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The Art of Dressing Mannequins in Rare and Historic Garments

It’s not easy.

Building a historically accurate form is an intricate craft.
Building a historically accurate form is an intricate craft. Courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA)

In Gallery 899 on the second floor of The Met Fifth Avenue in New York City stands a headless mannequin dressed regally in a late 18th-century French sack-back gown. Part of the special exhibition Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789), the silk, champagne-pink gown, or robe à la française, is patterned with intricately sewn flower petals and leaf designs across the conical bodice all the way down to edge of the rectangular skirts. The skirts are lined with fly fringe trim and laced with embellishments of the same soft pinkish color. The delicately woven ribbons line the bodice and the skirts, almost like a ceramic tiled mosaic.*

The beautiful and intricate garment captivates onlookers, who probably aren’t thinking about the just-as-delicate process of the centuries-old garment onto the mannequin. The placement appears simple, like the mannequins people encounter as they shop in retail stores. Yet, the art of dressing a mannequin, no matter the setting, is not as easy as it seems. When it comes to historic garments, like the gown above, the mounting process is a bit more complicated, and involves several pairs of hands.

The process for museum exhibitions begins with a trip to the archives or looking at the garment says Kathleen Kiefer, a textile conservator at The Art Institute of Chicago. Conservators and curators will study paintings, photographs, advertisements, or handwritten letters to understand the historic silhouettes of a garment’s time period. These resources give them a grasp of how such clothes were worn and the popular fashion trends. Archival analysis also provides insight into the desired mannequin and form shapes associated with a time period.

The robe à la française, far left, displayed as part of the <em>Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789)</em> exhibition at The Met, 2018.
The robe à la française, far left, displayed as part of the Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789) exhibition at The Met, 2018. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Archives came in handy when Kiefer mounted several outfits created by the American designer Roy Halston Frowick for an annual Indianapolis Museum of Art exhibition in the Textiles Galleries in 2008. Known first for his hat designs, Halston came to prominence in 1961 when he designed former U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s dome pillbox hat that she wore to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Later in the 1970s, he created his own fashion line using fabrics such as silk jersey, cashmere, and ultrasuede that provided a natural drape to women’s figures. His patterns served as a stark contrast to the structured girdled outfits of the 1950s.

During the U.S. sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, women wore bras less often or completely stopped. This social change, along with the new pop-cultural prevalence of very slim models like Twiggy, seeped into mannequin manufacturing. Gradually full-length, thin, pear-shaped mannequins with nipples and natural lower bust shapes emerged. Such historical details are important considerations because conservators like Kiefer aim to accurately represent the garment, the designer’s intention, and the wearers’ measurements. She and her team used “old 1970s department store mannequins that worked really well for the Halston” pieces and fit each model’s frame.

Whether it’s a 17th-century brocade wedding dress or a 16th-century kimono, each historical garment brings a unique challenge, says Kiefer. Rarity is subjective, but she cites the Halston pieces as some of the most interesting garments she’s ever mounted on a mannequin. Few conservators get such opportunities to dress prominent designers’ work.

Sometimes mount makers and conservators will work together to cut parts of mannequins into the right shape.
Sometimes mount makers and conservators will work together to cut parts of mannequins into the right shape. Courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA)

Like Kiefer, costume historian Colleen Callahan from Costume & Textile Specialists has worked on a lot of one-of-a-kind garments that are far older than Halston’s designs, such as a purple brocade dress owned by Martha Washington that dates back to 1770 and a 1700s off-white linen jumps, which are undergarment bodices, embroidered with multicolored silk floral motifs. For those outfits, the process isn’t as simple as using department store mannequins. These types of endeavors take anywhere from 24 hours to one month to pull off depending on the institution, the exhibition, or the needs of the garment. Sometimes, there’s a little bit of lugging around fiberglass appendages from room to room, cutting busts off with a chiseled saw, padding in waists with foam, and accessorizing with the finest jewelry a time period can offer. Molding forms into lived beings is all part of day’s work.

