Mannequins and memories

I opened the tool drawer and pulled out the hammer. The dog took one look and did a runner, hiding under the desk with a mixture of laughter and wariness in her eyes. This, I thought, was rather unfair… I am good with a hammer. My first, full-time job was as a window dresser, in the days when it was our task to re-line the window bays, create the themed displays… and, as it was menswear that we sold, use heavy board, hammer and panel pins to remove every hint of a crease from the gaudy, tear-drop collared shirts, flared trousers and suits. It was the seventies, after all…

I loved that job. Every day a new town, travelling around the country to all the branches the company owned. Even though, being the smallest and the only female on the team, I was usually the one lounging on the huge rolls of felt in the back of the van, uncomfortably close to the big guillotine.

The worst part of the job was the first thing we did after emptying the windows of the mannequins and displays… cleaning the inside of the glass. Back then, we used Windolene, a cleaner somewhere between a liquid and a paste, that dried to a powder that you had to buff away. It is bad enough cleaning household windows with the stuff, when you can pick your time. For us, there were plate glass sheets forty feet long and ten feet high to be cleaned… always under the glare and heat of a battery of industrial spotlights and usually in the full heat of the sun.

But, like all lousy tasks, it had its moments. Children were always a delight… they always seemed to find it funny that a live person was in the window. It was a good time to people-watch too. Coming eye to eye with the ‘dummy’ in the window took people off guard and their reactions were telling. There were the poseurs, the embarrassed, the flirtatious… although I learned early that skirts, especially in the days of the mini, were not a good ida in that profession. And I lost count of the number of times people jumped when I moved. Peripheral vision must have told them I was what they expected to see… a mannequin. Movement caught them off guard and their reactions were priceless.

Those were not the days of elegant, minimalist window displays… they were a time when you nailed swirling displays of psychedelic shirts to the walls, nailed trousers and suits to the models and crammed as much of the stock in the window as possible in the hope of attracting customers… especially those lines that were not selling well.

Although it was a big company, with several chains, back then it was all low tech too. Price tags were handwritten… in copperplate lettering, in white correction fluid on small brown boards for the upmarket branches and in bold black marker on huge fluorescent roundels for the discount stores. Every shop was different, from vast, swish stores to tiny boutiques. We shared ideas, pooled our skills and outfitted the lot before they opened, designed their layout and styled their displays, making all the props and décor from scratch.

We worked for the most part, quite literally, on the shop floor. Working to a tight deadline, we seldom looked up from what we were doing until we had to lift a mannequin into the window. You had to lift them carefully, by the crotch, so as not to disturb the pristine and stretched material. On one never to be forgotten occasion, I learned to check before I grabbed… and can only hope the customer was not too traumatised…

I hated having to leave that job though and never thought I would return to it. Yet, as with many things, what I learned there in my teens served me well in later life. Engaged as a temporary salesperson to ready and open a large new jewellery store one Christmas, by the time the six weeks’ contract was up, I had been hired and put in charge of the windows, displays and stockrooms as well as shop-floor sales and in store repairs. A few years later, I found myself Head of Retail for a charity, designing and fitting the new stores, upgrading the image of charity shops and their displays… even opening a recycled furniture warehouse and setting trends within the industry.

Such things are never achieved alone, it takes teamwork and a willingness to share ideas, whether you are the one knelt in the dust or the one wearing the suit.  The hammer blows as I reassembled the gale-blown fence today brought it all back. But, without the lessons I learned in those early years of work, none of that would have happened… and I would have missed an awful lot of fun.

The dog, however, was less than pleased. Not just about the hammering… but because now she has lost what one more gust of wind would have made into an escape route from the garden…

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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43 Responses to Mannequins and memories

  1. Sadje says:

    An exciting journey to the present from the past. The train of thoughts was fun to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. cyncoed says:

    Really enjoyed reading this, an interesting window into a past world, and it’s lovely that we can find priceless snippets of humour even in the normally mundane, thank you !

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Druid's Diary says:

    Are the photos taken in Leeds? I used to work in an recruitment agency there in the 90s.
    The photos look familiar. It was lovely reading about your experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jenanita01 says:

    I don’t get a memory rush whenever I pick up a hammer, probably for the best, as I usually hurt myself in the process…

    Like

  5. Mary Smith says:

    A lovely post, Sue. I enjoy memory trails – how we go from now to then and back again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jim Borden says:

    I’ve never thought about all the work that goes into putting together those window displays. Did you ever get involved in the Christmas displays that some stores create?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I can imagine how colorful the windows were in the 1970s. 🙂 — Suzanne

    Like

  8. trentpmcd says:

    Sounds like it could be interesting work. Poor customer who is in the wrong place at the wrong time though…

    Like

  9. Dale says:

    A friend of mine used to do displays. The creativity involved is amazing – we don’t think of the technical aspects. Or that something we did as a teenager would be useful as an escape route barrier later on 😉

    Like

  10. Darlene says:

    I loved learning about your job as a window dresser. Part of my first job was to create the window displays for a gift shop I worked at. I won a prize for my window display during the stampede celebrations in the prairie town I lived in at the time. Somewhere I have a picture. Doing the window display was the favorite part of that job. This brought back some great memories. (no mannequins though so the customers were safe!!)

    Like

  11. Eliza Waters says:

    My, you certainly have worn many, many hats, Sue. I love reading about them!

    Like

  12. willowdot21 says:

    Well I never Sue my first and by far most favourite job was as a window dresser . Like you I loved it. So much of what you described was very familiar to me. And yes the skills we learned then have come in useful….. Though I think your meaning goes deeper.
    Thank you Sue I really enjoyed this post. 💜

    Like

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