Big Dummies Mean Big Business

The mannequins (search) coming to a mall near you are more J-Lo than Kate Moss, more Anna Nicole than Nicole Kidman.

With more high-end designers creating profitable lines for larger women, department stores are ordering bigger dummies to replace the skinny manis that traditionally modeled clothes of all sizes.

“Can’t relate to that tall, willowy, perky-breasted model in your favorite store? Fortunately, manufacturers are breaking the mold with fiberglass forms more representative of our curvier proportions and diverse skin tones,” writes A.J. Hanley in this month’s issue of Fitness magazine.

The newer dummies, used at stores like Lane Bryant and Marshall Fields and more recently at mainstream department stores like Macy's and Bloomingdale's, make sense in light of today's fuller figures, said Hanley, a senior editor at Fitness.

“They have ample derrieres modeled after J-Lo and Beyonce. They’re sexy. The mannequins of before were like Barbie dolls — they do make people feel bad about themselves," she said. "The goal is healthy-looking mannequins.”

Standard mannequin size is size 4, with measurements copied from models like Christy Turlington — a fraction of the average American woman's size 14. Given this disparity, the newer sizes — 6 to 16 — are “really not all that big,” Hanley said.

“When you consider that two-thirds of the population are overweight, they’re making mannequins look more like real American bodies. An average height of 6 feet 4 inches and a 20-inch waist is not realistic. They should resemble a person.”

Mari Davis, editor in chief of fashion retail Web site, said the new mannequins are “a good sign” for women with average figures.

“They are finally recognizing 'plus sizes.' Not everybody is a size 4 like the models. They’re recognizing part of society that was ignored before.”

But the change is seemingly less about acceptance and more about "big" business: Larger mannequins are being ordered as high-end labels cash in on larger bodies.

“The reason is fashion houses like Tommy Hilfiger (search) are recognizing the big market for plus sizes," Davis said.

"Real" women who appreciate seeing themselves in fiberglass have a woman named "Big Bertha" to thank. "Bertha,” or “Birdie” as she is affectionately called in the mannequin industry, was created by Ralph Pucci in 2000 and is credited with paving the way for fuller forms.

“Around 2000, Birdie was created with an illustrator I worked a lot with, Reuben Toledo. I said it was a fun time to do a collection of shapes — tall, big and petite. He agreed,” said Ralph Pucci, president of Ralph Pucci mannequins (search).

“In the mannequin world, it’s no longer just the standard 2, 4 or 6. The days of making mannequins of supermodels are sort of over," Pucci added.

Pucci continues to sell from his "Shapes" collection, which has been sort of a sleeper hit.

“Mannequins take a little bit of time to catch on in the right places. Marshall Fields in Chicago certainly bought into the program — they love the idea that a large-size mannequin can be hip and sexy. Most of the major stores have purchased them."

According to Pucci, stores have always had large-sized mannequins, but they’ve been crammed into corners and draped with dowdy clothing.

“What we wanted to do is make large-size hip. We will still do traditional — I do almost all the mannequins at Neiman Marcus (search), where they are very sleek, sprayed white, incredibly beautiful. But at the bigger department stores, you can’t be so simple and literal.”

Meanwhile, other changes are taking place in the mannequin world. Davis says men’s forms, while not getting bigger, are becoming more anatomically correct. Dummies are also getting more diverse.

“They’re recognizing different places in the world. Before they were always assumed to be Barbie. Now they’re black, Asian — some have the 'ethnic' look. You don’t really know what the racial origin is."

But do people want mannequins to reflect real life, or a fantasy of what we look like? Some say the reason it’s taken so long for larger mannequins to come out of the corners is a feared negative response in stores, much like magazines, which face both cheers and jeers when they use larger models.

Hanley doubts this will be the case.

"Mannequins are shopping tools. They’re wearing clothing you’re going to be trying out. It’s hard to tell on a size 0 how it’s going to look on you," she said.