It has been some time since I last wrote, and I am excited to say that I have now completed my coursework for my master’s degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology! My time in New York is over, and I have moved on to another adventure on a new island, this time a bit farther out to sea – Nantucket! I am interning at the Nantucket Historical Association as the Curatorial Intern focusing on the costume and textiles collection, and it has been an incredible experience. I have been given the opportunity to really use the skills I gained in grad school, and I am cataloging garments, packing them in archival storage, organizing parts of the collection, and doing some research. One of my favorite things I learned in school that I also got the chance to do (in the real world!) is costume mounting.
At FIT, one of our classes was Costume Mounting Skills, taught by Ms. June Bové. June worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for many years, and mounted costumes for every show that the great Diana Vreeland, former editor of Vogue magazine, curated for the Costume Institute. Needless to say, June is an incredibly accomplished lady and it is a huge privilege to learn from her. She is also one of the most hilarious, kind, and patient people I have had the pleasure to meet. A real class act, and an expert in her field.
In June’s class, we worked in pairs to mount a historic costume on a mannequin, complete with head treatment and accessories. My partner was the fabulous Leia Lima Baum of wearwhenwhy.com, and we dressed an ensemble consisting of a bodice, a skirt, and an overskirt. Through researching several fashion periodicals and comparable ensembles in museum collections, we determined that the ensemble was from circa 1871. This helped us to figure out what types of understructure, hairstyle, accessories, and even shoes we wanted to use to give a correct presentation of how this dress would have been worn.
The mounting process started with creating a skull cap to attach our head treatment to so that we wouldn’t have to attach the “hair” directly to the mannequin and damage it. This involved covering our “creature”‘s head with plastic wrap, covering that with buckram, and holding the buckram in place with rubber bands – the bands prevented the buckram from pulling away from the mannequin as it dried, so the skull cap would fit snugly. As June said, the creatures should die of strangulation, not asphyxiation (a room full of mannequins can make for some pretty morbid jokes – which is totally hilarious with June’s deadpan delivery).
To start building up the body, the secret tool was… nylons! Yes, pantyhose. Preferably white ones. We used a pair with the crotch cut out over the head, and another on the bottom. This created a nice tight body stocking into which we could add padding to get the shape we wanted. June had us buy an anatomy book to show us where the muscles and the fat deposits are in the body. It would look pretty strange to give a mannequin padding straight down the spine or a ring right around the hips. The goal was to shape these areas to look as natural as possible.
Twill tape ties underneath the nylons serve as a base to attach other understructures to, and we also attached fishing line to be used for securing props later. It’s good to have everything attached to the innermost layer for stabilization. Next, we started building up the undergarments – through referencing images, measurements, and trying the skirt on the mannequin several times, we were able to adjust the volume of the petticoats and the bum roll (because this style was working its way towards the bustle) to just where we wanted them.
All of the understructures were made out of clean, archival materials (no use of historic undergarments!), and then a layer of muslin acted as a final barrier between the understructures and the historic dress.
While the skirt was the main area that needed volume to create this historic silhouette, we still needed to add a little bit of volume on the bodice so the mannequin didn’t look completely lifeless. A bit of pleated bridal tulle on the arms kept the sleeves from falling flat. We wanted to give Fanny Sue some movement, as if she has been scurrying around looking for her favorite book… Jane Eyre?… She may be shy and bookish, but we didn’t want her to look dead.
Once the shape was perfected, we got to try on the ensemble and add the finishing touches. Our research showed that the neckline and cuffs would have been decorated with some ruffles, and Leia went through her awesome stash of historic costume sewing supplies and found the perfect lace and ribbon!
We also carved boots out of ethafoam and covered them with fabric. If you have feet with shoes, then you need legs to attach them to. Our mannequin didn’t come with legs, so we made some! This may seem strange since the legs were completely covered by the long skirt, but legs do make a difference. Having legs underneath prevents the skirt from sinking in unnaturally, and it keeps the shoes in the right place. If the mannequin is up high on a platform and people can see up under the skirt, we want them to see shoes and legs, not a strange floating skirt.
Of course hair style and headwear are important to the accuracy of the total look, and we had a lot of options to choose from so it was fun to get creative. A lady would never go out without her hat, and I think Fanny Sue is a simple boater hat kind of girl.
Leia made a nice little book and arranged it in Fanny Sue’s hand so that it would cover up the missing button on the bodice (which was held closed with an entomology pin).
After a lot of hand sewing, readjusting, and finessing, Fanny Sue finally got dressed! Our class had a photo shoot of all the dressed mannequins, and everyone’s looked great. It was cool to see a room full of men’s and women’s ensembles from different eras, complete with accessories and mannequins that each had their own personalities (and names, and hobbies, and interpersonal relationships… you get pretty close with these creatures after spending a whole semester with them. Pretty sure some of them are having cross-decade romances. George, I’m looking at you.)
It was really satisfying to see Fanny Sue finally up on that platform, and it was such a fun project. Leia and I made a great team, and I was even lucky enough to work with her again dressing mannequins for the Museum of the Moving Image. Thanks for being such a great partner, Leia! Here’s to more mannequin dressing in the future.