Time Pieces History Project Item Eight: Milliner’s Dummy

First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – the milliner’s dummy.

The Milliner’s Dummy – Introduction to Item Eight

Our family home has always been full of things that have caught my Dad’s eye at car boot sales, in antique or charity shop windows or when he’s been out and about. I’m not sure where this milliner’s dummy came from (I know he’s reading and commenting on these blogs, though, so he’ll probably let us know!), but it’s sat on a shelf in the kitchen for many years, often wearing a hat and a long blonde wig (that’s another story!)

I don’t think the dummy will be the object that catches Fiona Bruce’s eye when we finally get ourselves to a recording of the Antiques Road Show, but it’s an interesting thing to have. I like the elegant curve of her long neck, although I don’t like the pupil-less eyes quite so much! And sadly, she’s never been given a name.

The History of the Milliner’s Dummy

The dummies modelled the hats and headwear made by the milliners, so that ladies could see what a hat looked like Women looking at a hat on a milliner's dummyon without having to remove their own. In this uncredited picture from the Wellcome Collection, we can see that choosing a new bonnet was a big deal.

The milliner’s dummy, of course, is simply the head part of a mannequin. The word comes from the French via Dutch – ‘little man’. It can also be spelled as ‘mannikin’ or ‘manikin.’ Originally, the word ‘mannequin’ was also applied to live, human models who were showing off the latest fashions.

A wooden milliner's dummy from 19th century FranceThere was more to it than just a glorified hat stand though. The milliner’s dummy, in its most basic form, was a head-shaped block of wood which was used to mould the fabric before it became a hat. It was a simple leap to use these front of house as well as in the workshop.

This picture is of a rare French dummy from the start of the 19th century, originating probably from the Alps. It’s made of pine and the bonnet is cotton. It’s a little bit creepy, but if you look online, there are some even scarier versions.

The History of the Mannequin

The earliest known version was of a mannequin was found in Tutankhamen’s tomb and is thought to have been usedA mannequin of Tutankhamen from his tomb to display his clothes. In the Victorian times, scandalised Temperance Union members protested against mannequins displaying corsets, and in response it was against the law to undress and redress a model in the shop window without closing the curtains. By the first decade of the 20th century, window-shopping became something people did, so it was necessary to have something appealing and lifelike to model the clothes.

The heads and bodies were made of solid wax, the feet of iron and the arms and legs of wood. Unsurprisingly, they could weigh up to 300lb. They also featured real hair, glass eyes and false teeth. And they came in a range of sizes to represent the body shapes of real women. They only had three poses though – feet together, left or right foot forward. Lunging is the stuff of movies (my best friend Louise and I watched Mannequin every weekend for six months when we were in primary school).

After the First World War, mannequins were made from lighter materials and had moveable limbs. From there, they evolved to be slimmer and with long necks. In the 1920s they started to be made with different skin tones, and became more and more lifelike, with sculpted faces. In 1932, ‘Cynthia’ was made as a replica of socialite Cynthia Wells, went out for dinner and was gifted Tiffany jewellery. Eventually, mannequins were shaped like supermodels and made of fibreglass.

History of the Hat

Sombreros and flagsThe first picture of a person wearing a hat comes from a tomb in Thebes, which depicts a man in a conical headpiece. The pileus, a brimless hat worn for travelling, was first used in Ancient Greece and was made of leather or felt. In the 5th century they were made of bronze and worn as a military helmet, although a soft version probably went underneath to make it more comfortable.

Hats, then, were essential kit for soldiers to protect their heads. They were also handy for horse riders, for anyone working in the fields, to shield from the sun or to keep warm in winter. The sombrero’s extra-wide brim protected workers’ shoulders as well as their heads and necks and had a chin-strap to hold them in place. They were developed specifically for the strong sun in Mexico, as European hats just weren’t enough.

Ladies’ bonnets were often made of silk and wrapped around a frame of whalebone or wood. As time went on, parasols and umbrellas replaced the need for headwear to protect from the elements, and so hats became fashion items, with huge, ornate, elaborately-decorated items being popular with high society matrons.

Were Hatters Mad?

If Lewis Carroll is to be believed, hatmakers were so crackers they spent more time at tea parties with sleeping dormice than actually making headgear. However, ‘mad as a hatter’ is an expression based on historical fact – mad hatter’s disease, also known as erethism. It’s possible that the phrase has its origins elsewhere, but it’s as good an explanation as any.

Felt hat-making arrived in England in about 1830, having been popular since the middle of the previous century. The story goes that felting can be done quicker if the material was damp. Turkish hatmakers used camel hair, and therefore camel urine, to wet the fabric.Lewis Carrol's Mad Hatter

In France, the hatters used their own pee, with one chap making far better hats than everyone else. He was being treated for syphilis with a mercury compound, so it seemed an obvious leap to start using mercury nitrate. Many 19th century hatters afflicted with erethism could look forward to excitability, hallucinations, tremors and delirium.

One sufferer, believed to be the first ‘mad hatter’ was Robert Crab of Chesham, who was described in the 17th century. He survived on a diet of dock leaves and grass, and gave all of his worldly possessions away. Felt hat makers were often observed talking to themselves, drooling and suffering serious paranoia. It would make sense to have a milliner’s dummy to promote your products rather than the manufacturer himself, unless you wanted to scare off all the customers!

If you’re looking for more blogs on history, you might like this one, which features fans, dancing and flirting!


Hopes and Fears: History of the Mannequin
History of Hats: History
Corrosion Doctors: Mad Hatters


  1. Anton Lauret on at 9:08 am

    I saw the mannequin that features in Gudrun’s blog in the window of an old fashioned hat shop that ,after almost 100 years of trading, was closing down. I paid £5 for it. Perched on one of my bookcases, Ethel has worn many hats, elaborate and plain over the years. I like her best as a ‘Glamorous Gertie’ with some fancy,feathered creation framing her shiny face.

    • gudrunlauret@gmail.com on at 7:17 pm

      Oh, I didn’t know she’s called Ethel!

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