“As conservators, we create the form to fit the garment rather than changing the garment to fit a mannequin,” says Kiefer. The process requires conservators and curators to take measurements of the garment and assess its points of fragility, such as a worn seam or zipper, that might need some extra padding or foam for support. The conservators, collection manager, and mount maker will also determine the important design aspects they want to highlight to convey the garment’s historic silhouette, such as the inside of a gown slit or the length of a swooping bridal train.

The next part is building the right mannequin or form that can achieve an exhibition-specific look and support the garment. Some institutions might use a Kyoto Costume Institute (KCI) mannequin for 18th- to 19th-century garments or other brands such as Goldsmith, Schleppi, or Rootstein for 20th- and 21st-century garments. The 20th- and 21st-century mannequins have broader shoulders, lower busts, visible nipples, and slimmer shape to reflect modern-day women. KCI mannequins come in different body types of four eras from the 18th- and early 20th-century. For example, Kiefer says, their 18th-century mannequins have longer torsos whereas a 19th-century mannequin has a fuller, bell-like rear to accommodate the bustle silhouette of that time period.

Creating a form to fit a dress helps conserve the fragility of the dress itself.
Creating a form to fit a dress helps conserve the fragility of the dress itself. Courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA)

Some KCI mannequins come without a waist. That’s because back in 18th- and 19th-century, many garments came tailored with corsets. Instead of establishing one particular waist size, the Kyoto Costume Institute eliminated the waist from the mannequins so conservators could shape the waists. Depending on the garment’s needs and vulnerabilities, the team uses a mixture of padding, ethafoam, tubular stockinette, stockings, lycra, acid-free tissue paper, and other archival materials to prevent garment strain and tear.

Conservators also use these support materials to build out the particular waist size of the garment and mimic the exact measurements of the person who wore the outfit. If someone had a 33-inch waist size and a 43-inch bust, conservators have to account for this in molding the mannequin frame and shape.

At their woodshops, mount makers will also cut available mannequins in half at the waist, if a garment requires it. They’ll put on their safety goggles, place their noise-canceling earmuffs around their ears, and start cutting the mannequin’s waist with a reciprocating saw. White dust fills the air and smatters the woodshop like snow, but the result is a mannequin split in half that’s ready for building by conservators in a conservation lab.

A mannequin is always altered to fit historic garments, which come in different fabrics and measurements.
A mannequin is always altered to fit historic garments, which come in different fabrics and measurements. Courtesy of Kathleen Kiefer, Material Culture Conservation

“In a way,” says Peabody Essex Museum Curator of Fashion and Textiles Petra Slinkard, “you are creating a sculpture out of padding.” At the Chicago History Museum, she worked with lead conservator Holly Lundberg, costume collection manager Jessica Pushor, and a team of conservation volunteers to mount the blood-soaked black velvet cape Mary Todd Lincoln wore the night her husband, the 16th U.S. president, was assassinated. This exhibit was held at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C. in 2015.

If a museum has the resources, a few conservators might create a copy of a fragile garment to the precise original measurements to test if the mannequin will fit, then make adjustments accordingly. In most instances, they’ll carefully secure the actual garment and accessories onto the mannequin. If they want museum visitors to pay close attention to the inside of a coat, they will adjust the mannequin’s arms to make it look like the mannequin is holding the coat open for display on a rotating platform. These are small tweaks museum institutions make to animate the garment and show it in motion.

The black velvet cape Mary Todd Lincoln wore on the night of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
The black velvet cape Mary Todd Lincoln wore on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Courtesy of Petra Slinkard

For Mary Todd Lincoln’s cape, Lundberg and her team created “a petticoat and a pinafore to be used underneath the cape to support it but also give the context of how the cape would have been worn because we didn’t have the dress that she wore underneath it,” says Slinkard. Then, Slinkard styled the cape with photographers to showcase the complexity of the design in a photo shoot.

All of the sawing, the padding, the measuring, the styling, and the stress amount to an expertly crafted display. While the museum goers who awe at a garment may not know the work behind the glass, they can visualize the people who wore the outfits, and the history that brought the garment to life.

*Update: The story originally stated that the robe à la française on display at the Met features a blue bodice and hand fan. These items are not included in the current exhibition.