Costume Mounting on Nantucket

As I mentioned in my last post, this summer I was interning at the Nantucket Historical Association, and it was a really enriching experience. Friday was my last day, and while I was excited to come back to America (as Nantucketers joke sometimes) and go to Trader Joe’s, it was bittersweet because I absolutely loved the work I was doing and the people I worked with. I think now is a good time to look back at some of the projects I worked on this summer, and as promised, I’ll talk more about costume mounting!

Just before the 4th of July, I got the chance to mount some costumes for the new “Hollywood Meets History” display at the Whaling Museum, the NHA’s main site. We had some film costumes on loan from a major production company that are featured in an upcoming Nantucket-related film. The curator wanted to put these on display in conjunction with some historic pieces from the NHA’s collection, highlighting the women of Nantucket who were at home when the whalers were out at sea.

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Here’s the finished product – stay tuned to see how I did it!

Mounting a couple of costumes is usually pretty straightforward, if sometimes quite involved – you start with a mannequin, you pad it out, you add understructures and accessories, etc. We had a couple of challenges that made this a bit more complicated: no mannequins, and display cases that were not deep enough for a full form. The curator also wanted to portray that these were film costumes, and they were displayed alongside props, so we opted for an on-the-hanger look. These costumes would have looked really strange if they were literally just on a hanger in the display case, so I had to give them some body. This also gave me an excuse to take the ferry to Hyannis for the afternoon to get supplies – woo!

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Initial plan that changed a bit in the end

For both ensembles, I started with two layers of blue board cut out to be slightly smaller than the costume, and put a small strip of ethafoam in between to create some depth. I then attached these to a wide coat hanger (the widest I could find at Bed, Bath & Beyond!), and covered the whole thing with thick polyester batting.

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I sewed on the batting, then covered it with black stretch fabric. Curved needles come in really handy for this kind of sewing!

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Each ensemble got a different type of arm. The jacket didn’t really need much since it was structured and made of fairly stiff pigskin, so I just stuffed some pantyhose and stuck them in the sleeves to fill them out a little. The other ensemble had a shirt that was really torn up, the wearer having been shipwrecked, and the linen was pretty floppy and needed more substantial arms to actually look like a shirt. Luckily, there were some leftover foam “noodle” pool toys. After a little experimentation with a glue gun and a box cutter to create elbow bends and smooth shoulders and wrists, I ended up with some pretty nice arms. I covered them in black fabric, since they would be seen through the holes in the shirt.

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While the pantyhose arms (whose ends were cut off after that picture was taken) could be sewn directly onto the torso and just squished into the sleeves, the noodle arms required a slightly more complicated setup. I sewed one arm onto the torso, but the other arm had to be removable for dressing. To dress the mount, I first put the shirt onto the stable arm, then over the neck and torso, but if the other arm had been sewn on there would have been no way to get it into the sleeve. I created a ribbon strap with velcro to attach the arm to the torso, so I could put the arm up through the sleeve once the shirt was already on the mount. I made sure that the soft part of the velcro was on the torso since the scratchy hook side might snag the shirt.

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The last part to figure out was the pants. There was a lot of brainstorming on how to use the pants, since the case was not tall enough to display the full ensemble with long pants. We thought about hanging them separately, at a different height, possibly folded like they would be in a closet… Ultimately we thought it looked best to display the pants as if they were being worn with the shirt, and solve the height problem simply by folding the pants up into themselves. The case had a solid base below the display area, so it would look like the pants were just standing up in the case and you couldn’t see the bottom – pretty sneaky!

I carved a block of ethafoam to fit the waist of the pants (which I eventually figured out were worn folded over at the waist, after reviewing some reference photos. Research and accuracy is important!), padded it and covered it with fabric. I then created suspenders that went around the bottom of the foam block so the pants contraption could be hung on the torso. It turned out that the pants didn’t really need anything inside other than the block of foam at the top, since the fabric was fairly thick and the legs were folded up inside. I just held them in place with some trusty little entomology pins (the next best secret mounting material after pantyhose!).

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Not too shabby!

After several days of carving ethafoam and noodles and hand-sewing the mounts for our little seamen, I moved on to the historic objects, a shawl and a bonnet. The shawl was a gorgeous embroidered silk satin piece with fringe. It was in beautiful condition, especially given its 1837 date, but it was HUGE. Definitely too big to be draped over a padded tube without folding multiple times, and I didn’t want to fold it too much for conservation reasons, or have it hanging for too long as it may become distorted. I did a bit of research to find the most responsible way to mount it, asked a teacher for advice, took lots of measurements, and looked for examples of shawl displays. I eventually I decided that it would look most impressive and be most space-efficient to display the shawl on a dress form. While we had no mannequins, we did have dress forms! This also allowed me to only fold the shawl once, and I created a long tube of polyester batting wrapped in Tyvek to place in the fold to prevent hard creasing.

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I used the noodle arm treatment again, this time covered with pantyhose so they were easier to sew onto the form, which was fabric-covered hard foam. I then draped a piece of barrier fabric in the shape of the shawl over the form.

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Then it was just a matter of draping the shawl nicely, sticking a couple of entomology pins on the front, and detangling the fringe. We covered the whole thing with a sheet to transport it to the museum – which involved me playing contortionist in the car while lovingly holding this little lady still.

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Finally, the bonnet. I knew I wanted to make a carved foam mount, padded and covered with fabric. I looked at a bonnet already on display to see how far forward the mount went inside the bonnet, and I made sure that the mount would fully support the structure of the bonnet, which was fairly fragile. I tested it several times for fit, and did some fancy fabric stretching and sewing to get it covered (not the most beautiful, but I placed the seams where they wouldn’t show).

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The one tricky issue was what type of stand to put it on. We didn’t have any appropriate metal stands, or any like the one already on display, so I made one out of blue board.

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I glued the stand to a flat square for stability and covered it with fabric. Finally, I rolled up the ribbons around loops of mylar – you can’t even tell that one ribbon is almost completely torn! Sneaky! To keep the ribbon loops in place, I put another piece of mylar through the loops and attached them to the display case so they wouldn’t unroll while on display.

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And that’s it! Four mounts, five days (or something like that), and lots of fun! I have to say, this project was one of my favorites of the summer, and I’m so thankful to the NHA staff for giving me the opportunity to do this. It was challenging and exciting and really satisfying, and I would love to be able to do more of this kind of work. I hope this post can help out other people at small museums and historical societies by giving them ideas for how to mount their own costumes and textiles. There is so much great stuff out there, but it does take a lot of time, thought, and careful handling to properly mount fragile textile objects in a safe way. I welcome any questions and/or advice! Does anyone have any tips, tricks, or cool costume mounting experiences to share?

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