Sad Story with a Happy Ending

I've been a little nervous about the dress forms for the Great, Strange, and Rarely Seen exhibition ever since I worked on the pattern for the ca. 1837 dress, which was quite small, and I got even more nervous after working on the ca. 1867 pattern (the last one I took).  The dress forms are modern (eight European size 8s, the smallest in the catalogue, and two of the larger children's forms), the dresses are historical - is this going to work out?

Yesterday, I started to dress the forms, beginning with the ca. 1800 gown as it was fairly simple.  While the form was far too large, the adjustable nature of the dress meant that I could still make it look all right, even if the shoulders weren't quite in the right place.  As I didn't have my pocket hoops with me, I decided to leave the ca. 1765 sacque for next week, and skipped ahead to the two 1920s evening dresses and the Lilly Pulitzer sheath; the former fit perfectly on the women's forms, and the latter on one of the child forms.  Trying to get the ones that needed the least amount of under-structure done first, I went for the Natural Form walking dress and the chiné print lingerie dress next.

Oh dear.  The walking dress would come nowhere near closed on either a woman form or the remaining child one, and the lingerie dress would close enough on the child one if it had its back to the wall, but all of them were to be placed in the center of the room.  In a conference, I voiced my opinion that none of the dresses not already on forms were going to be able to be displayed.

But - all was not lost.  I pointed out that the 1920s dresses had fit perfectly, and that there had been others that hadn't been quite good enough to be put in as the sole representatives of their decade, but which were certainly attractive.  It seemed likely that they would fit.  Why not change the section to focus on evening gowns of the 1920s?

And so now the main consideration is not "is this the most fantastic dress you've ever seen?" but "are the shoulders strong enough to take the weight, and will it fit on the dress forms?"  (Though all of the dresses the AIHA has are beautiful enough to be displayed in their own right.)  I think we may have tried nearly every 1920s dress in good enough shape to be displayed on the forms, and just an hour ago I finished dressing all ten forms.

It is still beautiful, and there are so many amazing things set up in the galleries, most of them from the 18th and 19th centuries (there are two portraits from the 17th!), and you should still come if you're anywhere near Albany - but you should know that there aren't any more 18th or 19th century women's garments on display.  Hopefully they will be shown sometime in the future, when there's time to borrow some suitable mannequins from another museum.

I still fully intend to clean up and post the patterns of the five dresses I did have time to take, and if it's at all possible, I also intend to take many more patterns and publish a book of them.  I don't see why I shouldn't!  That walking dress that wouldn't fit on a form is magnificent.


  1. Dear Cassidy,

    Wow, what an experience! Thanks for telling us about them, and so glad the museum is willing to allow you to publish patterns on their site.

    Any chance we can see a picture or two of the exhibition? Does the museum have a site?

    Very best,


    1. "An experience" is exactly what it should be called. Crazy stuff! There is a website, but it doesn't have any pictures of the dress-related objects. I took a couple while I was dressing, and I can post them.

      The patterns are actually going to be posted here - unfortunately, I never got to take the patterns of the original two 1920s dresses, much less the ones I chose over the past two days.

  2. I just went to a conference at the Museum of London on mannequins in the museum. It was very interesting and I learned quite a bit. I've found that the situation you described is very common where the object put on display are far more likely to have been chosen from practical considerations rather than for the role or value of the object itself. It sounds as though you have found a solution but there are options available for creating mannequins in-house. If you have access to a workspace and supplies like Ethafoam/Plastazote or even paper maché (if this is a temporary exhibit), you can have a much greater amount of control over the shape and size of your mannequins. If you want to chat please feel free to contact me. I'm a textile conservation student and I'm doing my dissertation on the practical considerations for the conservation and display of costume in museums.

    1. The sad thing is that I really should have known from the start that it wouldn't work. I just tend to trust that everything will be all right until it becomes very obvious that it's not. If it weren't for the time issue, I would have volunteered to make some dress forms (I learned how in my mannequin dressing course), but everything needs to be together by, I think, next weekend.

      Sounds like a great topic for a dissertation!

    2. Yeah I understand that exhibition schedules can be very tight! I was really struck by how most of the papers presented at this conference did not make any mannequins in-house. I've only had a small amount of experience in museums so I don't know if that is generally the case or if that just happened to be the result of the papers in this particular instance. I was surprised also since mannequins are such an import tool for the conservation of dress while on display, I figured that the museums would prefer to have closer control over the creation of mannequins.

