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VM inspiration: Guy Bourdin exhibition, Somerset House

Rush to catch the Guy Bourdin exhibition at London’s Somerset House before it closes on 15th March. The exhibition is a panoply of wonderful ideas for visual merchandising concepts and windows, boasting a collection of images that photographer Bourdin took for 1970s Vogue and shoe brand Charles Jourdan.

The images coalesce around womens’ fantasies, which must help to successfully sell merchandise. And it contains some hugely interesting images of mannequins.

The collection is, by today’s standards, both politically incorrect and playfully erotic. The exhibition teaches us little about Bourdin’s life, but a lot about his working methods - all of the images were plotted and sketched in notebooks long before he gazed through his camera’s viewfinder.

We tend to assume VM is timeless. That, for example, mannequins are good because they are well finished, and that their proportions enhance the merchandise with which they are dressed. But here is evidence of the changing nature of the way in which the body is worn, as well as fashion’s changing idyll.

The image above, of a mannequin showroom with a model wearing Charles Jourdan’s shoes, is from the Spring/Summer 1978 marketing campaign. It shows just how different the female ideal was at that time. The mannequins are full-breasted by today’s standards, with very curvy hips and thighs. Most surprisingly, the upper torso joins the lower body at the waist, not at the hip as today. The widest part of the hip is just a few inches from the neat, indented waist: a proportion rarely encountered in reality, where women’s hips reach their widest about 8” below the narrowest part of the waist. Even the poses look at little strange to us, with an extreme twist of the head to the side, but arms held straight. The pageboy-bob wig probably dates them more than anything, today we see this hairstyle worn only by children.

In close up, this mannequin is so ‘of its day.’ The rib cage is the same width from below the bust to the top of the shoulder, with the upper arm reduced from shoulder to elbow to the same width. Only the top of the arm will support the shoulders of a sleeved garment. While this might have been brilliant for sleeveless tops, how would anything with a set-in or draped sleeve look?

Note too the hole at the base of the lower spine on the diving-pose mannequin. It is a true puzzle as to why this was here. If the mannequin was likely to display active sportswear, surely this hole would be visible when it was dressed in a bikini?

A nice demonstration of Bourdin’s imaginative female fantasies is a real model posed as a mannequin, complete with very visible swing tags on her Eres-style swimsuit, standing supported by a huge spigot and very solid base plate. In common with all the models throughout the exhibition, she looks happy and relaxed. If there is a fantasy element in the images then it is one that raises a smile, one that women themselves might enjoy. A spare leg, like an extra prosthesis, lies unwanted or discarded on the floor.

This is one of several interesting images using bugle beads on skin. Skin, the sexiest of human organs, becomes incredibly unsexy when we imagine its feel changed, as here, from smoothness to crunchiness. There is an enjoyable contrast too between the inexpensive, sparkly, plastic bugle beads, which individually are worth almost nothing, and the valuable glittering stones of the necklace and pendant. This is a simple idea that any fine-jewellery brand might explore for eye-catching VM.

Lastly, a group of mannequins watches through a store window as two models stride past in swimsuits. This image, from Vogue Paris in May 1975, neatly contrasts the imagined perfection of the mannequins’ form with the real forms of the models. Note the pronounced hip-bone of the mannequin in comparison to the sleek curve of the models’ hips. Although the mannequins have slighter busts than those in the other images, the bust point is still relatively low in comparison to that of the real models. The mood of the mannequins, if we anthropomorphize them for a moment, is poignant: as their poses whimsically suggest a slight wistfulness. Studying the images as VM professionals we glimpse the complex subtlety of the idealised human form.

Do go take a look.