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All Dressed Up: Preparing Dresses for Display

By Lidia Plaza

In the last couple of weeks we’ve taken a break from processing objects to prepare some dresses for display in the Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War Exhibit.  Though we wished we had time and space to do more, we prepared four women’s dresses and two children’s dresses.  When preparing garments for display, each object needs to be evaluated individually to determine what it needs, but we found a few general tricks that helped us with our dresses.

Women’s Dresses

Over the course of the summer, we’ve uncovered several Civil War era dresses, and in the end we found a good selection for the exhibit.  Many of these dresses are interesting because they were originally made in earlier decades and then altered to fit 1860’s styles.  Other dresses were interesting because they were made in the early 1860’s and then altered for fancy dress costumes.  These details made the dresses more interesting, but sometimes also made them trickier to fit on a mannequin.  Ultimately, though, our goal was to prepare these dresses as they would have looked during the Civil War, so we fitted our mannequins with the general Civil War silhouette.  In general, that means large, round skirts, sloped, graceful shoulders, and small, short waists.

The women’s dresses were to be displayed on mannequins, and finding a mannequin that fit was the first, and generally the hardest, step.  For almost all the dresses we put on display, we used a cotton-covered foam mannequin that we could adjust so that it was the right shape.  Foam mannequins are particularly handy as they can be carved down if needed.  The next step was to fill out the top of the mannequin so that the bodice fit correctly.  There are many ways to do this, but we found it easiest to cover our mannequins in pantyhose and then stuff the pantyhose with polyfill and polybatting where necessary.  Taking measurements of the dress can help give you an idea of what needs to be filled in where, but it is something of a trial-and-error process.  At this stage, we also filled out the bottom of the mannequin to help support the skirts.

The next step is to add an underskirt.  Sometimes a modern-day hoop skirt can be retrofitted to give a period silhouette, but I personally like to make my own underskirt.  I use plain felt and pleat it in a way that mimics the pleats of the dress.  Most dresses worn during the Civil War were gauged at the waistband, at least to some degree, so I gauged my underskirts.  Gauging also adds a lot of volume to the underskirt, which helps support the dress.  Once the felt is pleated, I add wide cotton twill tape to make a waistband.  I like to leave the ends of the twill tape long so that I can use it as a tie to hold the skirt in place while I adjust the shape of the skirt.  Once I’m satisfied with the skirt shape, I sew it directly to the mannequin so that is doesn’t slip while on display.

The pleated skirt alone, however doesn’t give enough volume to the bottom of the skirt, so we had to think of ways to adjust the underskirt.  First we tried adding plastic boning.

Unfortunately, the boning didn’t give the shape we were aiming for.  We tried a few other things, but eventually we found that adding backer rod to the bottom of the skirt did the trick.  To do that, we added a cotton twill pocket to the inside of the felt underskirt.

Before sewing the felt skirt to the mannequin, however, we added a tulle skirt under the felt one to help keep the skirt supported.  First we pleated the tulle as we sewed it directly to the mannequin body.  Then we turned up the bottom edge to give it stiffness.

To finish the process, we simply added arms, which we attached separately to easily dress and undress the mannequin.

Children’s Dresses

We’ve found several children’s dresses this summer, but two stood out as great candidates for display in the Civil War exhibit.  The first was a small, red dress and cape with black dots and details that was probably worn by a little boy.  The second was a red dress with a paisley print, but the most interesting aspect of the dress was the lining, which was made with small scrapes of several different fabrics.  The lining was so fascinating that we decided to display the dress inside out.

For this particular exhibit, it was decided that the children’s dresses would be displayed flat on slant boards instead of on mannequins.  The dresses still needed to be supported, however, so we created little pillows to insert inside the dresses and help them keep their shape.  First we made pattern guides in the shape of the garment.  We then used the pattern guides to help us cut out the Tyvek® pieces, which were then sewn together to make the pillows.

Finally the pillows were filled with a piece of polybatting in the same shape as the pillow, and the pillow as sewed up.  Little sleeve pillows were added to the dress pillow to support the cap sleeves.

Come see these dresses on display at the Maryland Historical Society!