      I'm also curious about your MA program and the conservation content. My program at the University of Glasgow is purely textile conservation with only a small amount of object-based study and no dress history content. Did you take the conservation courses offered or was that not your area of focus? How did you find the program generally? I looked into applying when I was looking into grad schools but I wanted to study abroad and I didn't feel there was quite enough conservation content since I wanted to be a conservator. Sorry about all the questions I'm just suddenly curious :) You’re welcome to contact me by email if you would rather not contintue this in the comments. I'm honestly just interested in your opinion and perspective!

    3. In my experience it's not very common, as museums with historical clothing tend to have tiny Goldsmith mannequins and so don't need to make new ones - and as they tend to want a more finished look. And of course there's the expense of the ethafoam, and the man hours. It seems to me, though, that it's probably worth it to have making tiny mannequins/dress forms as an ongoing project for the occasional times when nothing important's going on.

      Questions are fine, I love talking about my MA program! I found it when I had decided (as an anthro/archaeology undergrad) that cultural resource management digs before highways got put it weren't for me and I decided I wanted to work in a museum. My mother (that's her below, actually) remembered that I had been really obsessed with historical fashion when I was younger, and suggested I use one of those find-a-program search engines to look at fashion history. There aren't very many, especially as I wanted to stay close-ish to home; state-resident SUNY tuition helped to seal the deal.

      As you can see in the curriculum, the first two semesters have conservation courses everyone takes (Fiber and Fabric is sort of a conservation class, as it teaches you the basic chemical makeup of various fibers and how to identify them), and then it splits into conservation and curation tracks. In my third semester I took Advanced Conservation I as I wasn't interested in the Special Topics course and am not motivated enough to do an independent study, but I think I took in some useful skills - I rebeaded the straps on a 1920s evening dress - and learned to assess the potential for conservation to be done by other people. I didn't take ACII, but I think it was more about doing one project in depth; the three(?) students who took it had a different professor than in the previous conservation classes, and she didn't instruct so much as watch and grade them. Personally, I feel that what I learned was perfect for me and my career goals - which are essentially what I'm doing at the Albany Institute, a mix of collections management (selecting which objects can be shown due to their appearance, condition, etc.), curation (writing lots of label text), and registrar duties (inventorying and cataloguing). It's probably too broad for someone who seriously wants to go wholly into conservation, and judging by the reactions of some of my classmates to the projects like box-building, also probably too broad for someone who wants to go wholly into curation. (As an aside, if someone did want to go wholly into curation, I'd probably recommend the Costume Studies program at NYU, as it seems to go into more depth in the theoretical aspects.)

    4. As I remember, one of the main reasons I didn't serious consider the program you took was due the cost. The fees I would have had to pay as an international student were just too much for a master's degree. It has actually cost me half as much to study in the UK! It sounds like a really interesting program with a great mix of topics. I definitely think there's strength in having a great many skills as, especially in smaller museums, staff are expected to wear so many hats these days. As much as I wish I could help out at small museums I expect I'll mostly be associated with large museums and institutions during my career - they're the only ones who can afford to hire conservators!

  3. Congratulations for figuring a way around the problems. I can't wait to go and see the show. When does it start, and how long will it be up?

    I also can't wait to get my hands on your pattern book! To read. Not to sew from. I'll leave that to someone else.

    1. It opens April 14, and runs to August 26. Too short!

  4. This is a great post, especially with the additional detail offered in the "comments." The mannequin/ dress form issue is woefully under reported.

    I can understand how larger museums adapt to their own needs, but it really can hurt smaller institutions. No matter how lovely the donation, if a collection of clothing cannot be arranged and displayed safely and attractively, there is little chance of enticing future donors. That aside, what you are physically able to display may be radically different from the intended "story" of your exhibit. Your title is appropriate. It's sad that some of the original articles will have to wait even longer to see the light of day, yet the exhibit will certainly be beautiful without them.

    My experiences with the ancient forms that were available for use as I built my exhibit has opened my eyes. I used to resent the relatively slim collection of clothing on display at our local museums here in the Carolinas. One local museum prides itself on its collection of antique and vintage wedding dresses, yet many are rarely, if ever displayed.

    That's one of the reasons patterns of infrequently displayed or photographed items are so wonderful, I suppose! If you are able to post pictures of the displays, I can't wait to see them!

    1. Thanks!

      I'm somewhat surprised that none of the companies that make the extruded-foam forms have a mold to make smaller ones for museums - if someone started doing it, I think they'd do pretty well.

      I have a few pictures, but there was so much going back and forth, partially dressing and undressing, that I didn't bother to do it for the 1920s dresses - but I do have a few of the original selection, including the original two 1920s dresses. Well, ensembles. So I'll post them once I take them off my camera.


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