My Girls


“My Girls”

The luring sound of house music engulfed my ears in the shopping mall and soon my body drifted effortlessly toward a trendy urban clothing store located in Jyvaskyla, Finland. From a distance I spotted a woman sitting on top of a display table which presented a fine array of clothing. Her hair was so lustrous and her brilliant clear complexion projected a unique glow to her presence. She was dressed very fashionably and her line of sight seemed somewhat distracted, yet sophisticated. I realized upon closer inspection that I was gazing at a very life-like mannequin. I was quite stunned, and I became conscious of several divisions and cliques of beautiful plastic women who were standing all around the store.

Although my initial reaction was one of surprise, my impulse was to photograph these mannequins as if I were a famous fashion photographer (perhaps for a few fleeting moments I convinced myself I was) and these mannequins became my models – "my girls". I was not only amazed by their life-like presence, but the societal codes and information built into the form and presentation of these hyper-real women. Of course all of "my girls" have slender figures and they model a perfect arrangement of coordinated clothing, fashion items and accessories, whether it is "Tory" in her casual but classy attire, "Amber" in a sophisticated business ensemble, or "Cindy" in her bright, seductive, yet tasteful undergarments. All of "my girls" present the ideal image for today's metropolitan female dweller.

I refer to them as "my girls" because while I worked at photographing them, I felt as if they became my artistic property. In the fashion industry, it is very common for a photographer, designer or agent to express similar language codes of ownership and gender. By dissecting the title, one understands the "my" to implement the element of ownership and intimacy and "girls" suggest a playful youthfulness, despite that these mannequins are clearly only representative of women. In order to capture the essence of these women, I have to assimilate into the culture and context that they are attached to.

I returned to the store on several occasions to photograph "my girls" in their new outfits. My relationship with them grew stronger and we seemed to have great chemistry while working together. They are the faces on the frontier of fashion that evokes urban sophistication. They are the art work, the beauty and inspiration, and I am simply the lens. They are owned by all of us; they are all of our property because they reflect the popular ideal. I consider these models as part of our modern urban landscape, therefore they are "our girls". Our girls are sophisticated, elite and independently driven power grabbers. Upon my return to Canada, I began collecting mannequins and placing them in urban and social space. This on-going series has provoked an intriguing question- are the mannequins set up to mimic us, or are we wetting ourselves up to mimic the mannequins? By exploring the relationship of self to the real, I find an on-going narrative regarding the humanity of these inanimate objects.





an essay by Carle Steel

When I was 17, I got my first job at a SAAN store as a Santa’s Helper – a temporary sales assistant during the Christmas rush. For those three or so weeks, I wore a Santa hat, greeted customers, and bagged merchandise for the cashiers. I was also in charge of the care, setting and nightly inventory of a mountainous display of cheap digital watches, perfect for stocking stuffers.

They kept me on after Christmas, and over the next two and a half years I eventually worked my way up to Head of Menswear, though it was still at minimum wage.

I was also in charge of changing our four mannequins, two men and two women, which were displayed in the windows on either side of the cash. It was 1984. Colin Thatcher, former Saskatchewan cabinet minister, wealthy rancher and all-around nasty person was on trial for the death of his ex-wife JoAnn Wilson, who had been bludgeoned and shot to death in her garage. I had to name two mannequins for them of course. The other two I named Tony and Lynne: for JoAnn’s husband Tony Wilson, and Thatcher’s ex-girlfriend Lynne Dally.

I dressed the two couples in the newest fineries that came cello-wrapped in huge cartons from Winnipeg. In winter, I chose sturdy parkas and complementary poly-cotton shirts and silk ties for Colin and Tony, woolen suits and spice-coloured nylons for JoAnn and Lynne. In the spring I put them all in pastel golfing duds and sporty windbreakers.

It was a bitch getting the mannequins into their clothes, and they would often spend hours exposed to passers-by in the mall. Colin was especially unwieldy because of his size and the fact that his hair was stuck to a kind of hard skin helmet that would easily get bumped off his head and bounce along the ceramic tiles of the mall. The other mannequins would stare on, observing the only thing of excitement to happen to them in days. Meanwhile, in a courtroom mere blocks away, the private lives of the real Tony and JoAnn and Colin and Lynne were on display daily, stripped and clothed, and stripped and clothed. From my position as a puerile observer, they seemed every bit as unreal and inconsequential as the mannequins.

My boss was a tiny, terrifying woman in glasses named Mrs. Dimen. She was blond, older, always sharply dressed in beige woolen skirt suits and pointy high heeled pumps. She had a terrible voice and a weak sense of right and wrong. I was completely in her thrall.

Every Saturday morning, we had staff meetings – unpaid, of course – to discuss merchandising and new directives issued from the Winnipeg head office. I would sit quietly in my own tight beige woolen suit, nylons and high heels, trying to stay as still as possible. Ever since I started at the SAAN store, I had been experiencing panic attacks and found myself seized with nausea whenever I was in a small, quiet group of people.

At these meetings, Mrs. Dimen would often surprise us with accusations of thievery or other, worse betrayals. One of her tricks was to wave an empty package for pantyhose or some other merchandise, claiming that she had found it hidden in the stock room, and that someone among us must have stolen its contents. She would stare us down, her eyes tiny and mean behind the lenses of her glasses. I willed myself not to throw up and falsely incriminate myself.

Once we were released back onto the sales floor, I was shaky for hours from the chemical soup of stress and coffee and misery. And I was miserable. My job and my relationship to it kept me bored and on high alert all at once. At the same time, I wanted to be there forever: if I was so frightened as a sales clerk at my first job, I couldn’t imagine what terrors awaited me for the rest of my life.

So I stayed. I dressed mannequins and did inventory and counted change and smoked in the coffee room with all the other girls who came and went. Sometimes after the end of the work day, we would try on the clothing we came to covet from touching and arranging it and ringing it through our tills all day. By that time, my nerves had melted my baby fat. Each week I was able to fit into smaller and smaller pants: Size 11. Size 9. Size 7. Size 5, if only for a moment.

That moment was all I wanted, the feel of those impossibly tight pants around my still-growing legs as I looked in the mirror that told me I was in the range of being attractive.

Nothing else mattered. I didn’t care that Mrs. Dimen had been escorted out one day by men in suits from the Winnipeg head office for fraudulently withholding our vacation pay and manipulating our stat holidays to save money for the company. I didn’t regret not getting the Assistant Manager position (though I could have found a better way to sabotage myself than coming into the interview late and covered in hickies.) Even Colin Thatcher’s conviction meant nothing to me.

In that moment, I had accomplished the simple, impossible act of wearing clothes.

I could have stood there forever.

Carle Steel



My Girls
Godfrey Dean Gallery
Yorkton, Saskatchewan