All Saints’ mannequins: still there, still offensive.

// 17 March 2009

I first noticed or, rather, stood aghast in front of fashion retailer All Saints’ window display in Cambridge back last summer, and was surprised to see it still going strong in the Derby store this weekend. As you can see, it features headless black mannequins hanging from chains (apologies for the poor picture quality; I only had my phone on me, but you can see other photos in the article linked to below).

Just to repeat, that’s headless black mannequins hanging from chains.

I must admit that I’ve noticed an increase in the use of black mannequins recently, but white is still the default, so to actively choose to display black mannequins – and headless ones at that – in a manner so clearly reminiscent of the racist lynchings of black people in the US seems like deliberately offensive, publicity seeking provocation to me.

A quick google search reveals that the displays have been around since October 2007, and were indeed met with complaints (plus the usual counter-cries of political correctness gone mad). The company’s response? The mannequins ‘look good’ and aren’t black, they’re grey. Anyone else smelling bullshit?

Contact details if you want to complain:

info[at]allsaints.co.uk

08704 283500

Jack’s Place

6 Corbet Place

Spitalfields

London

E1 6NN

Comments From You

terese // Posted 17 March 2009 at 7:23 pm

I saw those near oxford street a while ago, and had a similar reaction. when i told someone else i promptly got told i was reading too much into it. thanks for the contact details – i’ll actually bother to do something about it now.

Lara // Posted 18 March 2009 at 11:57 am

I really don’t think that it would have been the shop’s intention to offend or recreate racist images. I imagine the chains are probably to make the display look ‘edgy’ and coincidentally the grey mannequins probably look quite dark. Sorry to disagree!

Legible Susan // Posted 18 March 2009 at 3:03 pm

Lara,

Racism is often unintentional. That doesn’t mean it’s not racism. Also, people have complained, so they can’t claim now to be unaware that it’s giving that impression.

“Edgy” is used as an excuse for a lot of things – often targeted at women, e.g. the gruesome photoshoots that have been critiqued on this very site. There’s a fashion for shock tactics in some circles. That doesn’t make it OK.

Shea // Posted 18 March 2009 at 9:30 pm

They are gruesome. I went into the Nottingham store about a couple of weeks ago and it really spooked me for a minute, they do look like corpses hanging in the window. Not cool, not edgy.

Pip // Posted 19 March 2009 at 1:12 pm

As an artist, I have to say, I looked at these manequins with some intrigue. The first thing I noticed was that they are headless, suspended and remenissant the fabric sculptures made by the wonderful sculptor Louise Bourgeois. I wouldn’t be suprised to find that these may have been designed with her hanging effagies in mind.

I dont think the colour is relevant really. I mean, Louise Bourgeois made hundreds of black sculptures and not one of them refered to black people. These manequins represent a fragmented human figure,without the individuality that a head and face affords. And it certainly is a human figure, and not an ethnic representation of a human being.

I have to disagree, I don’t think the manequins are racist at all. If anything, you could read them as sexist – those are male figures being hung on chains. But I’m quite sure there will be female editions of these hangers too.

What is really being shown are clothes in a macabre fashion. Macabre not done very well in this case, but none the less, it is about a spectacle to entice the paying customers inside. It is by no means a Liberty’s shop window,complete with a transvestite, a poodle and grand piano. But it is a very simple and practical way of showing the clothes in a way that doesn’t detract from the clothes themselves.

I ask you to consider the above and ask yourself why are you genuinely offended by these manequins? Is it really because they are hung on chains? Is it really because they are made from black resin?

Posie Rider // Posted 20 March 2009 at 12:51 pm

Really gals? I think you’re all far too educated and placing too much intellectual esteem upon the people at All Saints. They probably don’t even know what the ‘apartheid’ means. Besides their clothes are ghastly.

Rise up and focus upon the real issues around race – most people would never even think our thoughts, they’re really rather stupid you know.

Laura // Posted 20 March 2009 at 1:29 pm

Posie Rider – I find your ‘us and them’ attitude rather unnecessary; non-feminists did complain when these window displays first went up, and I completely stand by my reaction to them. I think the link with lynching is far clearer than any link with a particular artist’s work, as Pip suggests, relevant as that link may be, and whether or not All Saints deliberately went for a theme that could be viewed as racist doesn’t mean that they didn’t idenitify this reading of their display and ran it anyway – I’d be really surprised if someone on the design team didn’t make the link with lynching. I believe that everyday manifestations and displays of racisms – intentional or not – are ‘real’ issues. They may not be the biggest ones, but I don’t appreciate being told what I should and shouldn’t be concerned about.

