Marsha Bentley Hale – The Patron Saint of Mannequins

DALLAS, Jul 27, 1999/ FW/ — “I remember the first time I went to look up ‘mannequin’ at the UCLA research library in 1978, I came up with nothing! It literally took detective work to track down information regarding historical mannequins,” quoted Marsha when I asked her when and how did she start researching mannequins.

“There are so many adventures to write about to describe how I got all my materials and created my archive about mannequins. Like this mannequin photo. (Photo on the left) I was introduced to the grandson of Pierre Imans, who sold me this collection of 100 rare photos. At the time he had an antique boutique across from the Louvre. It was when I went to EuroShop in Dusseldorf. I took the train throughout Europe, visiting as many mannequin manufacturers as possible; continuing this quest in the fall.”

“Adel Rootstein was my mentor, my ‘mannequin angel’; I told her about the rare collection of Pierre Imans photos which I had found in Paris, that I could not afford at that time. She said that I must have them for my work, so she wired the money to Paris on my behalf.” (Editor’s note: I can hear from Marsha’s voice the respect, love and admiration she has for Adel Rootstein when she was telling me this.)

“Eventually, I sold a rare and precious piano, to pay her back,” Marsha finished with a small sigh. I could see that it was hard for her to do that, but I also understood that these photographs were so precious. It was a hard choice to make, and the mannequins won.

As it turned out, both Adel Rootstein and Marsha Bentley Hale were right about the historical value of these photographs which is priceless. In this collection of Pierre Imans mannequin photos, there was a possibility that one was designed by Erte. Marsha wrote to Erte and he wrote back that he may very well have designed one of the mannequins in the photo collection.

Hearing Marsha in person talking about her experiences in building The Mannequin Museum Archive is a small miracle for me. I have been looking for Marsha for a long time. I read her articles at VM&SD and the Smithsonian article Mannequins:Fantasy Figures of High Fashion wherein the authors got most of their historical facts about mannequins from her archives. I have always wanted to meet her, just never had the chance.

In my mind, I had formed an idea that Marsha is of amazonic proportions with a stiff upper lip like a typical academician. I saw her travelling all over the world, saving historical and modern mannequins, wrapping them in acid-free paper to be stored and opened in the future. If Adel Rootstein is the Mannequin Angel, Marsha Bentley Hale is the Patron Saint of Mannequins in my eyes.

When I finally met Marsha, I realized that I was wrong about the stiff upper lip and amazonic proportions. Marsha Bentley Hale is very down-to-earth, so full of life, with a lilt in her voice when she speaks. As expected, she talks passionately about mannequins. It has been a part of her life for a quarter of century now. She has a great sense of humour and thinks of her research about mannequins as an adventure.

“I travelled all over the world to get my materials; wrote a lot of letters and talked to so many people,” she quoted.

“Mannequins have affected history in more ways than you can imagine,” she said. I wanted her to expound on that, to tell me more, and she said that she will just send me the materials or else we will be talking the whole night through.

She told me about her archive of magazine and newspaper articles which she had organized chronologically, with separate folders for manufacturers and by subjects such as fine art – utilizing mannequins or films with mannequins as props or part of the storyline.

“I have a fairly large collection of original folded catalogs (these are the more contemporary presentation of mannequins), and in storage I have some wonderful rare Pierre Imans catalogs which I purchased in Paris, from a tiny, tiny store that was probably only eight feet wide.”

“Is there a book in the making?” I asked Marsha.

“Yes, and a lot of more. I finally joined cyberspace and I’m planning to make my archive available using computer technology. I’m also working on the Virtual Mannequin Museum. So many things to do, so little time.”

When she said that, I smiled. Knowing her, I know that she will not stop until all those plans come into reality. Keep an eye on Marsha Bentley Hale. Her work will be coming to a bookstore or computer store near you.