Bill’s best: Mannequins

Originally published in the Cape Cod Times in 2000. This piece won second place in the short feature category in the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors Excellence in Feature Writing Contest.


Once you were the star of the show. You wore the latest fashions. Everyone who strolled by stopped to check you out.

“Looking good,” they’d say with an approving nod in your direction. They wanted to dress like you. They wished they could wear an outfit with your flair. They envied your body’s sleek lines.

But now you’ve been tossed in a windowless basement room. You’re naked and your hair’s a mess, but it could be worse. You’re lucky enough to still have your head. Some of the poor stiffs around you have lost theirs.

Oh, the misery of being yesterday’s mannequin.

Linda Grice feels your pain. Grice works for Puritan of Cape Cod – “visual merchandising manager, the last time I checked,” she says.

She is your friend. She wends her way through a narrow corridor to visit you in that subterranean room. It’s only a level below the Main Street store’s display floor, but that one level makes all the difference in the world to you.

Grice remembers your glory days. Back when a mannequin was supposed to look like a supermodel. Back when the supermodels were all white.

But Grice knows that times change. These times require mannequins who better reflect the population.

“Does a black person identify with a white mannequin even if the clothes are her style?” she asks. “You have to have black and Asian mannequins.”

To make sure that stores are welcoming to everyone, Grice says retailers have added mannequins of different ethnicities in recent years. It’s partly a matter of political correctness, partly a matter of marketing. And so you sit in the basement, surrounded by a bunch of pasty-faced colleagues.

“Most mannequins look about 20,” says Grice. “They do make some that are middle-aged. The faces are falling a little and have a little more puffiness.”

So that’s part of it, too. All of a sudden, you were too young looking for the job. Down into the dungeon with you.

You had a perfect body. Still do. But your body is last year’s – maybe last decade’s – idea of perfection.

“Mannequins reflect the ideal body type of the time,” says Grice. “I have one from 1980 or so. This guy did not work out. He doesn’t have definition around his waist. His pectorals are not well-defined.

“Today’s mannequins are very body-conscious. They have biceps and pecs. On women, the musculature is more defined. They’re more realistic. They have nipples. They’re less prudish.”

She points to one of your neighbors, some gal with an undersized head. You wonder if that was ever in fashion.

“For a while, the heads were tiny,” Grice says. “I don’t know the reason for this.” She pauses. “Now they’re normal-sized.” But at least the pin-headed gal looks vaguely normal.

You’ve heard about these weird mannequins that are now all the rage. Like the abstract mannequins, painted some un-natural, inhuman color. Or the flat mannequins. They look like they’ve been run over by a steamroller.

You’ve seen the catalogs. You know that there’s an Anne Boleyn series of mannequins. No head. That’s supposed to be funny? Now a lot of stores don’t even use mannequins. They use something called forms: a torso with no head, arms or legs.

Where’s the beauty in that, you wonder. “With forms, you don’t have to be politically correct,” says Grice. “They have no age or race.

“Old Navy has mannequins that look 14 to 16. When they don’t look hip, they have to get rid of them, so forms are more cost-effective.”

It’s all about cash, you know that. Even a rather plain-looking mannequin costs $800. And you, you’re top of the line. You wouldn’t leave the factory for a buck under $1,200. Those silly looking forms – $350, tops.

Grice knows that your body didn’t come cheap and that maintaining it was an effort. “She needs repainting,” Grice says, delicately touching a scuff on your cheek. “Every time you move them, there’s a chance they’ll need to be painted. Plus, you have to keep the hair and makeup up-to-date.”

You’d scream, if you could. How can a form – no head, no arms – ever express the panache you conveyed? Was it such a terrible thing if someone took his eyes off the clothes for a moment to glance at your eternally staring eyes?

But, deep down, you know you can’t fight progress. Your days in the spotlight are gone. You’ll never look through a spotless window to see the crowds shuffling along the sidewalks of Main Street.

Even so, you’ll always have that smile on your face. A form’s body, like yours, may one day go out of fashion. But a mannequin’s smile is forever.

So long as you keep your head.