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Who’s that girl? Part 1: Mannequin preparation

Mannequins freshly decapitated

Mannequin waiting to have arm broken and reset. All adjustments we make to mannequins are reversible and prepared so the forms can be used repeatedly.

One of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of my job is researching, planning and finally, mounting an exhibition. I liken it to what a performer or musician must feel when they step onto stage after months of practice. One of the nuances of this feeling though, is each exhibition has a personality. Moreover, getting to know that personality is at times a joy, or a challenge, or both. Some exhibitions are straightforward and others will throw you for a loop. Nevertheless, these quirks are what propel an exhibition team forward – together. And… like any great performance or concert, it takes a group of people utilizing their aptitude in a variety of ways. Every exhibition at the IMA is supported by a team, made up of members representing different departments, each responsible for an aspect of its’ planning and execution. The upcoming fashion arts exhibition, Body Unbound, Contemporary Couture from the IMA’s Collection, is no different.

Body Unbound, explores the varied approaches modern fashion designers use to manipulate materials and experiment with construction; producing garments that liberate the female body while maintaining a desired aesthetic. Due in part to the emphasis on the body, this exhibit offered us an opportunity to reconsider how we wanted to show the pieces.

Fashion in Bloom deinstall. Notice the stark white mannequins.   We use the carts in the foreground to transport mannequins around the museum

Fashion in Bloom deinstall. Notice the stark white mannequins. We use the carts in the foreground to transport mannequins around the museum

This focus on the body is what led our Chief Exhibition Designer to propose a unique suggestion for our mannequins. His idea is to present the mannequins in such a way that the concept of flesh is readily apparent, but executed so that the “skin color” represented is of no one real person. Traditionally in a museum setting, mannequins remain neutral or are painted to tie into the overall design of the space. Done so, frankly, because mannequins are not people and while they represent the physical qualities of a person, it is only because the attributes of the objects, clothing, require specific support. Think of it this way, mannequins are like frames or pedestals, complimenting an artwork or providing a base. Therefore, as if you might choose an appropriate mat color or frame for a photograph, we choose individual mannequins and their colors.

Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts, Chief Designer, Textile Conservator and me picking out colors for mannequins based on the garments

Concurrently, because we chose precise colors for particular objects we needed to be sure that those pieces fit on specific mannequins. Mannequins are primarily chosen for their ability to provide the best support. The second criterion is the appropriate stance or pose. Now, for all you fashion historians who also mount exhibitions, you know how time consuming and challenging mounting clothing can be. (Look for a later post on dressing and undressing mannequins). Most people (myself included, before working with fashion and textiles) think that all one has to do is drape a piece on a form and walk away.

This is not the case.

Bare in mind, these garments were made for people, real people – with short torsos, long arms or wide hips. For that reason, we pad out, slim down, or adjust each mannequin in a way to best fill and support the object. Concerning most, we can manipulate the forms by building upon an existing mannequin using archival materials to create the desired “body.”

Background: Mannequin with reset arm to better display a garment) (Foreground: Mannequin had breasts cut off and filled with Marvelseal® 360 and Ethafoam® 220

However, in other instances, we have to take measures that are more drastic. Such was the case for one of our Rudi Gernreich dresses from 1961, included in the exhibition because of its cutout sides. The dress fit perfectly on a slender mannequin with protruding hips, great for the style of the dress, but sad because her bust was too low. The mannequin had a natural (lower) bust line, more appropriate to exhibit pieces from the 1970s, not the high “bullet” silhouette popular in the 1950s and early 1960s. The decision was made to give the mannequin a reduction.

We called upon on our exhibition preparator, who specializes in mount building. The preparator worked closely with our textile conservator to adjust the body of the mannequin so that it can be used again and so the adjustment is not harmful to the garment when it is exhibited.

Mannequin with sides cut out to accommodate a dress with 22.5-inch waist

Mannequin is the same as above, but here you can see Ethafoam® 220 inserts

After selecting all the mannequins and paint colors, the mannequins were painted individually, in advance, to allow time for off gassing. “Off gassing” is the term used by conservators to describe the release of volatile compounds emitted by the paint as it dries completely over time.” (Thanks Kathleen and Richard!) Thus, each mannequin must sit and dry for at least two weeks before any objects come near them.