Qubit // Posted 20 March 2009 at 3:33 pm

I agree with the commentators who think there was no malicious intent here. I am also more inclined to agree that the creators didn’t consider the idea of lynching when creating this display.

However people have complained and while lynching is probably not the interpretation they were going for it is a fairly obvious and offensive one. I think that, to not listen to and to take into account the complaints they received is unreasonable behaviour. I think sometimes ignorance has to be forgiven if it is accompanied by a desire to listen and change but in this case it doesn’t seem to have been.

I will be honest and say the lynching interpretation is not one I would have thought of first. I will put this down to my own white privilege and being in a world of my own. I think it is all too easy to miss things that aren’t against me and it is something I hope to learn to avoid in future.

Aimee // Posted 20 March 2009 at 3:56 pm

I have to agree with Laura. Even if they didn’t intentionally design it to have anything to do with lynching, they’d have to be blind not to see how it could be construed that way and how offensive it could be.

rita // Posted 21 March 2009 at 11:38 am

I’ve always said and will say it again, that so many people do not understand what racism is or choose to ignore it. Racist language or behaviour will always bring out emotions and usually painfull ones or hostile ones. And whether one means to be racist or not, it does not stop another from these feelings. When people say things like, “let us look at the context in which it was said”, or “it is only a word, after all i have been called this and that”, “Or it was said years/months ago”, it does not cut it for the reciever of these words or behaviour. It’s the dismissive attitude that drives me up the wall and makes me give up on the topic of racism in many cases because no one seems to get it at times. Think of the people who have lost their lives while throwing around such words, it is the emotion that these things bring out and the dismissive attitude to come along with it, eg, stop being overly sensitive, has someone been maimed or shot etc.. I remember watching a programme on tv where someone compared the term, “paki” to “brit”. I just gave up.

butterflywings // Posted 21 March 2009 at 7:56 pm

I agree with Lara and Posie Rider.

I also find Laura’s response to Posie unnecessary.

They are just mannequins.

Racism exists, and as Posie said, there are rather bigger issues than some mannequins.

Catherine // Posted 21 March 2009 at 8:09 pm

I take on board that it’s white privilege not to be reminded instantly of lynching. That said, my first thought when I saw them in the Southampton store was how upsetting they might be to someone who had lost a loved one to suicide.

Extremely crass on many levels, really.

discofabulous // Posted 25 March 2009 at 8:44 am

i know the visual team at All Saints, and believe me there is no racial element to their choice of colour etc.

The colour and the chains have more to do with creating an edgy look – relating to music culture as opposed to race. The headless thing is because brands do not want to appeal to any one type of customer. therefore no head – no exclusion from the look.

Laura // Posted 25 March 2009 at 8:58 am

There may be no deliberate racial element, but I really think they should have considered that reading of the display before they gave it the go-ahead.

Merchandising Expert // Posted 26 March 2009 at 10:12 am

Being an expert in the world of merchandising I’m much more concerned with the terrible scarf that has been used int the window!

…plus the mannequins are grey!

Sabre // Posted 26 March 2009 at 2:47 pm

I agree with Catherine. I knew somebody who committed suicide by hanging and the mannequins remind me of that. I find the mannequins offensive for that reason, added to this is the fact that the majority of people who commit suicide are young men.

I don’t think the racism/lynching aspect would occur to most people and this may be because lynching is not such a strong/well-known part of our history as it is in the US, where the link would be made by many more people. I think the symbolism means slightly less our culture.

Whether All Saints were aware of possible offense doesn’t really matter now. Anyone can make a mistake. What matters is how sensitively they respond to complaints.

Although I don’t personally feel like complaining about this, I understand why other people would. It’s unfair to trivialise other people’s outrage by telling them there are more important things to focus on. Dismissive attitudes are plain rude, we can politely disagree without being dismissive. We all fight different battles.

Lara // Posted 26 March 2009 at 4:35 pm

I imagine that these complaints have probably been discussed at All Saints HQ – a multicultural team – but to refit the window displays of all their branches is probably too costly. All they can say is it’s totally unintential and simple meant to be something a bit different. It’s sad that some people are offended and clearly the views here are split.

