Man or Mannequin?

The Guardian posted a curious news story yesterday, describing a recent burglary attempt in Italy. A group of men broke into a designer clothes shop, and were later caught “standing stock still in a display, trying to pass themselves off as shop dummies.”

What is perhaps most remarkable is the men’s age. Both were in their seventies – well past their physical prime – and yet it was not their physical form that was their undoing. Indeed, the arresting officer claimed that “dressed in jacket and tie, the two men were almost elegant enough to pass for the mannequins they stood alongside.” The men only gave themselves away by their inability to stand still without “trembling “[1].

Typically, mannequins are not representative of a shop’s clients, and even less so its burglars. They are idealized forms, representing the clients aspirations. Mannequins are necessarily idealised, because fashion is not about reality. It is about ambition. Underpinning fashion is the desire to imitate “social elites by their social inferiors”[2]. Designers and retailers present the consumer with a fantasy, encouraging them to imagine themselves as someone better: wealthier, and more successful; slimmer and more attractive.

If these burglars were able to masquerade convincingly as mannequins, even for a moment, does it suggest that the shop’s display had an unusual level of realism? Or, does this story tell us less about the shop display, and more about the arresting officer who was momentarily convinced by the burglars’ disguise? This officer saw two elderly men in the context of a window display without realising that looked out of place. For some reason, he was unable to tell realism from idealism.

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Mannequins have an interesting historical relationship with realism. “Dress cannot be understood without reference to the body”[3], and so seeing a garment hanging limp on a peg is insufficient to demonstrate its potential. Clothes are designed to dress the body, and their purpose is unfulfilled if they are not worn. For this reason, when clothing is displayed it is commonly displayed on a human body, or on an artificial substitute for a body, such as a mannequin. Initially, models and mannequins were introduced to show consumers how a garment would look on their own bodies. Realism was therefore considered vital.

In the 1920s, when Jean Patou began using live models, he aimed to employ women that not only showed the clothes well, but also to provide a means by which his customers could “identify more easily with his designs”. Other designers of the same era continued to use models with this goal in mind, selecting models whose shapes reflected the audience, including short or stocky women. In short, the ideal model at this time was deemed to be one who was “ordinary”, emphasizing the “accessibility” of the garments. Catwalk shows thereby aimed to show audiences reflections of themselves, in models to whom they could relate [4]. Similarly, mannequins were designed to be as lifelike as possible [5].

Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947 dramatically changed the modelling industry. The New Look prioritized glamour and extravagance over practicality, and so the models were chosen to reflect this ideal. Dior’s models did not reflect the consumer, but who she aspired to be. They were groomed, sophisticated, and confident [6]. The model became a symbol of an ideal woman and lifestyle. By the 1950s, Dior’s methods had been adopted by mannequin designers. Mannequins became idealised. Male mannequins became muscular and tall, and women’s mannequins became slender, with impossibly long legs and narrow waists. This trend stayed with mannequins, which still today reflect an impossible ideal rather than a reality [7].

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Although it has been sixty years since this shift took place, there still exists a level of self-denial about the level of realism in fashion displays. Consumers are easily persuaded to make purchases after viewing a garment on a mannequin, no matter how dissimilar the mannequin’s form is to their own body. This blurring of reality and idealism is the central theme of Michael Gotleib’s 1998 film, Mannequin. The film tells the story of a window-dresser whose muse is a mannequin brought-to-life.

The role of Emmy, the titular mannequin, is played by Kim Cattrall and a series of fibreglass imitations of the actress. With her astonishing beauty, Cattrall is able to convince audiences that she could pose as a mannequin. Notably, her character is not just an ordinary girl but an ancient princess who has harnessed magic to travel through time. It would seem that the impossibly slender form and flawless beauty of a mannequin is only fit for royalty. We could not imagine a plain and ordinary girl in this role. And yet, the very fact that this fantasy exists, suggests that audiences crave the idealism of a window display to be reflected in the reality of their everyday lives or flawed bodies.

