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?

I <3 Costume Mounting!

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.

Yay costume mounting!

Yay 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.

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June sawing PVC pipe like a badass

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.

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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).

The buckram hat just pops right off!

The buckram cap popped right off! Success!

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.

Fanny Sue is getting some abs and hips!

Fanny Sue is getting some abs and hips!

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.

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Fanny Sue, now with shoulder blades, gets a petticoat sewn onto her waistband.

I tried this bum roll on underneath my lab coat later, but it didn't look as good on me.

I tried this bum roll on underneath my lab coat later, but it didn’t look as good on me.

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.

Fanny sue seems pretty satisfied with her petticoat as she looks wistfully into the distance

Fanny sue seems pretty satisfied with her petticoat as she looks wistfully into the distance

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.

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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!

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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.

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Leia attaching our buckram and batting-wrapped wire hanger legs.

Leia attaching our legs! (made of wire hangers wrapped with buckram, batting, and nylons)

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 lovely hair braid and I tried my hand at (fake) millinery!

Leia made a lovely hair braid and I tried my hand at (fake) millinery!

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).

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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.)

Fanny Sue looks fabulous from all angles

Fanny Sue looks fabulous from all angles

Leia's ribbon matched perfectly!

Leia’s ribbon matched perfectly!

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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.

P1090141If you like reading about costume mounting, stay tuned for next time – I’ll write about the clothing and accessories I dressed in Nantucket, this time sans mannequin!