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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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