Sunday, October 30, 2022

Dummies, Mannequins, and Lay Figures


Photo Credit: Kathy McConnell

    Dummies I spied while out on a walk. Dummies—white-skinned, stiff-limbed, and disarmingly beautiful where they lay displayed on silver racks behind the plate glass windows of a former car dealership. Dummies has such a derogatory connotation nowadays, but its etymological origin, according to the On-line Etymology Dictionary, is in the word 'dher,' whose meaning is the lovely vision of "dust, vapor, and smoke." From the lips of mutes and from those who spoke in gibbish, their breath and nonsense—like vapor—left no meaningful trace. From 'dher' to dummy, from vapor to vile.
    The history of words and their changing meanings detail inequities and slights and more optimistically have begun to reveal the evolution of humanity towards a more tolerant, sympathetic, and equitable world. Today dummies of the human sort and also mutes would more appropriately be called 'differently abled.'
    Consider the other words for human-like models: lay figures (in art) and mannequins (in the fashion world). Both words are grounded in eras when males held almost all the positions of agency, power, and employment. In Belgium in the Middle Ages only male pages were allowed to model clothes, even female clothing. These young men were known as ledmen (limb + man). Ledman became leeman and then layman and now lay figures. The layman was in use beginning in the 18th century to mean an artist's fabricated model. These models were ordinarily rendered in leather or wood and passed from one generation of male teachers to their apprentices. (Note male to male only.)
    Since painting a portrait was a tedious affair that required a patron to sit for long hours, artists would have their subjects sit only while they painted their heads. Later, their clothes could be draped on the fabricated layman's body (headless for ease of changing clothes) and painted at the artist's pleasure. Today the word used for an artist's model is 'lay figure,' a term which allows a model to be male or female, reflecting how women are now included into the artistic profession both as models and artists.

    Fashion's fiberglass and plastic mannequins (a word which still incorporates 'man' in its makeup) have themselves evolved. The bone-white mannequins in the car dealership window are old. Maybe not too old, but old enough to have been sold only in one skin color. And with women's feet molded into a shape formed to wear only high heels, a crippling fashion designed to make women into sexual objects and helpless on the run.

Photo Credit: Kathy McConnell

    The female mannequins were offered in only one body shape.

Photo Credit:  Kathy McConnell
    That one.
    But no longer is there one body type in female or male mannequins. Mannequins now come in all sizes and shapes. Large hips and breasts. Flat-chested. Muscular or rope thin. Short, tall, and everything in between.
    Skin Colors? Browns and blacks began appearing not many years ago. One company now makes all its mannequins in a neutral tone of gray, while another offers over three hundred realistic skin colors. All of this is a sign, a good one recognizing that humans are made up of only one race, the human race—equal in capacity regardless of gender or color. Maybe one day we might even come to call mannequins, humaquins.