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First 'Home' in Store for Mannequins?

February 08, 1987|JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writer

Malibu may become home to a large collection of plastic people in the next five years--and that's not a snide reference to the show business celebrities who gravitate there.

Twenty acres high in Corral Canyon have been donated to an expert on mannequins, who plans to build what apparently would be the world's first exhibition hall dedicated to display figures.

The Mannequin Museum would house Marsha Bentley Hale's collection of documents, photographs and figures accumulated during more than nine years of travel through the United States and Western Europe.

Hale, who has delivered lectures on her specialty at local design schools and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, jokingly calls her research "Valley Girl archeology." After all, she said, fashion mannequins exist only in consumer-oriented societies.

But, she added, mannequins are also valuable reference material, revealing a culture's notions about beauty, gender roles and the acceptance of ethnic groups, as well as the technology available to manufacturers.

The thousands of photographs in her archives include shots of flat-chested women and stiffly posed men from the 1920s, broad-shouldered, voluptuous women of the 1940s, and cartoonlike figures of the 1950s.

In one corner of the crowded Santa Monica apartment that serves as Hale's office, a pinched waist and pastel-colored lips date a lounging plastic woman as a relic of the 1960s. A pregnant figure and realistic, muscled mannequins are of more recent vintage.

There's no doubt that mannequins have long been the objects of widespread fascination. "There's a surrealism about them," Hale said. "You don't have to be as in awe of them as you do with formal sculpture."

In 1938, a man who brought a Saks Fifth Avenue figure to the Stork Club in New York as a prank was soon inundated with high-society invitations for the "couple."

Since then, a pair of Massachusetts commuters tried to use a mannequin to qualify for the car-pool lane in heavy freeway traffic. A Mississippi woman sold "security" mannequins to make vacant homes appear occupied. A Laguna Beach store owner was asked by the city manager to cover the breasts of a mannequin clad only in a bikini bottom, and a San Diego rock band responded to ransom notes sent by the kidnapers of their mannequin mascot.

A memorable episode of the television show "Twilight Zone" featured a mannequin granted life for a month and her subsequent romance with a human. The Pygmalion theme is echoed in a movie titled "Mannequin."

In 1982, at a mannequin exhibit Hale organized in downtown Los Angeles at Security Pacific Plaza, "people were actually picking up the skirts and the clothes and peering underneath," she said.

A local reviewer called the mannequins in that display "matter that is almost art but not quite."

Historical Interest

Still, there are scholars who believe that mannequins should be preserved for their historical interest.

The Smithsonian Institution has considered a collection of mannequins from different eras, though "it's not one of our priorities right now," said Eleanor Boyne, a program assistant at the museums' Division of Costume.

"It serves the purpose of documenting the posture of the time," Boyne said. "It's very difficult to put an 18th-Century garment on a 20th-Century mannequin."

Boyne and other experts said they believe that Hale's museum would be the first public showcase for historical and contemporary mannequins.

"I think it's marvelous," said Ray Browne,

chairman of the Popular Culture Department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "And there is no better place for this in the world than Los Angeles. Where else is there so much nudity and so much interest in the body?"

Hale, 35, has been obsessed with mannequins since 1978, when she was a design student at UCLA. For a photojournalism class project, she decided to snap pictures of the plastic and fiberglass population of store windows on fashionable Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

"I was amazed by the imagery and the detail," Hale said. "The females were leaning sensuously. The men had little hairs glued onto their chests."

So when Hale needed a topic for a paper for another class--the History of Design--she chose the mannequin. "That's when I found out there was nothing written in one volume on the mannequin," she said.

Traces History

Soon she found herself "incorporating the mannequin into everything I did." She visited mannequin showrooms in New York and an exhibit of ventriloquists' dummies in a small Kentucky town. On a trip to Europe she photographed wax figures at Westminster Abbey. She brought up the subject with strangers on airplanes and made appointments at mannequin factories.

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