Amrit // Posted 26 March 2009 at 10:15 pm

I second what Sabre said. I’m probably more clued-up on American history than a lot of people I know, and yet I didn’t see what Laura meant about the display until she said it explicitly.

I really don’t mean to sound patronising, but I think that while your heart is in the right place, it’s distasteful but not really redolent of that particular racial history, which is more America’s than ours. If this was in the US, I’d understand your getting outraged more.. but it’s Cambridge.

Even if a few people have complained, as Lara said, it’ll cost money to change the display – always a deterrent to businesses.

And they are undoubtedly grey, not black. As a person who’d technically be classed as ‘Black’ by some (i.e. not white), I have to say that I think Laura’s good intentions went into overdrive here, but that is often harmful rather than helpful, since it becomes (ugh) ‘PC-gone-mad’ (I hate that expression!). Things like this don’t really help ethnic minorities to move on.

Laura // Posted 27 March 2009 at 10:56 am

Amrit – there were no ‘good intentions’ here, it’s quite honestly the first thing I thought of when I saw the window display, and I was instantly shocked. I’m not the only person who had this reaction, and I don’t think it was over-the-top, though of course I don’t expect that everyone would read the display in this way. I don’t see why I should have to be justifying my gut reaction to something anyway! And for the record, the mannequins may be dark grey up close, but they certainly look black from outside the shops.

rita // Posted 28 March 2009 at 8:01 am

“Things like this don’t really help ethnic minorities to move on.”

@Amrit, they might not help us to move on but they sure do open up a platform for discussion. I say this because as a black woman who has experienced racism, intended or not, it enables me to see other people’s points of view and where they are coming from with it. Of course as long as it is not accompanied with dismissive attitudes. This usually cuts off my ability to see their views. But apart from that, i think the more these things are talked about respectfully obviously, i think it educates all of us ethnic minority and the white people as well. We then are able to enter eachother’s frames of reference. Keeping silent and dismissing, i doubt is helpful. (IMHO)

Lucie // Posted 5 September 2009 at 7:52 pm

At the end of the day. The mannequinns have done their job. You have stopped and looked at the window.

I think the design of the windows IS edgy. And proof the brand doesnt shy away from taking risks to get their name out there.

This is PC gone mad.

Denise // Posted 7 September 2009 at 11:36 am

I’ve seen these mannequins in several clothes shops in Liverpool. The first time was at the beginning of this year, the second time a couple of weeks back. The first time I stopped, horrified, because it struck me that they looked just like black men being lynched (I’m white) and I thought what the HELL are these retailers NOT thinking?! I just could not believe what I was seeing. Amrit (poster above) says this has more to do with US history, but Liverpool has a notorious historical connection with the slave trade and half the city centre streets are named after men who made massive profits from ‘the African trade’ as it was known. So I thought that made it even worse. I went in (the first time) and pointed this out to the manager, who could barely keep the grin off her face because she clearly thought I was a loony. The second time I saw the mannequins I just got that fighting a losing battle feeling.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 7 September 2009 at 11:59 am

im glad theres a picture there, because i was picturing black shiny plastic torsos, lots of chains all over the place and a sort of punky-come-bdsm type thing, but that really is weird. just regular black mannequins with no heads being chained up. it doesnt work very well. i can see if they dont see the racism, but if i were a manager and got multiple complaints about something like this id not really wish to stand my ground and keep them up! it does stand out once pointed out.

Kez // Posted 7 September 2009 at 12:50 pm

I agree with Denise above, although I haven’t seen the mannequins in “real life”, my first reaction to the picture above was “lynching”. (And I’m white, and British.)

I find it quite an unpleasant and disturbing image. And while it may have got people talking about it, as a couple of commenters have said above, it certainly has not inspired me to want to go and buy their clothes, which I would rather have thought was the point of any such campaign.

RadFemHedonist // Posted 8 September 2009 at 3:06 am

The p-word referred to is in no way comparable to the word brit, brit is more like saying “chinese” or “german” or “kiwi”, just because it’s a shortened term doesn’t mean there’s anything offensive about it, the p-word is used as an insult where as brit just means british.

Nath // Posted 10 December 2009 at 10:07 am

I did not notice the mannequins in the window but for sure there is a theme going on. I went on to try some cloth in the Kings Road shop few weeks ago. I was disturbed by their changing rooms. They are creepy, small and dark, claustrophobic. They look like prison cells. What came to my mind was more an allusion to Guatanamo or torture chambers. I left the shop not buying a thing and quite quickly.

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