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Two aging burglars, apparently inconspicuous alongside the chiselled fibreglass forms of male mannequins, tell us that we still believe mannequins are reflective of reality. Advertisers and retailers have been successful in trying to convince us that their artificially idealised vision could come true. One Italian officer, at least, is so influenced by the pretence of reality that he is unable to tell the real from the ideal. For him, the retailer’s vision is convincing. The burglars too, were so confident in the achievability of the retailer’s display that they believed themselves able to replicate it. Mannequins may be idealised, but we are in such denial that we fail to recognise when a real form infiltrates a display. We still believe that, if we buy those overpriced designer garments, we could look as good as the mannequin as the shop window.

[1] Klington, Tom (2012), ‘ Dumb and dummies: Italian trio held over shop break-in,’ The Guardian [online], 17 Dec 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/17/shop-dummy-italian-thieves-arrested
[2] Crane, Diana (2000), Fashion and its Social Agendas, London: University of Chicago Press, p. 6
[3] Joanne Entwistle, cited in Perthuis, Karen de (2005) ‘The Synthetic Ideal: the Fashion Model and Photographic Manipulation’, Fashion Theory 9 (4), p. 410.
[4] Soley-Beltran, Patricia (2004), ‘Modelling Femininity’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 11 (3), p. 311.
[5] Dwyer, Gary, (2008), Window Dressing: Idealized women in the age of mannequins and photography, Lulu, p. 4.
[6] Soley-Beltran, Patricia (2004), ‘Modelling Femininity’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 11 (3), pp. 311-312.
[7] Dywer, p. 11.

Images:
Male mannequins: http://www.myglassesandme.co.uk/2012/04/currently-showing-at-zara/
Mannequins through the ages: http://www.csuchico.edu/pub/inside/archive/02_12_12/05_deadly.html
Mannequin movie still: http://www.allmovie.com/movie/mannequin-v31327

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James Bond, the Japanese Fisherman

Part 2: The need for transparency

By all accounts, James Bond’s trans-status masquerades are unconvincing. Common consensus in the blogsphere is that his most absurd disguise is that of a Japanese Fisherman in You Only Live Twice. Now considered “racially insensitive” [1], this disguise challenged believability and courted controversy.

James Bond, Japanese agent

Sean Connery’s Japanese look was achieved with the help of a black toupee and prosthetic eye-pieces. Despite the dark make-up and kimono, Connery remains clearly identifiable. He is, and always will be, a 6-foot tall Scotsman. Although contemporary audiences may find it laughable, this level of transparency may be exactly what is needed in an on-screen disguise.

It is a long-established convention in theatrical performance that a disguise must be transparent to the audience for the narrative to function as intended. Indeed, audiences do “not expect to be fooled by stage disguise”. Peter Hyland observes that, in the tradition of theatrical disguise, “the audience does not need to be fooled by something that it sees on stage in order to believe that the people on the stage have been fooled by it.” They need to be aware that “an actor who has just entered [is] playing a disguised version of the same character he had played before rather than a different character”[2].

On screen, disguise is complexified by the fact that the actor is already in a form of disguise. Like all actors, Connery spends his working life permanently disguised. When an actors are celebrities, much of their career requires the performance of ordinariness. A celebrity may be reduced to normalcy through make-up and wardrobe. Though their famous faces draw in the crowds, their costumes must convince audiences that the roles they inhabit are familiar: ordinary housewives, businessmen, school teachers. Audiences must be able to make a distinction between the actor’s costume and the character’s costume. The first of these, the actor’s costume, must enable the viewer to look beyond the real-life identity of the actor to that of the character; it must be convincing. The second, the character’s disguise, must simultaneously present both of his acted identities; it must be transparent. The audience needs to appreciate that the actor is playing one role with two identities, not two separate roles. This is not Connery playing a fisherman, it is Connery playing Bond in disguise.

Transparency of a disguise may be enabled through plot. Audiences may be shown the transition from one alter-ego to the other, so that we can track Bond into his new identity. We follow him in the acquisition of his disguise, a process that sometimes requires 007 to resort to petty theft. In Dr. No, Bond steals a radiation suit so that he may safely enter a nuclear reactor room; In Diamonds are Forever, he enters a hospital wearing a doctor’s coat; In Moonraker, Bond and a co-conspirator steal yellow jumpsuits. On all these occasions, Bond must first incapacitate the original wearer of the uniform, typically with a quick blow to the head. In this way, the acquisition of the disguise provides a moment of light relief before the plot ascends towards its climax.

