One of my favourite collecting areas is headpieces – the day and evening cloches, headdresses and bandeaux that are so much a part of the 1920s look. Unfortunately, without a mannequin head, displaying and photographing them has proved to be a challenge. I’ve taken awkward selfies of the back of my head to photograph evening cloches, awkward shots of the back and profile of other people wearing headdresses, and have even dressed up a 1980s wicker head with a costume bob wig to try and get the right look.
A mannequin head was a worthwhile investment.
After considering some of the cheap imports, or the exquisite reproductions available, and tossing back and forward on the idea of an original, I finally decided on an original and started the search for one that had an appeal for me. Mannequin heads of the era have such idiosyncratic character and charm, and range from the highly realistic wax creations with glass eyes and human hair that look as if they might draw breath or blink any moment, to some of the wonderful more abstract, Deco designs that makers like Pierre Imans included in their catalogs.
It took a while to find one that worked for me and had the right character, and I found her in France – a plaster head that required some restoration work, but which sported a characteristic 1920s bob and a lovely expression. She must have fallen face first at least once in her life, as there was slight but significant damage to the tip of her nose and upper lip as well as loss of paint. The same seller also had a more stylised papier-mâché early 1930s head that had suffered damage to the nose, a few holes piercing her hollow shell, and some crackling around an impact point. After factoring in shipping and restoration costs, I decided that they were a worthwhile investment.
I searched around for a restorer willing to undertake vintage mannequin heads, and found Ross Gibbs of We Can Build You (WCBY), located in the Blue Mountains. Ross does customised industrial and commercial sculpting in a variety of materials, and his resume includes work on vintage mannequin heads as well as mannequin customisation – his past projects have included work for a Kylie Minogue tour in customised mannequins and display mannequins for Sydney museums. His positive and constructive response to the images I sent suggested the scope of work was entirely feasible, so Jill and I embarked on a pleasant day trip up to the Blue Mountains to deliver the girls (dubbed Musidora, after the French silent actress, and Ginette, named for French actress and social figure Geneviève Lantelme) to his studio.
Ross was as charmed by the patina of age on Musidora as I was – time has mellowed and softened her, and given her a very warm olive tint. In restoring vintage mannequins, there is always the potential to play with hair colour, skin tone and makeup. There are some very striking re-paint jobs on vintage mannequins exploring the make-up of the 1920s or 30s or giving them a more modern twist. In this case, we decided to keep the paint jobs as close to the original and still very discernible paintwork as possible. Makeup was minimal – lipstick, a hint of blue eye shadow on Ginette, and perhaps a bit of kohl around Musidora’s eyes.
Ross suggested that Musidora would make a good subject for molding in order to reproduce fibre glass casts, and I thought the idea an excellent one – the more replica types available the better.
I left them in Ross’s capable hands for sympathetic restoration, and he sent me updates along the way. Both required stabilisation and damage filled – in Musidora’s case the paint on plaster posed a challenge, as some of the paint was loose, but removing too much of it might wear away at the plaster beneath. Ross had to rework more of the painted surface than originally planned, but kept faithful to the original aged finish. Before doing the repaint he took a cast of the original in silicon putty, and worked the resulting fibreglass version to have a fresher paint finish closer to what the original paint would have looked like when new. He worked in a slightly warmer colour colour scheme to contrast with Musidora, and the resulting twin has been nicknamed Madeleine.
The papier-mâché head was also restored faithfully to the original paint scheme and colours that were revealed under the surface grime, with just a slight aging with layers of Shellac to conserve and keep off the ‘new’ edges. Ross took extensive photographs for reference to keep true to her paint work.
We made another day of going to pick them up and had lunch at the Alexandra Hotel in Leura, a pleasant way to pass a Sunday in spring, and a very good version of a pub lunch. The trio was wrapped up carefully for transport, and were soon ensconced in their new home – the restoration work indistinguishable from the original material. I’m extremely pleased with the results – and they will feature in many posts to come! And if anyone can interpret the makers mark on Musidora (below), I’d appreciate the information – I haven’t researched it yet extensively, but am intrigued.