I’ll let you in on a well-kept secret of museum work: fashion is difficult to display! You might find this unbelievable, as we dress ourselves every day and everyone knows how to put clothes on. Surely it must be no big deal to throw a dress onto a mannequin and call it a day. But that couldn’t be further from reality. In fact, dressing mannequins for a fashion exhibition takes a lot of time and expertise, and it is such a specialized skill that there are few people trained to do it properly. Let’s explore why this is through looking at how the Cleveland Museum of Art, with the help of a unicorn-like costume mounter, installed Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession (fig. 1).
First, let’s review a few terms related to the process:
Mount: a three-dimensional support for an object that helps the object retain its shape
Mannequin: a fiberglass figure in the shape of a human, usually with arms, legs, and a head, as typically found in retail stores
Dress form: also called a dressmaker’s dummy, a fabric-covered torso-shaped figure made from papier-mâché or foam, with optional legs, arms, and a head
Mounting / Dressing: the act of putting a garment onto a mannequin or dress form
Mounter / Dresser: the person who puts a garment onto a mannequin or dress form
Now that we’ve sorted out the terminology, let’s move through the mounting process. The first thing we needed to understand before mounting a garment was why the garment was selected for the exhibition, and what the garment represents. Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession compellingly mixes contemporary fashion with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s significant collection of Egyptian and Egyptian-inspired works. Considering the spectrum of art inspired by ancient Egyptian culture, curator Darnell-Jamal Lisby centered gorgeous gowns as some of the most stunning examples of Egyptomania, or the craze for all things Egyptian. He selected the gowns because they include an Egyptian-related design element, and they represent designers looking toward Egypt for inspiration to celebrate the country’s ancient heritage. So, whatever we did in mounting these garments needed to emphasize the Egyptomania qualities for which Darnell included them.
After Darnell selected the looks he wanted, and the owners agreed to lend them, the next step was to obtain the measurements of the garments. This is a crucial stage, as the first rule in mounting garments for display is to make sure that you are working with a mannequin or dress form that is smaller than the garment. The reason we do this is so we can avoid stressing or damaging the garment. A conservator’s job is to ensure the preservation of artworks, so the last thing we want to do is mount something and damage it because the mannequin or dress form is too big. Luckily for us, we had hired one of the most experienced and talented costume mounters working today, Tae Smith. With her help, we sent all of the lenders templates asking for precise garment measurements, which were used to purchase the correctly sized mounts.
Figure 2. Dress forms used in “Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession.” Photo by Sarah Scaturro
Next, Darnell and I discussed the kinds of mounts we wanted to put the garments on (fig. 2). Clothing is closely linked to the body and identity, and because of this, mannequins and dress forms are also evocative of the body and identity. One theme throughout the exhibition is the early Egyptologist’s conceptual separation of Egypt as something “different” from Africa. Of course, Egypt is in Africa, so we decided that the “bodies” we wanted to put the clothes on would act as a canvas for the dazzling designs without leaning into Eurocentric frameworks around identity regarding the ancient Egyptians. For the garments displayed in gallery 234, we selected a dress form type used by many other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Created by Proportion London, this dress form is specifically designed for museums since it is made from archival materials, meaning it won’t harm the garments put onto it. For the one look in gallery 107, we already had a Bonaveri Schläppi mannequin, which is also typically used in museum exhibitions around the world (fig. 3). Luckily for us, this mannequin was already black, as it had been used in the New Black Vanguard exhibition as part of the artist Daniel Obasi’s installation, and its size was also just right for the look it was to wear.
Figure 3. A special mannequin called a Schläppi wearing a look by Givenchy in the Egyptian gallery (107). Photo by David Brichford
So now we had our garments and mounts, and even our mounter, Tae. Once the garments had arrived, that was when the dressing — and the real magic — began. Costume mounting, like much of conservation, is both a science and an art. The process requires that the person doing it must understand how the flattened garment lying on a table or resting on a hanger is supposed to look fully in the round, in the third dimension. It also requires that the mounter understand human anatomy, fashion history, the garment’s ideal proportions, and how the designer themselves intended it to look when worn. Lastly, but most importantly, the mounter needs to understand the condition of the garment; they need to know all the fragile and delicate areas, how the effects of gravity might influence these areas over time, and how manipulating a garment onto a mannequin could add stress. And the mounter needs to know all of this before even test-fitting the garment onto the mount. In fact, the goal of a mounter is to minimize handling of the fragile costume; ideally the garment is put on once at the beginning to understand where padding is needed, and then once more at the end, when it is finally dressed.
Figure 4. Master costume mounter Tae Smith padding out a dress form. Photo by Sarah Scaturro
Through taking measurements of the garment and the mount, the mounter begins strategically applying padding in areas of the mount that need building out (fig. 4). The padding can include polyester batting, nylon tulle, and even breast cups, shoulder pads, or bum pads! Sometimes minimal padding is needed, as the shape and size of the mannequin or dress form are close to the garment’s. But sometimes it is more difficult. Because of the limited sizes available for purchase, and to ensure we were getting smaller mounts than the costumes, our dress forms needed a lot of padding in some areas to fit right. Tae spent days perfecting these surrogate bodies so that the garments were supported perfectly, and that all the strategic padding and rigging remained invisible. But remember, she also needed to ensure these garments reflected the Egyptomania qualities for which Darnell chose them. For example, a Balmain dress inspired by Egyptian mummification practices incorporates distressed gauze (fig. 5). Tae made sure the mount was padded enough to give the sense of wrappings wound tautly around the body.
Figure 5. The Balmain dress inspired by Egyptian mummification practices. Photo by David Brichford
Another example is the Chanel dress from the Métiers d’art 2018/19 collection (figs. 6 and 7). Because of the sheer inset panels and columnar form, Tae had to work especially hard to hide the padding used to achieve the correct shape and to make sure all the panels appeared perfectly horizontally, evocative of the Kalasiris-style Egyptian dress it was inspired from. She ended up creating an entirely new dress form cover with strategically placed handsewn seams to conceal the padding and the seams — no easy task. Although there were only six garments in the exhibition, it took five full days for Tae to complete her work, even with the help of CMA staff! When you visit the galleries, you’ll be struck by the sheer beauty of these garments that evocatively appear lifelike.
Figure 6. Tae Smith working to ensure the Chanel dress appears flawless when on display. Photo by Tony Cicero
Figure 7. The Chanel dress after installation. Photo by David Brichford
I hope this brief introduction into the world of mannequin dressing highlights the special nature of the costume mounter’s work so that next time you see fashion displayed at a museum, you’ll have a new appreciation for their skill.