Moonraker1

[1] Matt McDaniel, ‘James Bond’s 10 Most Embarrassing Moments’, http://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/movie-talk/james-bond-10-most-embarrassing-movie-moments-223337438.html?page=all
[2] Peter Hyland, ‘The Performance of Disguise”, Early Theatre, Vol. 5 (1), 2002, 78-79.

Images:
Sean Connery, Bond as a Japanese fisherman, in ‘You Only Live Twice’: http://you-only-blog-twice.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/you-only-live-twice-1967.html
Connery in a henchman’s jumpsuit, in ‘Moonraker’: http://thesuitsofjamesbond.com/?tag=disguise

James Bond, the Japanese Fisherman

Part 1: Trans-status disguise on film

James Bond is a man of expensive taste. His tailored suits and Omega watches reflect a kind of elitism. He presents himself with an air of confidence that is unattainable to most, and that suave sophistication is a hallmark of Bond in every incarnation. It makes women swoon, and men envious. It also presents a problem. As a spy, Bond must occasionally go undercover. He must don a disguise, and eliminate everything that makes him 007.

Fashion is typically aspirational, reflecting a desire to imitate those of higher socioeconomic status. Bond’s wardrobe is no exception. The character dresses in a way that would stretch the pay-packet of any civil servant. His wardrobe is designed less for practicality than to invite admiration. This is useful when his goal is to bed a Bond Girl, or attract the attention of a mastermind villain across the floor of a casino, but useless when he needs to infiltrate a secret lair or blend into a crowd. These are occasions on which it is desirable to use costume to reduce status, and to perform a masquerade of normalcy. Bond must abandon all outward indicators of individuality and status: to perform ordinariness.

Bond

Bond’s disguises have ranged from the obvious (a chauffeur in Skyfall), to the absurd (a Japanese fisherman in You Only Live Twice). Bond is not alone in requiring trans-status disguises. Bond villains with often use the same tactics to evade capture, including most recently, Skyfall’s Silva. After escaping from MI6’s temporary underground headquarters, Silva achieves anonymity on the London underground in a police uniform.

Silva_attempts_to_murder_M_(Skyfall)

Fictional spies are not, of course, the only people who have a reason to conceal their identity and status through costume. Dressing down is core to experiments in “trans-status disguise” [1], a practice that flourished in the late nineteenth century social experiments, and is still vital in more recent journalistic practices such as those employed by Polly Toynbee[2]. In 1890, Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, a taxonomy of class structure which included notes on “bodily signifiers” of class, most notably, costume. In his text, Riis invited readers to covertly “be with and among [the] people [of lower socioeconomic status] until you understand their ways” with the aim of encouraging greater trans-status empathy. There then began a trend for articles in British and American periodicals that featured the observations of “middle-class [reporters] who briefly lived ‘working-class’ lives”[3]. The accounts of these writers reveal dress as core in the construction of a trans-status disguise. In 1903, Jack London expressed surprise at how remarkably attitudes towards him changed when he donned a frayed jacket. The jacket, he noted, became a “badge and advertisement of [his perceived] class.” By “vesting [him]self in class-specific apparel” he invited observers to make assumptions about his socioeconomic status, and in so doing created opportunities to “move freely” among social groups that had formerly viewed him as an outsider[4].

These journalists and sociologists cloaked themselves in a “signified cloth granting liberation and opportunity”[5]. The clothes reduced their status, masking anything remarkable about their profession or prestige, and they found themselves empowered. The disguises gave them a peculiar power of normalcy and anonymity, which allowed them to partake in activities that were previously out of their reach. For Bond, anonymity grants the freedom to watch without being watched back. As an anonymous member of a crowd, Bond is able to get much closer to the action without being noticed until he chooses to make his move. Dressed as a faceless henchman, he is able to infiltrate the most secure depths of a villain’s lair.

