Dressing for Display

By Melissa Cole, Curator

Mounting a historic dress can be challenging, even for the experienced dress curators and conservators.  Inappropriate handling is one of the main causes of damage to museum objects.  Handling should be kept to a minimum; the risk of damage occurring can be reduced by good preparation before, during, and after the historic dress has been mounted.

The condition and structure of the historic dress should be carefully analyzed to determine if it has any structural weaknesses, previous damage, or fragile surfaces.  The condition of the dress will inform how to safely display the piece, or even if it can be displayed at all.  Ensure to consider its stability against environmental conditions and mounts while on exhibit.

A properly dressed mannequin is important for both the visitor experience at a museum and the artefact/garment itself.   The correct style of mount should be chosen, whether it is two dimensional or three dimensional.  For our display at the Oshawa Museum, we have chosen three dimensional mounts using mannequins in various shapes and sizes to create the correct silhouette.  It is important to remember when working with mannequins and dressing historic garments that it is not the same as dressing a store mannequin.  At a store, the mannequin is automatically the correct silhouette and the garment is new and can withstand the stress and handling.

When mounting historic garments, a mannequin should be chosen that is significantly smaller than the garment.  First, carefully measure the garment and ensure to take the time to measure properly.  Measure the entire bodice of a garment, not just straight across the chest.  Carefully measure all the way across the inside of the garment, following the curve of any space created for the bust.

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Areas to measure on the mannequin and the historic dress.  The second photo indicates the measurement of the entire bodice, not just straight across.

 

Once the proper mannequin has been selected, it is time to start building out the mannequin so the historic dress is well supported throughout.  Supplies to build out mannequins include white cotton sheet, pantyhose, quilt batting, cotton twill tape, flexible fabric measuring tape, scissors, and straight pins.  A well-dressed mannequin should go unnoticed by visitors.  This means the visitor will focus on the historic dress itself and not on how it is displayed.  A poorly mounted mannequin can distract the visitor from focusing on the garment and its story.

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When simply placed on a mannequin, this 1860s dress is neither supported nor provides a true representation of its silhouette.

 

The final stage is to ensure the proper silhouette is created.  This primarily comes into consideration with women’s and children’s clothing during certain periods.   Through the addition of appropriate under structure, the garment will be fully supported.  This is completed through the use of petticoats (antique or reproduction) from different time periods, for example, small pillows for bustles, and fabric tulle or netting can be used to create a 1950s crinoline or a 1830s full skirt.

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By using petticoats to fill out the skirt and acid free tissue paper to stuff the sleeves, the garment presents a truer illustration of 1860s fashion.

 

Be sure to watch our social media channels for a glimpse behind the scenes in the upcoming weeks as we prepare for our upcoming exhibition, The Vintage Catwalk!

Image for OMA site