Mannequins freshly painted, off gassing

After all the mannequins “off-gas,” we will dress each accordingly. Stay tuned for the second installment of this discussion on exhibition preparation and mounting.

In the meantime, mark your calendars for Body Unbound, Contemporary Couture from the IMA’s Collection, opening April 10.

It’s gonna be a good one!

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Exhibitions

8 Responses to “Who’s that girl? Part 1: Mannequin preparation”

  • avatar
    Pam Says:

    It’s nice job you have. It must be fun.

  • avatar
    Petra Says:

    Hi Pam,

    Thank you for your comment. I have a great job, and feel very lucky.

  • avatar
    Gabrielle Says:

    Well done, P! You have a really pleasant writing style; it’s easy for me to hear the passion in your voice as I read this. Can’t wait to see the exhibition.

  • avatar
    Anonymous Says:

    What a fun blog! I love the last picture of all the ladies standing around gassing.


  • avatar
    Murph Says:

    OMG! The world hasn’t a clue and YOUR blog is MOST amazing! Like a show, the audience just thinks you put some clothes on a body and Voilla!
    Funny thing is it’s also kinda like where my body has been and now with the ol’ spine and osteo P, I figure, by the time I’m 70 my bust will be nearer to my waist and all my chances of becoming a PlayBoy Bunny will have passed me up as ol’ Hugh will probably be gone……………….
    C’est la vie Mon Cheri!
    Can’t wait for 2nd installment………….

  • avatar
    anonymous Says:

    I’m glad you selected natural skin tones for the mannequins in this exhibit, and I hope you continue this in future exhibitions. I think it does violence to a garment to treat it as an abstraction independent from the body that wears it. While it may be desireable to separate the identity of a garment from the identity of any particular person, I think its important to select mannequins that are as generally human as possible and I appreciate the improvement that this exhibition represents. This leads to another point. I have noticed in past exhibitions that the IMA tends to select more lifelike mannequins for more recent garments, and that older period garments are displayed on alien-looking mannequins with awkward and unrealistic contours. I find these less- lifelike mannequins to be detremental to the appreciation of the garments they support, and I wonder if some sort of bias is at play that leads the IMA to display period garments on hideous mannequins. Perhaps the widespread use of corsets in the past makes it difficult to find mannequins that can fit period garments, but if the IMA is willing to modify mannequins for the present show, I would hope that they could do so for future displays of period garments. It would bring the periods represented to life more fully, and would better convey the intended aesthetic affect of the garments, to see them displayed on mannequins with more human contours and flesh tones.

  • avatar
    Petra Says:

    Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comment. We appreciate the feedback and I am glad to learn you enjoyed viewing our latest exhibition, Body Unbound.
    However, I would like to assure you that no bias is in place in regard to the display of historical garments at the IMA. The mannequins we use to display historical pieces are Kyoto mannequins (to read more about them: These mannequins are used by virtually every major museum who displays historical dress in the world and were specially designed by the The Kyoto Costume Institute and The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for this purpose. The silhouettes of fashion changed dramatically from the 1700s through the turn of the 20th century. It is for this reason that we use Kyoto mannequins. They are designed with no waists so we can adjust the waistline to fit each individual garment, many measuring around 16 inches; as well as providing us the ability to adjust the stance. For instance, the aesthetic of the early 1900s is known as the s-shaped silhouette and features what we call a mono-bosom. The stance for the s-shaped silhouette is unnatural and required extensive corsetry to achieve. No matter what kind of adjustments we could make to conventional 20th century mannequins, we would never be able to achieve this, or any of the early silhouettes.
    Lastly and most importantly, our primary concern is the safety and preservation of our objects, it is therefore imperative that we display them on the most appropriate forms.

  • avatar
    Fred Malone Says:

    I am an old (75) Retired Military man who is just getting into the operation of a Veterans Museum which we are trying to establish in Greenwood,S.C. We have acquired several manniquins (Male) from Pennys and Belks to display Uniforms on, but have heard from other like museums that the maniquins may give off fumes from the plastic, which will/may damage the uniforms over a period of time. Can you give us any guidance on this matter?? Fred W. Malone, CMC, USN, Retired

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