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.

Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 13.10.07

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].

Mannequins_bw

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.

Mannequin-Still2

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

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