Mannequin dressing

Mannequin dressing, the art of enhancing costumes

It is an art form. When preparing an exhibition, it is important to design a mannequin or support commensurate with the costume, in order to perfectly respect its appearance, the morphology of the artist for which it was made, while at the same time highlighting the intentions of the costume designer and the original depiction on stage.

Successful mannequin dressing is achieved by a most perfect adaptation of the support to the forms and appearance of the person that wore the costume. The silhouette of the dressmaker’s mannequin, the most often used, will be stuffed, padded, and where necessary fitted with arms or legs.

Illustrating the intentions of the costume designer and its appearance on stage, the iconographic documentation (models, photographs…) provides precious information to help the dresser carry out vital adjustments and reproduce in the best possible way the esthetic universe in which the costume appeared.

In the view of protecting and preserving the pieces, mannequin dressing uses chemically neutral preservation material (polyester wadding, natural hessian, cotton jersey, tulle and hair). Mannequin dressing sometimes also consists of recreating lingerie elements (petticoats, corsets...) missing in the collection. A good mannequin dressing is the alchemy between technical knowledge and knowledge of costume history.

All exhibited pieces are the subject of scientific research designed to understand them better. The observation of the cutting and assembly of each costume provides precious knowledge, completed by the study of iconographic documents.

Different types of supports used in mannequin dressing:

  • dressmaker or fashion designer mannequins, generally made up of a bust with detachable arms, head and legs. Standardized forms must be adapted.
  • bust created to the measurements of the costume. A sort of empty shell, it has the advantage of disappearing under the costume;
  • flat presentation or on specific mounting for certain pieces that are too fragile.

An example 

The costume worn by Julia Bartet in the comedy Pepa in 1888 arrived at the CNCS partially taken to pieces. The collection department, with the assistance of the sewing workshop of the Comédie-Française, carried out reconstitution work to return the dress to the aspect it once had on stage. This dress was made by the great dress designer of the epoch, Jacques Doucet.