Mannequins, like the human beings they are modelled after, can have unusual stories and backgrounds. We rarely question where they come from, but more often than not they’re the handiwork of a skilled craftsperson. David Costa is one of those interesting people.
Words Esra Gürmen
David, who goes by the name Dash-n-Dazzle, began restoring vintage display mannequins after many years of what he describes as a gruelling schedule as a professional hairstylist. Eventually, he became a wig-maker and make-up artist for a mannequin manufacturer in New York. Even though he enjoyed the work, he didn’t think it allowed much creative freedom and decided to go it alone. David now works in a studio within his New Jersey home, where he gets private commissions from mannequin collectors, retailers, artists, celebrities and authors from all over the world. We recently caught up with him to talk beauty ideals, cracking mannequins’ head open, and freaky requests.
Beauty Papers: How did your fascination with mannequins begin and how did you start working on them?
Dash-N-Dazzle: I recall being fascinated with mannequins from a very early age and remember staring at them in stores. My two aunts owned a bridal shop when I was a child and I remember helping dress them and change the wigs. I started working on mannequins by accident. I happened to be in a shopping mall and saw mannequin masks being used as a display prop in an optician’s window. I was able to track down the person who made the display and bought quite a few unpainted ones for myself. At the time I worked in a salon as a hairstylist so that background made it easier to transition to working exclusively on mannequins. That was about 27 years ago.
What kind of tools and materials do you use while restoring vintage mannequins in terms of their make-up, hairdo, eyes etc?
To repair an old mannequin, I use power tools such as drills, Dremel and electric sanders, which not only help repair the mannequin but they also allow me to open the head in order to insert the glass eyes. The make-up is done with artists’ oils. The hair is usually synthetic but the normal hairdressing tools are used for those.
Do you get unusual or funny requests when you’re doing private commissions?
Once in a while I will get an unusual request. For example, someone wanted their mannequin to be painted as a zombie. Another person asked to set the eyes in the head rolling far back as if it was unconscious. In situations like that I have to separate my own personal feelings and focus on pleasing the owner of the mannequin.
Do you find that there is a difference between the facial features of old mannequins and new mannequins? Would you say there has been a change in beauty/attractiveness standards? For example, some of the old Greneker mannequins’ faces are different than present-day mannequins’ faces. Some art deco busts have quite different dimensions compared to present-day as well.
Yes, there is a difference not only with the faces but also with the body type. The faces and bodies usually reflect the ideal of the time in which the mannequins were made. A body from the 50s, for example, will usually have the undergarment shape sculpted right into the body. So if a bullet bra and girdle were the undergarments of the time, the body will be shaped that way so it will have the right foundation for the clothing. Also the body language, pose and posture will reflect what’s happening at the time.
Do you think mannequins reflect society’s beauty standards or do you think they set those standards?
I think mannequins do reflect society’s beauty standards, but in some ways they need to be a little ahead of the trend. Mannequins are expensive and stores won’t want to invest in something that won’t give them several years of use. A few years ago a trend started with making mannequins with big breasts. For clothing, those didn’t work because a mannequin’s breast can’t conform to a garment like it would on a person. So a dress will twist and go out of shape and it will be impossible to zip or button the article of clothing. It was a terrible idea and bad design.
I use power tools such as drills, Dremel and electric sanders, which not only help repair the mannequin but they also allow me to open the head in order to insert the glass eyes. The make-up is done with artists’ oils. The hair is usually synthetic but the normal hairdressing tools are used for those.
What’s the difference between working on the face and/or hair of a real person and a mannequin?
It’s a parallel universe. What ends up looking the same is actually quite different as far as the process. Cosmetics won’t work on a mannequin and using those will end up looking blotchy on a painted surface, which is why it has to be done with paint. Doing hair on a mannequin is much more difficult and some custom built wigs can take several days to complete. On a person it can take a few minutes or less whereas a wig duplicated in that style will take a lot longer especially since a hairline is required all way round the head.
Would you say mannequins from certain periods or eras are more homogenous in their looks? Do they evolve with the changing social landscape?
With realistic mannequins today, there is a huge variety of facial features since they are almost always based on actual people rather than a sculptor’s interpretation of what the current ideal is. There is more of a variety of skin tones mainly because customers are demanding and expecting it now. Society was quite different years ago and with that came a different set of rules. Also, make-up and skin tone options weren’t available to customers who were interested in purchasing a mannequin. So as a result the mannequins had a generic type of monochrome face paint done in a slapdash style.
Is there anything interesting that you’d like to share with us about the history of mannequin design, or something interesting about the day-to-day life of working on mannequins?
What I find interesting is the fact that society has always been fascinated by their particular beauty ideal. We can go as far back as ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and their statues all depict what their own ideal was at the time. So in that respect not much has changed. Today, the realistic mannequin has actually been downplayed by the retail industry. The majority of stores are using simplistic modern figures sprayed white either with an abstract head or in some cases the head will be nonexistent. I suppose they find them to be adequate in showing the merchandise, but unlike a realistic mannequin, they lack sex appeal. The only way to do that is with a realistic mannequin that has a face, hair and make-up. Right now the stores feel that a utilitarian look is more practical. But like any trend, the pendulum will swing the other way and more realistic figures will be seen in store windows.
For more vintage mannequins visit Dash N Dazzle