[1] Hyland, Peter, ‘The Performance of Disguise”, Early Theatre, Vol. 5 (1), 2002, 77-83.
[2] See Toynbee, Polly, Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain, London: Bloomsbury, 2003, a record of the experiences of journalist, Toynbee, who spends a period living and working on minimum wage in order to expose the difficulties encountered by those of lower socioeconomic status than herself and her readers.
[3] Schocket, Eric, ‘Explorations of the ‘Other Half,’ or the Writer as Class Transvestite,’ Representations, 64 (1998), 112, 118.
[4] London, Jack, People of the Abyss, 1903, cited in Schocket, Eric, ‘Explorations of the ‘Other Half,’ or the Writer as Class Transvestite,’ Representations, 64 (1998), 119.
[5] Fhlainn, Sorcha Ni, ‘Our Monstrous (S)kin: Blurring the Boundaries Between Monsters and Humanity’, in Our Monstrous (S)kin, ed. Fhlainn, Sorcha Ni, Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press, 2009, 9.

Images:
Connery plays Bond in Japanese fisherman disguise, in ‘You Only Live Twice’: http://www.modernprimate.com/tag/chinese-disguise/
Javier Bardem as Silva in disguise, in ‘Skyfall’: http://jamesbond.wikia.com/wiki/Skyfall

Fancy Dress Without Limits

My husband is preparing to attend a fancy dress party. He will be going as Ace Rimmer, an alternate-reality space pilot from the TV series, Red Dwarf. I won’t reveal how much he has spent on the costume except to say that it is more than I would spend on a party dress. He has spent several weeks sourcing the various components of the costume. It’s crowning glory is a genuine military bomber jacket. 
It is not unusual for my husband’s colleagues to go overboard with their fancy dress, but their wardrobes pale in comparison to the attire on parade at Comic-con. Pop-culture fans come together annually in San Diego to share their passions, and to express them in part through costume. Exclusivity is a central theme of the event. Memorabilia manufacturers and publishers make goods exclusively available to attendees; production companies reveal new, previously unseen footage from upcoming films and shows; fans display their custom or limited-edition costumes. An authentic, branded costume is comparable in price to an haute-couture dress. It is not unusual for a costume to set a fan back hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Even in Britain, where we have no equivalent event on the scale of Comic-Con, a replica Judge Dredd costume retails for close to £2000[1]. These excessive price tags quantify a fan’s devotion to their favourite fictional character, and turn fandom in to exclusive club that invites only members who can demonstrate tangible commitment.

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The cultural artefacts on display at Comic-Con typically originate from twentieth- and twenty-first century media. Extravagant cosplay, however, has a longer history. Late 19th century masquerade balls and costume parties were notorious for their excess. In the 1880s New York, W. K. Vanderbilt’s annual fancy dress balls were the talk of the town. Her 1,200 guests explored their fantasies of aristocratic heritage in costumes modelled on historical dress of the French court and British monarchy, and were so concerned with authenticity that the balls became a kind of window on history. Every minute detail of the attendees’ costumes was copied from historical portraits. Guests masqueraded as Henry VII, Elizabeth I, and Marie Antoinette, among a parade of other memorable (or notorious) figures from the European past. Mrs. Vanderbilt herself dressed in imitation of a Venetian Princess, as depicted in a painting by Alexander Cabanel [2]. At least twenty of her guests suffered the unfortunate faux-pas of coming as the same character, Louis XVI.

Alva_Vanderbilt_1883_Costume_Ball

What was most remarkable about these costumes was the extent of authenticity. In many cases the garments and accessories they wore were not merely copies, but genuine historical artefacts. Alva Vanderbilt’s costume was adorned with pearls that had once belonged to Catherine the Great. At her own ball, Cornelia Bradley decorated her dress with jewels worn by Marie Antoinette [3]. Even where the costumes were copies, no expense was spared in recreating garments in their minutest detail.

It is noteworthy that these parties took place in New York, not Paris or London. New York society was populated by people with a very short family history. The guests were people with no genuine claim to aristocratic ancestry. Emilia Müller proposes that their costumes were an attempt to justify their status. The guests sought to erase the negative connotations of a nouveau riche lifestyle, replacing them with a more respectable suggestion of lineage. By emulating European nobility, they aligned themselves with acquired status, rather than achieved status. They sought to “legitimize themselves as the economic ruling class” by “buying history”[3].

