Katia Johansen
Royal Danish Collections


Costume is usually best displayed on mannequins with the correct size, shape and posture, recreating as far as possible how the garment looked when originally worn. Mannequins or tailor’s dummies are a good solution, but they almost always require adapting in order to support and present the costume best.

The mannequin’s purpose is to support and present the garment - and 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. Inexpensive dummies can be made with simple, safe materials in a variety of ways, but it is always important to have a good sense of three-dimensional form and proportions. Knowing fashion history and anatomy are essential, as well as being trained and practiced in safe handling of costume - dressing and undressing mannequins is the single most damaging event in a museum garment’s life, even when done by trained specialists.


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?
  • Taking casts of hands, heads, legs, etc. is not hard to learn, and allows more freedom in building mannequins for the individual requirements of each display. 3-D printing from existing forms (for example from statues) is now also beginning to be within reach of museum budgets



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.


Heads on mannequins

  • Heads are not necessary on mannequins designed to present an historic garment. A hat or headpiece can be suspended over the mannequin in the display to indicate how the entire silhouette would have been, but it is often better to exhibit a hat on a hat stand close by the costume so it can be seen more closely.
  • Contemporary prints, photos and portraits are excellent material to supplement the costume itself, and have the added impact of being genuine, contemporary illustration.
  • When heads are used on mannequins, it is extremely difficult to make them “anonymous”, stylized or abstract. If a figure has a head, we humans (like animals) always to look at its face and eyes first, regardless of whether it has features or not. If the head is not shown, the museum visitor’s attention goes straight to the historic garment. Although some newcomers might feel the headless mannequins look scary, guests learn very quickly learn how to concentrate on the costume that is being presented.
  • Some museums have spent a lot of money and effort to develop attractive heads for their mannequins for special exhibitions, for example for showing known, historical figures. It is important to distinguish between the purpose of the exhibition and the desire to replicate every detail. The latter is expensive, time-consuming, and not always justified in a museum situation. “Perfect” reproductions are found in wax museums, where even their unique professional skills often result in less-than-attractive figures representing celebrities well known to the general public. However, there are many ways of presenting information, and if the exhibit is to show a situation rather than to concentrate on the costume itself, fully equipped figures can be justified. (See for example the Danish Museum of Nursing History).
  • Another reason to avoid putting heads on mannequins in a costume exhibition is that wigs, makeup and jewelry quickly consume the staff’s time, the exhibition budget, and the display itself. These are better - and more inexpensively - shown separately, on their own. Contemporary illustrations will show how accessories were worn and carried in their time.


How to dress mannequins

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 in pairs - one who always supports the garment while the other 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.


Moving clothed mannequins

This also needs foresight and planning. Small carriers on wheels (of the kind used by car mechanics working under cars) are useful, but the dressed mannequin should always be covered and packed for transportation so the costume does not suffer from pulling and pushing the figure. Dressed mannequins can be clamped to a pallet - if they have a stable foot plate, so the pallet can then be carefully lifted and moved with a forklift.


Installing dressed mannequins in glass cases

Installing dressed mannequins in glass cases requires enough space to come in and out, a stable floor which can support the weight of two or more workers, as well as the mannequin itself. Doors to the case need to be wide enough for the mannequin to be lifted in; this often entails very awkward lifts for those who are doing it, but it is rarely acceptable, safe or comfortable to stand inside a case to dress the mannequin. Make sure to have a clean space outside the case to finish the last details of the costume before it is lifted in. If the glass case is being build around the dressed mannequins, special care must be taken to avoid accidents of falling and breaking glass.


Not using mannequins

Consider not using mannequins if there is not adequate space or glass cases of the right size. Some costume can be displayed flat or hanging (although the clothesline and wardrobe-hanger ideas tend to be overused. Two-dimensional figures cut out of photostats can be used, but it is difficult to mount costume on them without damage because of the lack of support. Some pieces of dress may be shown laid over a chair, if they conceivably could have been laid there when they were originally in use.


Companies making mannequins

Find out which companies in your area/country make mannequins, as they may be able to help you with half-made pieces like arms and legs. There are a number of companies making very elaborate mannequins for museum use (the Kyoto-model, Dorfmann Museum Figures, Museum Mannequins, Gems Studio, Tableaux Sculpture Services, etc.), but these are often quite expensive for small museum budgets. If it’s not possible to train staff to make your own mannequins, do take the time to talk to colleagues who have bought and used commerical mannequins before making a decision to invest in them.


More information

Janet Arnold, Handbook of Costume, 1973.

Museum Mannequins: A Guide for Creating the Perfect Fit, edited by Margot Brunn and Joanne White, 2002. Published by The Alberta Regional Group of Conservators, Canada

Danish Museum of Nursing History

Gail Sundstrom Niinimaa, Mounting Systems For Ethnographic Textiles And Objects

L. Flecker, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting (2007). Oxford, Butterworth-Heinemann.

Good videos and information on dressing mannequins: Australian Dress Register

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