I first began photographing mannequins in 2007 in my hometown Jodhpur in northern India. I remember espying lavishly dressed dolls in saris and other traditional Indian clothing, peering out from fairy-light strewn shop windows: so began my journey of searching for and photographing mannequins wherever I went.
The word mannequin is derived from the Flemish word manneken, meaning “little man” or “figurine”. The dolls originated in the 15th century, when miniature mannequins were used to model fashion for customers. Contemporary mannequins are often fabricated from fiberglass and plastic; the latter is a new innovation in the field while fibreglass mannequins usually are more expensive and less durable but significantly more realistic.
But what is the definition of realistic in this context? The mannequins’ appearance or their shape? And realistic to whom?
Al Khod, Oman
When photographing mannequins in the numerous textile and clothing shops of the small Omani town of Al Khod, I was curious to learn more and locate them in a specifically Middle Eastern context. In the evenings in Al Khod, women of all age-groups, coming from the town itself or other places in the interior or northern coastal parts of the region, drift from shop to shop, in couples or groups but seldom alone. And what do they see?
Mannequins, usually with strapless pieces of fabric draped around them, with the cucumber-cold poise and measurements that are the trademark of real-life models on the catwalk. They are white and notably Western-looking, their heads uncovered. Some wear wigs while others have hair painted on to their heads. Only a couple of the mannequins wear a hijab but none is draped in an abaya, unless in a store specifically selling abayas.
What is the definition of realistic in this context?
When I walk into a few textile shops to talk to the retailers, they are bemused, if not outright puzzled, by my queries. Mohammed, Sadiq and Deepak, all Indian expatriates working in different stores, are catering to a clientele that is virtually all women and Omani. Their bosses, they say, are the ones who procure the mannequins from Dubai – from the giant Dragon-Mart mall, the largest Chinese trading hub in the city (indeed, the largest outside of mainland China). The mannequins are fibreglass, ready-made and produced in China, costing between RO15 and RO150 ($40-400). Mohammed, Sadiq and Deepak agree that the mannequins are there to attract customers into the shops, and encourage them to explore what else they have to offer.
“A woman can only know how it [a dress/material] looks on her when she sees it on another woman,” Mohammed explains.
Once inside the shops, the visual fecundity of the fabric – its textures, colors, surfaces and embellishment – is liable to leave one feeling bewildered. It is the mannequins that streamline the visual clutter. They are in a fairly good condition: their limbs, torsos and faces are intact, albeit a bit battered at the edges. Incidentally, the mannequins in Al Khod are a relatively recent development: the first ones appeared in the town only a decade ago.
“Our shop is twenty years old. Earlier, we used to showcase the fabrics by draping them on tables,” says Sadiq.
I ask about the mannequins’ uniformly light skin tones – a pertinent issue in a region where the standardised idea of female beauty is synonymous with fairness. Mohammed says that mannequins in other skin tones are never available and that, in any case, the clothes “drape better” on this specific skin tone.
“We don’t say they look Western. Rather, it depends on your perception.”
“Mannequins are used to demonstrate the clothes to the customers. Darker shades will make the clothes look dusty,” he patiently explains to me, seemingly unmindful of the fact that many customers do not happen to possess that tone, or those facial characteristics.
“We don’t say they look Western. Rather, it depends on your perception,” shrugs Deepak. He says that, even if they would use Arab models, the customers would not accept it. “In any case, how many Omani or Arab-style mannequins are manufactured?”
Mohammed feels that only fair-skinned models will do justice to the apparel they would like to showcase: “Many of our customers come here to shop for Western-style clothes, and such styles look better on Western models.”
I tell them that only very few of the mannequins wear a hijab, in contrast to the majority of women in Oman.
“If it’s a Western dress, we don’t make the mannequin wear a hijab. Only regularly dressed mannequins wear it,” says Sadiq – ‘regular’ in this sense being the kind of outfits Al Khod women wear every day.
If they are the reflectors of our world of sorts, should they not be represented and celebrated through a similar, corresponding diversity?
The concept of plus size mannequins and the criticism raised against unrealistic dolls is too lost upon the shopkeepers. Their current mannequins were purchased in standard sizes; Deepak doesn’t know if other sizes were available. They would only know when they purchase new ones. His own preference is for skinnier, taller mannequins, he says – “they show off the fabric better” – which once again is an analogy to standards in the global fashion industry.
As I walk past the shops, the mannequins expressionlessly staring at me, I can’t help but think that each one is simultaneously identical, and yet, unique. If they are the reflectors of our world of sorts, should they not be represented and celebrated through a similar, corresponding diversity?
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Several months later, one sunny January afternoon, I wander down the streets of Dubai’s creekside neighbourhood of Deira, peering into shop displays. The conversations from Al Khod comes to mind, as do the dolls from the Omani streets – because Dubai shares much in common with its neighbour on the other side of the Omani-UAE border.
Dubai being the ultimate mecca of shopping, each neighborhood in the city possesses a distinctive shopping character. Here, in this part of Deira, there is one shop selling extremely convincing designer bag knock-offs while a nearby restaurant urges customers to ‘Keep calm and eat our biryani’. I specifically pause at a shop with Western-looking mannequins dressed in glitzy, traditional Indian clothing. In one window display, a male mannequin in a kandora, head-scarf and Ray Bans stands next to a smaller one dressed in a waist-coat, kurta and pajama, typical clothes worn by men of the subcontinent. In the next display, there’s also a female mannequin with a scarf wrapped around her head in a quasi-turban style; vivid, primary-hued Arabic typography swims across the glass, spelling out a soup of names.
One question remains about these shops, their clothing wares and the mannequins who showcase them. Who is the consumer?
When I was growing up in Oman and our family made annual trips to the city, this was the Dubai we came to know: where you would purchase saris from Meena Bazaar and blankets or electrical goods from Al Fahidi Street and Deira; where cultures peacefully and fruitfully would intersect to produce a dynamic immigrant culture. I remember how my brother and I childishly would declare that Bur Dubai and Deira were like a clean India (and indeed, a Lonely Planet guide shares that thought, describing them as a sanitised sub-continent minus the cows), indicating how strongly entwined were our associations to the homeland with these neighborhoods, populated as they were – and still are – by mostly Indian subcontinent immigrants.
Arabic, Indian or cross-culture – one question remains about these shops, their clothing wares and the mannequins who showcase them. Who is the consumer? Western tourists and visitors? Arabic-speaking customers? Omanis? Emiratis? Local Indian immigrants? The mannequins, coloured as they are in an unmistakably fair skin colour, perhaps tries to address them all. What the mannequins’ appearance nonetheless communicate to us is how Western looks/aesthetics and bodies are perceived as the norm across the world, even in non-Western countries, where they are costumed in local clothing. Or perhaps, they are arguably protean creatures, changing character depending upon who perceives them.