3593508085_4518d3e1db Screen shot 2012-12-12 at 23.21.16

These closed worlds of New York society and comic-book fandom take opportunities to reinforce internal social bonds, while emphasizing difference from the outside world. Costumes are indicators that they are members of an exclusive club. By making those costumes rare or expensive, they reduce the possibility of interlopers: those without the money or passion to acquire ‘genuine’ artefacts.

References
[1] Complete Judge Dredd outfit, for sale at £1995 at Planet Replica, http://webshop.planetreplicas.com/epages/es140885.sf/en_GB/?ObjectPath=/Shops/es140885/Products/PR_REPLICA_FULL01/SubProducts/PR_REPLICA_FULL01-0003
[2] W. A. Croffut, The Vanderbilts and The Story of Their Fortune, Kessinger, 2003.
[3] Emilia Müller, ‘Fashion & Fancy in New York: The American Monarchs,’ paper presented at Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues, Oxford, September 2011. http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/muellerfapaper.pdf
See also: http://thehistorybox.com/ny_city/society/articles/nycity_society_balls_dances_article00238.htm

Images:
Comic-Con costumes: http://funkyforyou.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/coolest-comic-con-costumes/ and http://www.columbusalive.com/content/blogs/sensory-overload/2011/10/a-newbies-first-comic-con.html
Alva Vanderbilt in costume: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alva_Vanderbilt_1883_Costume_Ball.jpg
House of Worth costumes: http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/houseofworth/Interesting

Daddy/Daughter Shoes: More Forced Choreography

Yesterday’s post introduced Lucy Orta’s ‘Nexus Architecture’, a shared garment which forces wearers to behave as a single unit. A more whimsical artefact with similar consequences for the wearers is Aamu Song and Johan Olin’s Tanssitossut (‘Dance Shoes for Father and Daughter’, 2006). These red felt shoes resemble traditional Finnish boots, with a second, smaller pair attached above. The shoes are intended to be worn by ‘a father and young daughter… together’, with the father filling the main part of the shoes, and the daughter standing on top[1]. These shoes force the wearers into a traditional couples’ dance position, with both wearers facing one another and one wearer, the father, taking the lead.

dance-shoes-for-father-daughter1

With his feet in the main part of the shoes, the father has contact with the floor and is therefore able to control the direction and pace of travel/dance. This position reinforces the control that the father already has over his daughter, placing him in a dominant position. Moreover, the instability caused by the daughter’s pose requires the father to support her further by holding her hands, thereby further reinforcing the traditional supportive role of the father. In this pose, the wearers are forced into a choreographed routine. The father’s movements must be mirrored by those of the daughter, who is forced to follow his lead as her feet are firmly attached to his.

We can return, once again to the pantomime horse. Here, the wearer at the head has control of direction. The wearer at the hind legs is essentially ‘along for the ride’, forced into a subservient position. These garments not only assert relationships between wearers, but make that relationship inescapable by physically binding bodies together. By linking or binding bodies, shared costumes restrict movement, and ensure choreographed motion, forcing the wearers to move as one.

Like many other garments, Song and Olin’s shoes assert identity by highlighting relationships to others. The role of the man, as a father, is asserted by the physical bond to his daughter. Likewise, the identity of the girl as a daughter is communicated in the physical bond to her father. However, it is important to note that these roles are dictated not entirely by the shoes, but by the name given by their creators. These shoes could, in practice, be worn by any couple whose feet differ significantly in size. They could, for example, be worn by mother and son. It is only because the creators’ have labelled them as ‘dance shoes for father and daughter’ that they reinforce the traditional familial and gender roles.

[1] Aamu Song, ‘Tanssitoussut’, Sauma [Design as Cultural Interface], http://www.saumadesign.net/danceshoes.htm

Images:
Tanssitoussut : http://www.incrediblethings.com/kids/dance-shoes-for-the-father-and-daughter/

Lucy Orta, Nexus Architecture: A pantomime horse for intellectuals

nexus

Shared garments could never exist in the world of fashion. Their impracticality – making any independent activity impossible – relegates them to pantomime costume, or elevates them to fine art. Lucy Orta’s Nexus Architecture (1998-2010) is designed to contain up to a hundred bodies simultaneously, and is described by Orta as ‘collective wear’[1]. Bodysuits are connected with ‘tubes of fabric… to form one garment’. The linked individuals form a long chain or grid, depending on how they are connected for a particular performance. The result is a single ‘roving beast’ that navigates through public spaces in carefully selected locations, such as art galleries[2].

