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Opinion: skinny mannequin row is missing too many points says Dr Valerie Wilson Trower

Oh dear. Skinny mannequins have come under fire again, the latest example seeing Glasgow’s Primark store being criticised in the Daily Mail for being 'too' skinny and showing a visible ribcage.

My mother – slim for most of her life – would have described this as ‘Daft!’ and shaken her head disbelievingly.

For my part, I’m horrified by the poor logic suggested by the deductive reasoning that just one mannequin could have such a disproportionate effect on teenagers when they are surrounded, as we all are, by a population of both average-sized and overweight people. However, let’s take a look at the topic from a Visual Merchandising (VM) viewpoint.

We know that slim figures – for both mannequins and models – help to sell merchandise. Perhaps UK readers will remember that M&S’s disastrous campaign of a few years ago, with their ‘average-sized’ model running across fields declaring she was ‘normal,’ did nothing for sales.

Customers – and that includes all of us – imagine that merchandise has transformative powers. It should make us look slimmer, sexier, more attractive, richer, or whatever characteristic we deem desirable. Fashion and transformation has a long history: the Surrealists were intrigued by this, and one of the reasons that butterflies are a reoccurring motif in fashion and visual merchandising is because of their transformation from a crawling caterpillar to a beautiful butterfly.

This is aside from the purely logistical problems that a group of differently-sized mannequins would create for VM staff - imagine pulling the merchandise to dress a size 8, a size 10, a size 12, and a size 14 mannequin for a mixed-size window, only to discover the correct size of merchandise had already sold out. This would also hugely amplify the stock of mannequins required by adding an extra dimension to any display: ‘If I use two matching size 12s in this window with a size 10 in the centre, I will have to put the size 8 and the size 14 together in the other one…Hmmmm!’

While this might make the size 10 mannequin’s merchandise look dainty and petite, it won’t do a great deal for the size 14 merchandise. And while this might be good for mannequin suppliers, it would certainly create storage problems and be a challenge for most VM budgets.

My mother, if she were alive today, would be astounded at our acceptance of body weight, which in her eyes would probably seem obese. Images of war-time urchins – ribs clearly displayed – playing on the banks of the Thames, seem to many today to be illustrating malnutrition. Meanwhile, images of Kate Moss at the beginning of her career look pretty much the same as images of the 60’s model, Twiggy.

But don’t assume this new norm is universal. It isn’t. In Asia, most people are slim and many are what we might describe as fine-boned. The XXL size of visiting American tourists frequently draws comment from Asians, both in regard to their height and to their sheer size. While living in Hong Kong for 15 years where I was average-sized (I’m 5’3”), I became accustomed to seeing slim people around me. Whenever I landed at Heathrow, my first impressions would be of how big people were – after how cold it was, and how many people were wearing acrylic (not much used in Asia due to the higher humidity).

The Asian market is a hugely important one for Western brands at present, and while that may not particularly be the case for Primark in Glasgow, it certainly will colour the thinking of other brands.

That said, mannequins - except the very top-end ones, which are beautifully engineered - generally look far better in merchandise that is not too revealing. The ribs in question will look better in a top that skims or clings to the body, in the same way that a mannequin’s nipples just suggest sexiness when it wears a knee-length dress. Go take a look at the mannequins (with nipples) in Versace’s window, then go take a look at the mannequins (without nipples, but created for the exhibition by Bonaveri) of Princess Diana’s Versace dresses at Althorp, and decide which makes the dresses look better.