Designing Postmodernism, Part 6: Mannequins

July 31, 2011

OK, here’s a seriously cool design process for you: putting together the mannequins for the display of 1980s fashion. With designers like Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, and Karl Lagerfeld included alongside pop stars like Devo, David Byrne, and Annie Lennox, and choreographers like Michael Clark, Kazuo Ohno, and Karole Armitage, costume is definitely going to be a highlight of the Postmodernism project. For example, the lead image of the show is the below dress designed by Jean-Paul Goude for Grace Jones in 1978. She wore it at a late night gig in New York City, performing to her adoring public even though she was pregnant at the time… the exaggerated shape was partly intended to hide her ‘bump.’

The costume was made from ephemeral materials – cardboard and felt – and doesn’t survive, so for the exhibition, Goude is recreating it for us, complete with a Jones-lookalike mannequin. But in all other cases, we have located existing costume of the period that’s still in good condition. That took a lot of detective work, but it was only the start. We also have to try and match the styling of the garments that you might have found in a magazine of the time (like the Face or ID). Fortunately, this is something that the V&A does as well as any museum in the world, and as curators we have been able to work with conservators like Sam Gatley (seen below) and Roisin Morris to achieve amazing results.


To prepare each mannequin, a period photograph is treated as a design drawing. We try to match the feel of the original image as closely as possible. Keep in mind that in all these cases, we were starting with nothing but the garment – the mannequin had to be made and posed from scratch. Above is an ensemble from Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Punkature’ collection, 1983. The skirt features a print of images from Blade Runner, so we’ll be showing the garment alongside footage from the film.


This costume is from Karole Armitage‘s punk-inspired dance Gogo Ballerina, 1988. It was designed by David Salle, the noted New York contemporary artist, and features an artificially illuminated skirt (it has lightbulbs inserted into the lining).

And below is another image that we particularly wanted to duplicate. It features a dress entitled “Homage to Levi-Strauss,” by the Milanese fashion designer Cinzia Ruggeri, 1983-4. For us this image perfectly embodies the postmodern look: the exaggerated form, theatrical hair and cosmetics, and even the pose, which suggests that the wearer is in some kind of trance, floating in an empty space of pure imagination.

This garment presented even greater challenges than usual because of the pose and the tiny size of the dress – which meant that an off-the-peg mannequin wasn’t an option. We turned to Rootstein, one of the most accomplished makers of specialist display mannequins in the world (and fortunately for us, in nearby Earls’ Court). It’s an amazing place to visit – from the casting moulds stored outside to the wig shop to the half-prepared mannequins awaiting their hair and dress, and looking for all the world like a Surrealist installation from the 1930s.

Working closely with the V&A’s conservators, the team at Rootstein sculpted the pose by hand, then matched the shocked hair and geometric makeup exactly:



And here is the finished product, even better than the (hyper)real thing. Can’t wait to see her in on show!

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