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DOLLED UP

As lingerie mannequins in Mumbai face a possible ban,we find out what goes into making that perfect plastic bod,whether it can sell clothes,and whether it ‘titillates’

with Good-looking,perfect figure,wavy Indian hair: height 169cm,bust 89cm,waist 63cm,hip 90cm. This could be a model advertising her assets. It is,though,an eBay description of window display mannequins for sale in Bangalore,and a testament to our culture’s definition of beauty. The dolls have recently come under fire for their alleged objectification of the female body. Expressing their alarm over scantily-clad “titillating” mannequins in public spaces and calling them a moral scourge,civic authorities in Mumbai have demanded the plastic models be taken down for the benefit of real-world women.

“Shops have always wanted lifelike figures behind their windows. There is no denying that mannequins draw attention. They look great in good clothes,but it’s crazy to think anyone would like to imagine them without the clothes on,” says Naren Shah,an importer of Chinese mannequins,who owns the eBay listing. At Shah’s house in Banaswadi,east Bangalore,dozens of plastic-wrapped mannequin parts take up most of the space in a small room lit by a single naked bulb. The dolls are naked,too,of course,but sans head and limbs,they are a sorry sight. Shah sells about 200 mannequins in a month,each costing about

Rs 4,000. Within minutes,he puts together a female doll with some pretence of life,its matte-flesh arms hanging by its sides. With its fake eyelashes,flinty stare and prominent nipples,the mannequin can turn heads,Shah knows. “I bubble-wrap all the mannequins,especially the female ones,after covering them with sheets of newspaper,” he says. “When clothed,they look respectable,just like you and me.”

And they do help sell clothes like no prop can. K Sudhakar,who works at the Bangalore visual merchandising department of Megamart,one of the largest clothing retail chains in India,says,“The clothes on display almost always sell faster.” Today,it has become imperative for a 1,500-2,000 sq ft showroom to display four or five mannequins. Dummies take up a lot of internet real estate too,with the emphasis often on “superior realism” and affordability. High-end fashion stores and boutiques,however,aren’t always out to woo customers with lifelike figures. They focus on quality,unique colours,glossy finishes and detailing,says Shyam Harpalani,who has been making mannequins since 1986. At his factory near RT Nagar in north Bangalore,he points to a set of dolls with Zoozoo-like heads. “We call them bulbs. These abstract mannequins,in white,black and pearl,are popular with brands. Sometimes,we slice the head in half,horizontally or vertically,” he says.

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Harpalani’s company,Facelift Mannequins,produces 10 fibreglass mannequins a day,each made from a mould and spray painted to near-perfection. “There was a time when skin colour was in,and garish make-up was applied to the face. Now many clients,especially Muslims,prefer abstract or headless mannequins,” says Harpalani,who supplies to several brands,including U.S. Polo,Flying Machine,Provogue and Lovable. That doesn’t mean he won’t entertain someone who wants an “ethnic” mannequin on which to drape a sari. “Generally,a flesh-tone mannequin with biscuit-brown hair moulded into a bun is passed off as an Indian-look mannequin,” he says,pointing to a dummy with a bouffant a la Vyjayanthimala. Another,with pursed lips and sleek,short hair,represents a Western ideal of beauty. Fibreglass mannequins come in various poses and colours,cost Rs 6,000-10,000 and weigh about 10-12 kg,along with the pedestal. In India,they are not designed after real models,but from facial moulds of imported dummies,some of which can cost tens of thousands of rupees.

At a popular mall in central Bangalore,a group of college-going girls is giggling at a lingerie display. Four twiggy white mannequins,in various poses,flaunt lace and satin underwear in a frozen tableau of sorts. “I want the red bikini,do you think it’s expensive?” says a girl in a blue skirt and tee,tugging on her friend’s arm. The ruckus about mannequins in Mumbai hasn’t reached their ears but the girls raise a valid point. It’s not like their boyfriends are going to dump them for a languorous fibreglass Venus. “This is like taking Barbie dolls seriously. It’s ridiculous,” says 21-year-old Aruna Kumar,who is studying to be a civil engineer. When her friend does end up buying the bikini on display,a saleswoman undresses the mannequin and clothes it in a fresh green babydoll nightie. The girls avert their eyes.

Azad Ali,who runs a sari shop in a lane off Commercial Street,a central Bangalore shopping hub,jokes that mannequins “are like girls,they are high-maintenance”. “I had bought three imported mannequins a couple of years ago,when I opened the shop. Within months,the plastic chipped and the edges were wearing thin. When the fingers started to break,I sold off the mannequins and I have been doing just fine without them since,” he says. Instead of a window display,he has an old-fashioned teakwood bench to seat his customers and a mattress covered with white sheet on which to spread out his saris. Harpalani says mannequins are often thrown about and treated badly. But anyone who says he can dispense with mannequins is kidding himself,he says. “Ten years ago,I had to convince my customers about the need for a mannequin. Today,I don’t have to.”

Some mannequins become associated with a brand or a design sensibility. U.S. Polo,for instance,uses abstract white dummies,while Jack and Jones employs neutral grey mannequins. “Brands are looking for differentiation. Some even emboss their logos on them,” says Mahesh Bhambhani,a partner at Japan Mannequins,one of the largest manufacturers of mannequins in India. According to Bhambhani,mannequins help the customer understand the product,its fit and its pricing,and offer a seamless shopping experience. “Mannequins made in India are not provocative. When Islamic countries don’t object to mannequin displays,why should we?”

So what is the fuss about? An army of mannequins waits at a shop in a narrow galli near Zaveri Bazaar in Mumbai. Here,at Bombay Hanger Mart,they stand together — tall,proud and unashamed — in various states of undress,waiting to be bought,sold and displayed. Manager Aliakber Burhanpurwala explains that this is not the first time mannequins have made people uncomfortable. A mannequin dealer in Dadar was once asked to cover up the dummies in his shop,he recounts. “Covering up mannequins in a shop that sells mannequins is like asking someone to giftwrap his products and put them on display. Our customers want to see the shape,size and colour of the product they are buying. It’s like any other product,” he says,looking around at the nude mannequins that have been listening in on the conversation. Burhanpurwala says he is lucky his shop is on the first floor,where the mannequins can remain inconspicuous.

“But I don’t see anyone objecting to male mannequins with well-defined torsos and a head full of hair,” Naren Shah points out. “A mannequin should not make you think of its sexiness. It should make you feel the clothes it is wearing will fit you well.” Shah has plans to introduce mannequins with realistic proportions. In his next shipment from China,he says,are dozens of dummies with real-life bodies: bushy eyebrows,moles,a rounded tummy and other imperfections that make us human.