A View from the Inside

1860's style CHSThe month of February means some new artifacts in our Making Connecticut exhibition.  In an effort to best protect our collections, we strictly follow a 6-month display rotation for light sensitive and delicate artifacts…which means that every February and August our permanent exhibition gets a little update.  Some of those updates, like re-dressing our mannequins, take quite a bit of time on the back end, so….

Today I thought I’d give you a little peak into my world for the last month!  In total, it takes between 60 and 70 hours to choose garments, undress the mannequins, rebuild their under structures to fit the new garments, steam the new garments, and redress and reinstall the approximately eight mannequins in the exhibition.  That’s a lot of time and a lot of steps, but definitely my favorite time of year.  I love seeing how these two-dimensional garments were supposed to look on a three-dimensional body.  It really brings them to life.

Because a woman’s body in 1860 with its corset and petticoats didn’t look like a woman’s body of 2013, there is a lot that must happen before the clothes even go over the top!  So, let’s take a look inside…


All of the mannequins that we use for Making Connecticut are made of thick foam, which means we can carve them down if they are too big for a particular costume.  This month that ability came in handy when I realized that the space between the waist and bottom of this mannequin was longer than the crotch seam of the pants…so, out came the bread knife and off came the extra!

If you can’t tell from the picture…the top of the mannequin is resting on the floor, those brown tubes are the arms, the white tubes are the legs, and the white chunk that you see at the very top is actually the bottom of the mannequin, and therefore the foam that I am cutting off (oh, and this is the back of the mannequin, so that white padding you see is actually the buttocks when it’s all put back together).

Besides little fixes, like padding the mannequins and cutting off foam, there are some garments that are much more involved.  For instance, I thought it would be fun this time around to display a small family unit in one of the cases, so rather than the typical male and female mannequins, there are two children’s mannequins plus a woman holding a small baby.  So, how did we do it?  Well…there was a lot of acid-free blue board (it’s like strong cardboard without acid), thick wire hangers, and lots of ingenuity!


The baby is rigged up on a network of blue board and reshaped wire hangers, then padded and fitted with a white display infant petticoat.  There is a long portion of wire out the back of the baby’s mount that goes straight into the foam of the mannequin.  It is also stabilized by the right arm of the mannequin that has a wire hanger inside and connects to the baby mount.  All of these things have been carefully aligned with existing openings in the garments, so that none of the historical items are compromised.  The back opening of the infant dress and the front opening of the woman’s dressing gown allowed us to end up with this…


At this point you may be wondering what the thin tan and black coverings are over the mannequins…wait for it…they’re Queen Size Panty Hose!  That’s right.  I cut off the legs (which can later be stuffed and used as arms and legs), cut out the cotton in the center, and pull it over the mannequin’s neck.  This allows me to carefully stuff the mannequin in particular places, like the hips, waist, bust, and shoulders, so that the garments fit as perfectly as possible.  Then the panty hose are stretched tight and tied with cotton tape under the mannequin to smooth out any wrinkles.  Finally they are fitted with any necessary undergarments, like petticoats, and dressed.

130221_0002Sometimes I use two sets of panty hose…our “Present Day” case is getting outfitted with a maternity mannequin sporting a skirt and top outfit from the 1960s.  In order to make her appear pregnant I simply slipped an extra pair of panty hose on the mannequin (this time correctly with the waistband at the top) and stuffed it with batting until she was the correct size and shape.  Here’s a look at the cool tie detail that holds the skirt over her baby bump.

And just for good measure, in case you can’t make it in to see the exhibition, here is our pregnant mannequin all adorable in her little polka-dot ensemble!


So there you have it…a view from the inside as we dress our mannequins.  If you have any questions, just leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them as best as I can!


This entry was posted in Collections, Exhibits and tagged , by Karen. Bookmark the permalink.

About Karen

Karen DePauw is a Research and Collections Associate at The Connecticut Historical Society. Along with aiding patrons who visit the museum in their research efforts, Karen works behind the scenes with the costume and textile collection. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History, double minoring in Theatre and Theology, from Quincy University. Karen obtained her Master of Science degree at the University of Rhode Island in Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design, with a specialization in Historic Costumes and Textiles.

2 thoughts on “A View from the Inside

  1. Wonderful post! I need to make a kneeling mannequin which will wear a Spanish suit of lights. Think you could give me a tutorial?
    Barbara Kiefer

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