Exhibiting Costumes

We recently found this great new website called Clothes Tell Stories. It is a great resource about exhibiting and collecting clothes in a museum. One of the pages on this website discusses making mannequins for exhibitions and the importance of having mannequins that fit the clothes. The Old College Gallery at the University of Delaware had the challenge of making a number of mannequins for their exhibition Fashion on all Fronts; Stories from the Wardrobe, 1914-1918. This page includes photos from that project of team members making and dressing their mannequins, along with recommendations from the Clothes Tell Stories website.

Why make mannequins?

The mannequin’s purpose is to support and present the garment. Dressing the mannequin, regardless how good it is, puts considerable strain on an historic garment. Mannequins don’t suck in their stomach as we do for buttoning tightly-fitting garments, so the mannequin should always be at least a size smaller than the garment. Straining the costume to put arms in sleeves is also damaging, so it is essential that arms and legs are removable and can be inserted afterwards.

The posture, proportions and sizes of modern mannequins made for store display mean they are only suitable for modern garments. It is extremely difficult to adapt them to older pieces, so it is wise to learn how to build your own mannequins. Standard sizing of costume is a relatively recent invention, and many of the pieces in historic collections will have been purpose-made, in individual sizes. Also, museum collections contain articles of clothing from real people, not only ideally-shaped models, so it is a good investment to learn how to adapt and adjust mannequins for display.


Making Mannequins

An exhibition’s purpose, duration, and budget will determine how to choose the kind of mannequins needed. Having trained staff who are able to make and adapt mannequins saves a lot of time and money and allows for more flexible display. (See a simple way of making mannequins in Janet Arnold, A Handbook of Costume, 1973, p. 65).

Always make the mannequin somewhat smaller than necessary, so it can be  dressed easily and then padded larger.

Materials that can be used for mannequins are Ethafoam, wool felt, acryl (Perspex), plaster bandage, Plastazote (polyethylene foam), resin, buckram and papier maché. The materials that are used should be inert, easy to work with, and safe for the costume. A jersey cover should be made to cover the mannequin; extra padding can be inserted underneath this to support the garment. Conservators and technicians should be able to make mannequins quickly and easily with practice (perhaps about six hours), to the measurements required for each garment. Cut-away mannequins have been quite popular, made and used for the first time by Karen Jacobi at the National Museum of Denmark in 1990.


Padding can consist of polyester fiberfill, soft Ethafoam sheet, cotton wool or crumpled acid-free tissue paper (pre-used, crumpled paper is much softer than new). This padding can be inserted under the jersey cover to build up the bust, shoulder blades, hips, bottom and stomach. Inserting the padding under the jersey cover also helps protect the inside of the costume from abrasion during the dressing process.


How to Dress a Mannequin

Having measured the garment and its intended mannequin, the garment should be lifted carefully onto the shoulders of the figure. It is always best to work as a team – one person always supports the garment while another adjusts it to the mannequin and manages the fastenings. One quickly learns to understand in which order a figure must be dressed to cause least distress to the individual pieces.