This beast is a long way from the pantomime horse, but in many ways, the consequences of wearing it are identical. A pantomime horse costume binds two wearers together so that they must act as one being. Their movements must be carefully choreographed, and every action must be agreed upon by both parties. In the case of the pantomime horse, all movement require a choreographed routine; in the case of ‘Nexus Architecture’, a marshal is employed to shout out instructions to the group. In both cases, the wearers are forced into synchronicity.

PHorse

Orta’s garment responds to the contradiction that George Simmel earlier identified as driving all of fashion: the need to conform, and the conflicting desire to express individuality. We dress to conform: to demonstrate adherence to a social contract and affinity with a social or cultural group. Within the bounds of this conformity, we seek to express ourselves. We vary our wardrobe; we mix-and-match. Even if we are forced into uniform, we make micro-adjustments to assert ourselves as individuals. ‘Nexus Architecture’ aims to completely remove the possibility of individualisation.  Orta aims to impose  ‘membership of a group’, and consequently ‘loss of self’[3]. Wearers individual identities are lost to that of the group. Each wearer is an interchangeable part of a modular whole.

And yet, the whole garment relies on the compliance of every individual within the group. Movement requires everyone to behave according to a set routine, just as in the pantomime horse. If one wearer refuses to comply, the horse or chain simply collapses. The separate parts of Orta’s garment are usually occupied by volunteers. One volunteer, journalist Kieran Long, describes his experience of this process [4]. Long describes a feeling of ‘compromised subjectivity’. By becoming part of a strictly choreographed crowd, he felt that he had lost his personal identity and even his humanity, becoming, in his words, ‘points in a geometric arrangement’. This imposed ‘uniformity’ felt unnatural and unsettling to many of the 40 volunteers in this performance at the V&A to the extent that many rebelled, contravening Orta’s commands. ‘Factions formed’ and, in quiet protest, several volunteers began to ‘deliberately subvert’ the performance. Several chose to sit rather than stand, or to deliberately face the wrong way. Meanwhile, others were keen to remain compliant, and adopted the role of what Long describes as ‘de facto prefects’. In this way, a social hierarchy emerged within the group, whereby several volunteers became dominant and compliant leaders, and others either subservient followers or defiant rebels. However much Orta’s shared garment imposed uniformity, this hierarchy emerged to challenge the status quo.

Long’s experience demonstrate how shared garments (and by extension, pantomime horses, and Chinese lions), offer an opportunity to observe a kind of micro-society. Wearers must adhere to the rules, or else the whole society is liable to collapse. Individuals have an interest in maintaining the society, and so take it upon themselves to organise small groups and suppress rebellion, but ultimately, a single rebel with enough persistence can bring the entire society – the entire performance of a shared garment – to its knees.

chinese lion

[1] Joanne Milani, ‘Lucy Orta: Global Gear’, Studio Orta, 2001, http://http://www.studio-orta.com/media/text_47_file.pdf.
[2] Tactical Design Collective [blog], ‘Nexus Architecture by Studio Orta’, blog entry by Jonathan, 7 February, 2011, http://tacticaldesign.mit.edu/archives/58.
[3] Orta, interviewed in Bolton, The Supermodern Wardrobe; Mark Sanders, ‘Nexus Intervention with architecture students from the Technischen Universitat Berlin,’ Studio Orta, 2009, http://www.studio-orta.com/artwork_fiche.php?fk=&fs=0&fm=5&fd=0&of=7 .
[4] Kieran Long, ‘Nexus Architecture’, ICON, 016 (October 2004), http://www.iconeye.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2688:nexusarchitecture–icon-016–october-2004.

Images:
Nexus Architecture: http://mutamorphosis.wordpress.com/tag/body/
Pantomime Horse: http://web.org.uk/picasso/r8.html
Chinese Lion: http://www.kungfupages.com/resources/liondance4.jpg