, the fantasy is more of wealth and fertility. And in Sweden and Britain, the women are responding to an emotional dream — the fantasy of inclusion, of being desired and attractive, despite the fact that their body shape is not the one they see represented in most popular culture.

Will Debenhams sell more clothes? Probably, since they’re getting a hefty publicity bump from the move, and those bigger mannequins can’t be all that expensive. Will it change body-image standards in the face of a squillion contrary images in movies, on TV and in the press? Probably not. But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the O.K. here. After all, it was only 30 years ago that it was considered pointless to ban smoking on planes. Now you can’t even smoke in most rental cars.