Vital Mummies: Performance Design for the Show-Window Mannequin
by Sara K. Schneider
Mannequins have been the ubiquitous subject of popular novels, journalism, and sci-fi television and films, in large measure because they illuminate our culture’s fascination with the increasingly porous boundary between the real and the imitation, the authentic and the inauthentic, and the body and the self—as well as the seductiveness of images that encapsulate both sex and death.
Vital Mummies is the first scholarly study examining the theatricality in mannequin stagings, utilizing as paradigm the very theatrical metaphor by which display directors themselves have long framed their work, referring to themselves as “directors” and envisioning the characterization and placement of their “girls” (usually) with regard to action, narrative, and audience response.
Poised on the interstices of popular culture studies, formalist art criticism, and performance studies, Vital Mummies draws heavily from interviews with New York display directors, many of whom worked during display’s “golden” era in the mid-1970s, known as “street-theatre,” in which mannequins were presented in discernibly theatrical—even melodramatic—scenes that highlighted relationships, conflicts, and actions and their consequences. Many of these scenes dealt with explicitly violent or sexual themes, and the subjects of insanity and bodily transformation—through drug use, suicide, pregnancy, and murder—took center stage. In many ways, the book serves as an oral history of an otherwise unreclaimable time, as a disproportionate number of the stars of display, gay men in their 20s and 30s, have since died of AIDS-related causes.
The book probes the relation between the body design of the mannequin and the eventual silent and motionless “play” into which it is cast and staged, as well as the kinds of directorial decisions for which such designers as mannequin sculptors and window display artists ultimately become responsible. It proposes the theatricality and the ephemerality of the realm of the visual and, in so doing, makes vital connections between material culture and performance studies.
“Beautifully written” — Dean MacCannell, author of The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class and Empty Meeting Grounds
“Happily avoids the kind of impermeable gobbledygook that envelops so much that is written about contemporary culture. … a unique intellectual contribution” — Stuart Ewen, author of All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture
“Mannequins are so much a part of our culture that sometimes we might accept them as near-human or as just cardboard silhouettes and not think about the ramifications of what they are really doing in the store-windows. Schneider has thought about what they are doing, and what they are doing is important and complex. She examines the various elements of culture they represent: theater, art, salesmanship, and she reads the audience–you and me as we stand and gawk at the figures before us. She concentrates on the 70s because that was the period when window designers perceived themselves as directors, their mannequins as actors and the people on the streets as audience. This was the time, in other words, when mannequin display became street theater, with groups of the characters enacting real life scenes. … The extended world that Schneider so competently examines is of great importance and interest to us. So is her book. ” — Michael Schoenecke, Texas Tech University