Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Mannequin Glide

What do you picture when someone asks you to imagine a fashion model's walk? For me, it’s Naomi Campbell confidently strutting the length of the runway. But models haven’t always strutted. Sometimes they’ve slinked, sometimes they’ve glided and, of course, they've "catwalked". This film from 1933 talks about their “easily flowing” movements.

This is more than just wordplay. In The Mechanical Smile, Caroline Evans convincingly argues that the walk of mannequins changed in the early twentieth century, from the rolling walk, influenced by popular dance crazes of the period, through the hips-thrust forward bored slouch of the 1920s.

Clothes themselves also influence the way a woman walks. Think about how wearing a corset, or a hobble skirt, or simply a raised heel would effect the way you walk. A mannequin, as the first person to wear each round of new fashions, and probably in a more extreme interpretation than would be sold to a customer, has to work out new ways of displaying these new fashions - and making them look desirable.

The mannequin glide, however, is not just a description. Given how Evans’ explores the links between dance and the model’s walk, it’s fitting that the “mannequin glide” is also the name of a dance. In March 1939, the British Mannequins Union organised a ‘Mannequin’s Ball’ in aid of Guy’s hospital. To really celebrate the occasion, they also invented their own dance, drawn from other popular routines, and called it the “mannequin glide”. Model school owner and one of the organisers of the ball, Lucie Clayton told the Daily Mail at the time, “We felt that as fashion repeats itself we were justified in going back and picking out a Mannequin Glide out of bits of dance history.”

Rather than picturing a catwalk, let’s instead try and imagine a ballroom at the end of the 1930s, and a beautiful group of women showing off a carefully rehearsed dance routine. What are you picturing? Well, I’m pretty certain it’s not this.

This. This is the only surviving photo I’ve found of the Mannequin Glide. While it doesn’t show the elegant swan-like models gliding past each other on the dancefloor, I like it all the more for that. It reminds us that models were real women, who also liked to have a laugh and a good time. And, given that my own dance routines have often included a jaunty leg-kick or wagging finger, perhaps it's yet another pioneering example of the influence of the mannequin on the way women move.

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