A short history of dressmaker’s mannequins and their half size counterparts

by | Nov 17, 2019 | General information

From the early fifteenth century, mannequins are documented as “common tools” in artistic practice. The word mannequin comes from the Middle Dutch, mannekijn or “little man.”

The conventional dress forms of today evolved from the display mannequins of the past. While there has been research into the history of display mannequins, not that much has been documented about their use as a tool for pattern making. It is known that tailors started using full size mannequins to help in garment construction as well as display in the late 1820s

Tailor’s dummies were rarely illustrated because they were functional tools used in the relative secrecy of the tailor’s workshop. Some of the earliest depictions that have been found of a mannequin in use suggest that it was linked to the production of ready-made clothing.

Based on the cut of the suits in the image, the anonymous pen and ink drawing dates to circa 1826–9 and shows two tailors absorbed in their work


 Picture below Alexis Lavigne, Sales Prospectus for Riding Habits and Custom-made Busts, ca. 1868. Paris: Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

There is a record of fashion houses producing fashion dolls with clothes to show customers what clothing could be produced as early as 1715 and although these were not specifically half scale. These dolls were shipped to customers or stores for consumers to see what dresses could be produced.

 Madeleine Vionnet is widely thought to be the first fashion designer to use a scaled model in designing; she used a wooden artist’s model to create her exquisite and elaborate bias dresses in the 1920s. The measurements of this wooden doll were a 15 ¼ inch chest, 8 ½ inch waist, and 16-inch hips, and though it was not precisely half scale, it is still close. This picture shows Vionnet designing using her wooden figure. 

 Madeleine Vionnet and her mannequin (ca. 1923) Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Of particular note are the mannequins created from 1867 by Frédéric Stockman, a young sculptor, disciple of Lavigne who invented the tailor’s dummies made from papier mâché. In the present day, a stockman half size vintage mannequin in good condition is a rare and valuable find Stockman decided to open his own company, a very small one at first, with the idea of providing dressmakers with forms in different standardized sizes. The company grew up step by step and settled 150 rue Legendre in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. Since the beginning, the Stockman’s dressmaker’s form has been handcrafted from papier mâché. This recycled paper is applied on a mold. After cutting off the mold, the bust is stapled back together and sanded. Then the bust is padded and covered in fabric. At the end, the bust is imprinted with the Stockman logo and the size and shape references. In 1900, Stockman was selling almost 30,000 busts a year. Few years before he met Mr Siegel, whose specialty was mannequins and metal accessories hangers. So the company became ‘Siegel & Stockman’ and settled in a big factory in Saint-Ouen, near Paris. The Siegel brand had become really famous during the Art Deco decades. The 20’s and the 30’s had been prosperous years for the company and Siegel provided the majority of the stores of Paris. At the same time, Stockman provided dawning Couture houses with dressmaker’s forms such as Christian Dior and the famous ‘New Look’ dummy in 1947.
 In more modern times, half scale dress forms became popular in the educational setting from the 1950s. We have photos of students in the 1950s draping on half scale forms at Cornell University. As a teaching tool, these forms help with saving on the material used and the time taken to learn how to make a garment style.

The updated versions are somewhat different to their 1950s predecessors. The waists are somewhat thicker and the busts are not so pointed, but their purpose remains the same.