Essay of the Week: Lessons from a Mannequin

By Deon Butler

I got my first mannequin when I was 8 years old from my grandmother — a Christmas present. Its sleek figure absorbed my interests, and I embarked on my newfound vocation for designing.

My method was spontaneous. I would pull a red silk and pair it with pink cotton — anything that inspired innovation.

Some things came together so perfectly they seemed like destiny, but some techniques didn’t work; broken or bent pins and ripped fabrics could all attest to my efforts. Sometimes I would rotate the delicate humanoid too harshly when pinning fabric.

It was a tenuous long-term relationship to say the least. And so one day, after four years, our literal break-up came. It was almost as if it was written: I spun the mannequin to inspect an outfit. I turned my back and heard the creaking sound of metal wobbling on the floor. The mannequin broke off the base and crashed through the window. The accidental destruction of my dear mannequin dwarfed my attachment to the cotton model.

My engineering mind quickly assign blame to its poor construction. The heavy torso sat atop a slender pole, connecting it to a paper thin base fastened with a few tiny screws. These inadequacies created a high center of gravity; the mannequin was destined to fall.

This moment was symbolic of my change in focus from fashion to engineering/architecture. That summer, I decided to attend Charles Herbert Flowers High School, celebrated for an engineering program specifically designed to enhance the symbiotic skills of physics and aesthetics–qualities necessary for a successful civil engineer or architect.

When the time came to join clubs, I disregarded a flyer recruiting stage crew members. I knew I had an aptitude for engineering. I had aced every test that year. But what would a young engineer/architect even do in Drama Club?

When flyers hit the walls Sophomore year, I was still wary of theater — the unknown. My friends, however, wouldn’t let it slide anymore.

“The plays are really good,”

“C’mon, it’s a lot of fun,”

“There’s a full dinner every night!” — this coaxed me into attending the information session, where I realized it wouldn’t actually be so difficult to find my place.

By junior year, I had become the stage crew chief for our spring production of “Hairspray!” I was most proud of how my experience from engineering and architectural courses helped me execute my leading role in the creation of the set. It was a daunting task, but when the Drama director, Ms. Ingram, approached me it was evident that she believed in my talent. I collaborated with the master carpenter to design the set, paying close attention to its textural details, and color schemes– a tribute to my relationship with the mannequin.

The end result was vibrant and cheerful, but there were several challenges. I had to find a balance between aesthetics and practicality as multiple pieces rotated to reflect scene changes. The procedure required precision; if some parts were turned the wrong way at the same time they collided. There was also an oversized hairspray can that doubled as a fog machine. Since it’s wires would get caught when rotating this piece, I sprinted across the stage every showing to plug the machine in moments before it was needed.

The offstage cast and I waited for the final scene with bated breath. Once the lights rose and I heard the crowd applauding, I knew it had all been worthwhile. As I took the stage for my bow, I thought about my grandmother and the rest of my family in the auditorium cheering me on.

My designs materialized. I pushed myself and found new applications from what I had learned from engineering. The process opened up my eyes to the intricacies of a successful production, fostered many new friendships, and created a place for me to form new artistic and scientific bonds.

Deon Butler, a 2017 graduate of Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale, MD, is a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park.