Full-body mannequins arrived a month ago at the upscale outdoor store where I work, and their presence is unsettling. Unlike the amputated partial people to which (or whom) I am accustomed — the stand-alone legs modeling yoga tights, the headless torsos clad in flannel shirts — they give an eerie impression of being human, yet at the same time unmistakably other.
This is due, in part, to their precise ambiguity. Our mannequins are masters of the carefully constructed hint: Their skin tone is ethnically vague, yet attractive, a kind of rich cafe latte that mimics a dusky perpetual tan. Their heads are topographically unassuming, bald and flanked with mild projections that signify ears. Their facial features, too, are no more than suggestions: indentations for eyes, slight protrusions for noses. The female mannequins have nipple-less breasts, the males a pronounced bump in place of natural naughty parts. They have fingernails and toenails, but — notably — hardly a trace of a mouth. They are mute not only literally, but figuratively.
No accident there, for mannequins are professional objects; they invite projection. We are to see ourselves, favorably, in their places, looking poised and put together in the clothing we are being encouraged to buy. An absence of detail makes projection easy for a broad range of customers.
But this lack of specificity is also why these mannequins are creepy. They bring to mind the 1956 sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a Cold War-era film that oozes paranoia. The plot features alien seed pods as incubators for soulless duplicates who replace their living, breathing progenitors as they sleep. Initially, the features of these pod people are smooth and indistinct, like those of my store’s mannequins: They recall the formless from which we come, and will one day return.
A discomfiting thought, to be sure, yet I feel bad about my response to our mannequins, who are faultless. They are creatures of our own making, after all, bent exclusively to our selfish ends, bland and objectively harmless servants of capitalism. They exist solely to absorb thousands of human gazes, day after motionless day. Depressing work, really, devoid of meaning.
It’s nice to imagine that, after we turn out the lights and lock up the doors each night, the mannequins become subjects in their own lives, rather than objects in ours. Perhaps they perambulate, stiff-legged, into loose and companionable circles, and, devoid of mouths, nonetheless speak to each other: They compare outfits, talk about their days, tell jokes about the customers.
And then, in the morning minutes before we humans arrive to bring up the lights and open the doors, they shamble rigidly back to their places. They assume their perfect positions, close their invisible mouths, and make ready for another day of retail.
This post first appeared on December 18, 2014.