Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Museums, Mannequins, and Dress forms

One of the biggest issues with some of the dresses displayed in the Kearny History Museum is that the dresses were made for women of petite, corseted proportions, and the mannequins that wear them have modern measurements and posture. This not only causes the garments to hang awkwardly, but is dangerous to their structural integrity by causing points of stress and shattering where the mannequin's body is too big for the dress.

This mannequin's C-cup bust is far too big, perky, and unfashionable for this fragile 1920's beaded dress, causing immense damage and tears throughout the top of the dress.
This 1910's white lawn dress is only 26" around the waist and 28" around the bust. These tears in an otherwise stable fabric were caused by trying to squeeze the dress over the mannequin.
The modern mannequin is also the culprit in the numerous tears across the silk bodice of this 1926 wedding dress. You can also see how tightly the lace bodice is stretched across the bust.
After a bit of research, I decided that my best bet would be to ditch the modern mannequins altogether and replace them with sturdy dress forms made of foam that can be carved down and padded up with cotton batting. This seems like a museum-appropriate method, according to what I found as I scoured the interwebs. I wanted to keep the budget as low as possible, to be able to "upgrade" as much as possible; therefore, those fancy $800 conservation dress forms were out of the picture.

Eventually I found the perfect dress form, a cheap but sturdy $60 Roxy dress form on Amazon. It fit all the requirements: it is cheap, so that I could buy several; it has a removable fabric covering in a neutral color; it has removable, flexible arms; and, most importantly, it is made of a foam that can be easily sculpted and/or padded up.

Sadly, the image leaves a lot to be desired.
When I brought up my plans for the fashion display at my town's museum to the Museum Committee (of which I became a member), there was one almost unanimous request: to maintain a mix of dress forms and mannequins. Some committee members felt that mannequins were crucial in providing a life-like, contextual "scene" for the children who come to the museum on class trips. I will try to integrate the modern mannequins wherever they are an appropriate choice, and I will be using the mannequins bought just a few years ago by the museum (since the dresses on those mannequins will be removed to dress forms, I am left with several new mannequins at my disposal).

 The dress forms I ordered are of a surprising quality. They were easy to put together, arrived very quickly, and the carving process (using a variety of knives) was relatively easy. I also used a pot scrubber (because I couldn't find sandpaper in the museum) to help smooth out the cuts. The dress form below already has had its boobs sanded down with the pot scrubber.

Surprisingly good quality dress form! Here I am carefully carving down the boobs for the measurements of a 1926 wedding dress.


  1. Good call! I have this dress form as well and hacked off quite a lot of the body, before wrapping it in muslin. The arms are awesome, too - my favorite part - and really add that extra something to the display. I had no idea these were available on Amazon, though - thanks for the tip. The price you found is better than what I originally paid!

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  3. What a great idea! but why do they want to keep those hideous mannequins! I have a feeling they would creep the children out! Well, I guess it is their decision!