Mannequins: More Than Just Window Dressing

Times Staff Writer

Malibu may become home to a large collection of plastic people in the next five years--and that's not a reference to the show business celebrities who gravitate to that community.

High in Corral Canyon, 20 acres have been donated to an expert on mannequins who plans to build what apparently would be the world's first exhibition hall dedicated to display figures.

The Mannequin Museum would house Marsha Bentley Hale's collection of documents, photographs and figures accumulated during more than nine years of travel through the United States and Western Europe.

Hale, who has delivered lectures on her specialty at local design schools and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, jokingly calls her research "Valley Girl archeology." After all, she said, fashion mannequins exist only in consumer-oriented societies.

But, she added, mannequins are also valuable reference material, revealing a culture's notions about beauty, gender roles and the acceptance of ethnic groups, as well as the technology available to manufacturers.

The thousands of photographs in her archives include shots of flat-chested women and stiffly posed men from the 1920s, broad-shouldered, voluptuous women of the 1940s, and cartoon-like figures of the 1950s.

In one corner of the crowded Santa Monica apartment that serves as Hale's office, a pinched waist and pastel-colored lips date a lounging plastic woman as a relic of the 1960s. A pregnant figure and realistic, muscled mannequins are of more recent vintage.

There is no doubt that mannequins have long been the objects of widespread fascination. "There's a surrealism about them," Hale said. "You don't have to be as in awe of them as you do with formal sculpture."

In 1938, a man who took a Saks Fifth Avenue figure to the Stork Club in New York as a prank was soon inundated with high society invitations for the "couple."

A memorable episode of the television show "Twilight Zone" featured a mannequin granted life for a month and her subsequent romance with a human. The Pygmalion theme is echoed in a movie entitled "Mannequin."

In 1982, at a mannequin exhibit Hale organized in downtown Los Angeles at Security Pacific Plaza, "people were actually picking up the skirts and the clothes and peering underneath," she said.

A local reviewer called the mannequins in that display "matter that is almost art but not quite."

Still, there are scholars who believe that mannequins should be preserved for their historical interest.

The Smithsonian Institution has considered a collection of mannequins from different eras, though "it's not one of our priorities right now," said Eleanor Boyne, a program assistant at the museums' Division of Costume.

"It serves the purpose of documenting the posture of the time," Boyne said. "It's very difficult to put an 18th-Century garment on a 20th-Century mannequin."

Hale, 35, has been obsessed with mannequins since 1978, when she was a design student at UCLA. For a photojournalism class project, she decided to snap pictures of the plastic and fiberglass population of store windows on fashionable Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

"I was amazed by the imagery and the detail," Hale said. "The females were leaning sensuously. The men had little hairs glued onto their chests."

So when Hale needed a topic for a paper for another class--the history of design--she chose the mannequin. "That's when I found out there was nothing written in one volume on the mannequin," she said.

Soon she found herself "incorporating the mannequin into everything I did." She visited mannequin showrooms in New York and an exhibit of ventriloquists' dummies in a small Kentucky town. On a trip to Europe she photographed wax figures at Westminster Abbey. She brought up the subject with strangers on airplanes and made appointments at mannequin factories.

She traced mannequins to the days of King Tutankhamen, whose tomb contained a wooden form that was probably used to display robes and jewelry. She collected photos of wax figures from a 1925 show at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, including one that adopted a pose of studied nonchalance, her right leg resting on her left knee, her left hand clutching a cigarette and smoke coming from a hidden pipe behind her puckered lips.

Hale discovered that fashion mannequins have been made of wicker, soldered metal and papier-mache. During the Depression, when materials were hard to come by, the figures were sometimes produced in relief rather than three-dimensionally. The first plastic mannequin, created in 1945, turned green when exposed to sunlight in store windows.

Originally, Hale had wanted to write a book about the figures. Then, at a trade show in Germany, she was introduced to someone as "Marsha Bentley Hale, who's going to found a mannequin museum in L.A." It wasn't true at the time, but the reaction was so enthusiastic that she decided it was worth a try.

Her Mannequin Museum has received nonprofit status, and in December, after nearly a year of discussion, the Malibu land was contributed by a donor whose name Hale will not reveal.

She hopes that grants and private contributions will bring about $1 million for construction of the building. Her plans call for the museum to have "an airplane hangar feeling" that blends into the countryside. Inside, she envisions the mannequins in display space furnished with department store fixtures from the appropriate period. The museum would be open to the public by appointment.

The canyon "is a lovely location, and it's far enough from the ocean that the mannequins won't be affected by the salt air," Hale said.

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