Hilary Davidson has argued that there has been an ‘embodied turn’ in history scholarship over the last few years, as historians have increasingly incorporated ‘embodied, experiential, implicit or tacit knowledges gained through making and doing into their study of history’. Related in part to an increased interest in material culture and the knowledge and skill of makers and craftsmen, many historians have tried reproducing techniques and reconstructing objects as part of their research. For instance, Sarah Bendall has reconstructed 16th and 17th-century bodies and farthingales to help understand the methods of construction and experience of wearing early modern undergarments. Reconstruction and experimentation is also a key methodology for both the Refashioning the Renaissance project at Aalto University (which has produced an interesting series of podcasts discussing this topic with their collaborators) and the Making and Knowing project at Columbia University.
But what can be learnt about historical objects and bodies from a rather different form of making; that of padding mannequins and mounting extant garments for display in museums? I recently curated my first exhibition, Dressed to the Nines, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which explores the theme of dressing up and going out from 1850 to the present day. As part of the preparation for this exhibition, I spent several weeks working with our Conservation Team Leader, Jane Thompson-Webb, and a few volunteers to prepare 11 outfits and mannequins to go on display.
Costume mounting is the process of altering the mannequin a historical garment will be displayed on, so that the garment is fully supported and appears as it would have done when worn on the right size of body with the right underpinnings. It involves: selecting a mannequin of the nearest suitable size; altering the height and length of the shoulders if needs be with calico-covered card; stitching pieces of wadding onto the torso to create the relevant body shape and covering that wadding with a layer of jersey; producing a supportive skirt/legs from boned calico; and creating and stuffing arms. It’s a time-consuming process, in which we were guided by the DATS handbook on costume mounting and Lara Flecker’s book on the subject.
Handling the garments to be displayed and taking them on and off the mannequins provided certain insights into what they would have been like to wear. Just lifting the jacket from a court suit worn by Neville Chamberlain and a 1940s beaded dress by Norman Hartnell gave a sense of how heavy they were. The difficulty of dressing some mannequins suggested that the wearer may have needed a second pair of hands to help them get into and out of their clothes. Having to undo any fastenings to ease a garment onto a mannequin gave a good sense of which buttons and poppers were functional and which were simply decorative.
Reconstructing a pelisse thought to have belonged to Jane Austen provided Hilary Davidson with insights into the wearer’s dimensions, which in turn helped to confirm the object’s provenance when combined with other sources connected to Austen’s appearance. But how much can we learn about the bodies which once inhabited clothes from the process of mounting them onto mannequins? Trying to find a mannequin which would fit an 1860s evening gown highlighted just how small its waist was, as the only viable mannequin in the museum’s stores was one intended to represent a four-year-old child. However generally the emphasis in costume mounting is on supporting the garment and ensuring that it looks good, rather than replicating the wearer’s figure. For instance, with a 1930s evening dress worn by Lady Canning, we found we needed to attach an additional piece of padding onto the mannequin’s stomach to create a kind of ‘shelf’ for the waistband to sit on top of, as otherwise the waistband just slipped down and we were unable to get the bodice to blouson.
We shaped the mannequin for Lady Canning to suit her dress. But when we tried putting the slip, which had been accessioned alongside the dress and which we believed was part of the same outfit, onto the mannequin, we found that the straps were so long that the top of the slip slid down to below the bust. Did this mean that we’d got Lady Canning’s body shape wrong, or does it mean that the slip belonged to a different outfit, or a different time in Lady Canning’s life, or a different person?
Mounting did raise questions around the wearer’s height. How tall was Neville Chamberlain, and therefore how much of a gap should be left between the end of his breeches and the base of the mannequin? Was a 1970s Bill Gibb dress with an asymmetrical hemline designed to be touching the ground at its longest point or be raised above the floor? These points may seem rather small and trivial but can have a big impact on how an outfit is seen and understood by visitors.
Whilst it may be impractical to ask potential donors for their measurements when offering a garment to a museum (and futile if they were not the original wearer), the process of mounting costumes for Dressed to the Nines did highlight the value of having photographs showing the outfits being worn. Such images are not only appreciated by museum visitors in providing additional context and helping to bring a garment to life, but whilst mounting they helped give an indication of body shape and how an item was meant to look when worn. It was particularly useful in the case of an off-the-shoulder 1950s Christian Dior London dress with a complicated sleeve structure; it was not at all obvious how the dress should look from the garment itself, especially as the sleeves stuck out at right angles when devoid of a body.
Another issue which costume mounting for Dressed to the Nines raised was the importance of collecting shirts. Birmingham doesn’t have many shirts in its collection, but in order to mount a suit onto a mannequin ideally you need a shirt of the right size and period to sit underneath it. One of the outfits on display is an evening jacket and pair of trousers worn by a man called James Rowan, who was the director of a clothes shop in the city. Birmingham’s collection contains numerous clothes and accessories which belonged to James, including several suits, but none of his shirts. Consequently we had to use a shirt which was a bit too small, making it a rather a challenge to give the jacket sufficient shaping whilst not distorting the shirt underneath.
These are just a few thoughts from a single instance of costume mounting for a small exhibition. But they indicate that the practice of costume mounting is not only an integral part of preparing garments for display, but can provide museums with insights into objects and their former wearers – and different insights to those which might be gained from simply studying an object – as well as informing curatorial practice.
For more information on Dressed to the Nines:
 Hilary Davidson, ‘The Embodied Turn: Making and Remaking Dress as an Academic Practice’, Fashion Theory, 23.3 (2019), 329-62 (p. 330).
 Sarah A. Bendall, ‘The Case of the “French Vardingale”: A Methodological Approach to Reconstructing and Understanding Ephemeral Garments’, Fashion Theory, 23.3 (2019), 363-99.
 Lara Flecker, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting (London: Routledge, 2013).