Mannequins may be traced to as early as 1350 BC, based on the discovery of a wooden torso near the clothing chest in King Tutankhamen's tomb. This mannequin was more likely a storage device than one for display, but mannequins have generally been used for the display of clothing.
The current usage seems to date from the latter half of the nineteenth century, when plate glass windows and artificial lighting became more common, and the rise of the modern department store began. The 1930s saw the rise of "realism" in mannequins and the creation of "Cynthia" for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, a mannequin inspired by contemporary wealthy socialites. She and several other sculpted soap "Gaba Girls" were created by Lester Gaba, who included life-like details like freckles. Cynthia was taken to the opera, invited to high-society weddings, and sent clothing and jewelry as if she were a living celebrity.
Since then, mannequins have been made in every style you can imagine - and some you likely can't. There have been wooden mannequins, carved soap, fiberglass mannequins and mannequins decorated with mosaic glass bits. Some mannequins have featureless "eggheads," others feature decor where the mannequin head would normally be: swirls; neck blocks; wooden tabs; ultra-long, slender necks; even fish heads. Some mannequins have no heads, while others have realistic faces molded from live people (the likes of Tyra Banks.)
There are many levels of quality among mannequins. Some are artfully sculpted, with care to faithfully reproduce human proportions, musculature and flesh. Other, cheaper mannequins put less emphasis on realism, or even basic proportions. Arms do not taper gracefully to wrists, but instead go from full forearm girth to tiny wrist in the space of an inch or so, creating an awkward look to the arms and hands. Some have arms either too short or too long for their bodies, and hands either oversized or way too small.
In addition to proportion and realism, the materials used in making mannequins can vary greatly. What used to be full fiberglass mannequins have been replaced bit by bit by "fiberglass reinforced plastic," which weighs much less than fiberglass. This FRP is offered in varying thicknesses; the thicker it is, the stronger it is. Cheap mannequins often prove to be of thin material that is more prone to easy damage. When you buy a mannequin, take these issues into consideration - mannequins that appear to be alike but are priced differently may be of very different qualities. As with so many things, with mannequins, you get what you pay for.
There are full plastic mannequins available now, which are lighter still, and nearly unbreakable. Currently there are fewer style choices, but as plastic becomes a more popular medium, there will undoubtedly be more styles available. There are also flexible mannequins, made to bend at the joints (usually elbows and knees,) which are sought by museums, athletic apparel stores and courtrooms.
Mannequins tend to follow trends in human proportions; there are plus-size mannequins, pregnant mannequins, and - to match the US' tendency to have breast implants, sexy mannequins with extra large bosoms. In the near future, there will likely be more plus-size mannequins (in particular, male plus sizes, which are currently nonexistent) and child size mannequins. Shoppers buy clothing that they can see on three-dimensional displays, and that includes clothing for every age and shape of person.
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