The Munich Mannequins was published as part of Plath’s acclaimed Ariel collection in 1965. Featuring characteristically strong imagery, the speaker suggests that models are little more than mannequins because they forsake their fertility in order to preserve their figures. Plath critiques the fashion industry and society as a whole for glorifying a destructive physical ideal that neglects other expressions of femininity. To some extent, therefore, The Munich Mannequins is something of a timeless poem.
The first line famously reads: ‘Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.’ Although it is implied that models embody this idea of perfection, ‘it’ is portrayed as a sexless entity. This reflects how models possess limited sexual agency because they cannot reproduce without risking their careers. Written in a time in which motherhood was still the prevailing aspiration for women, Plath argues that modelling is surely ‘the absolute sacrifice.’ The natural imagery in the first few stanzas connote wasted fertility: ‘Unloosing their moons, month after month, to no purpose / The blood flood is the flood of love.’ The internal rhymes and repetition that pepper these lines reflect the cyclical nature of menstruation. The speaker suggests that the ‘perfection’ which prevents menstruation is ‘cold as snow breath.’ Wintry imagery like this provides little hope for spring; these women will decay before they can bring new life into the world.
Plath critiques the models themselves in the eighth couplet: ‘Intolerable, without mind.’ It is implied here that the modelling industry perpetuates the notion that the bodies of women are more valuable than their minds. Models were sought after in Munich, making it a cultural ‘morgue between Paris and Rome’, according to Plath.
The tone changes somewhat in the second half of the poem, in which the monosyllabic lines often end with enjambment. Two such couplets are as follows:
‘Nobody’s about. In the hotels
Hands will be opening doors and setting
Down shoes for a polish of carbon
Into which broad toes will go tomorrow.’
The references to ‘hands’ and ‘toes’ create a synecdoche which draws a comparison between the mannequins and ‘real’, flawed people, with broad toes and ostensibly respectable occupations. This introduces a certain disconnection between the mannequins and the real world of ‘domesticity.’ However, it could be argued that the tone of this poem actually reflects a disconnection between the poet herself and the outside world. The Munich Mannequins was allegedly inspired by a trip to Germany when Plath was suffering from insomnia. Significantly, it was also written little over a month before she took her own life.
While many of the topics addressed in this poem are still relevant, others are rather more outdated. For example, the worth of a woman is no longer determined by whether or not she prioritises a career over having children – in an ideal world, anyway. However, the questions that Plath raises over the supposedly ‘skin deep’ nature of the fashion industry are endlessly interesting. Is a woman any less of a person because she pursues a career in which looks are a deciding factor? Personally, I don’t think so. Does the modelling industry perpetuate harmful stereotypes and often dangerous physical ideals? Maybe. Through poems such as The Munich Mannequins, Plath cemented herself as a literary great, asking questions that are still relevant 50 years on.
Words by Rose Wolfe-Emery