Fashion exhibitions are always a popular sight here at the Art Museum, whether it is a show pulled from our own collections, such as Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns, or a travelling exhibition like High Style from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The clothing on display is not only beautiful to look at, but it is also easy to connect with on a personal level. After all, everyone wears clothes and we all put thought into what we wear, even if we don’t keep up with fashion trends.
What many visitors don’t know is that it takes a lot of time to get each garment in the exhibition looking perfect. Museums carefully pad out each mannequin to fit one particular dress. This process of padding is called mounting and can take several hours per dress.
Before a mannequin is padded, it is important to have an idea of what the silhouette of the dress should be. For example, an 1850s dress will likely have a large hoop petticoat to support the skirt, while an 1880s dress will have padding in the back to support a skirt bustle. The best way to determine the silhouette is to look at images from the period and by “listening” to the dress. Every person is shaped differently and their clothes can tell us if they were smaller or bigger, short or tall, or even if they had a flat or busty chest.
Image Credit: Informal Dress, England, 1775–1780, cotton, John J. Emery Endowment, 1986.1030.
To get the shape correct, we add layers of quilt batting to fill any gaps between the hard mannequin body and the garment. For certain dresses, reproduction petticoats or other undergarments are added. Once the shape is correct, we sew on a layer of nylon so that the dress slides on easily.
Next time you are walking through a fashion exhibition, we encourage you to observe the beauty of the dresses on view and think about all the work hidden underneath.