Making a Custom Dress Form

Dress form base
PVC pipe with drilled holes

One of the challenges in displaying garments from the EHF collection is changes in body shapes and sizes over the years.  Many of the dresses in our collection come from a time when women wore corsets and other complex undergarments to fit into smaller clothing.  The EHF’s dress forms are a standard size for modern clothing, but are too large in the hips and waist for clothing like Munda Anderson’s 1880s dress.  Miss Munda’s waist was around 22 inches, or about a size 0 in today’s clothing.  In fact, her dress is too small to even fit on our child’s dress form.  Archival forms can cost thousands of dollars, so we needed to find a different way to display our smaller garments.  Thanks to Dave, our dedicated handyman, we came up with a great solution.  In this blog, we’ll show you how we made a dress form with minimal materials and cost.

Broom handle pieces at shoulders and hips
Broom handle pieces at shoulders and hips

The frame for our homemade dress form consists of the following: a wooden base with a PVC end cap attached, a PVC pipe with drilled holes, and a broom handle.  The PVC pipe fits snugly into the base’s end cap.  We measured across the shoulders of the top, and cut the broomstick handle to about an inch shorter than that measurement (so the wood wouldn’t put any strain on the garment).  We did the same at the waist of the skirt, cutting another piece of the broom handle.  These two pieces slid into the holes in the PVC pipe, providing the structure for our dress form.  A range of holes were drilled into the PVC pipe, allowing us more flexibility when placing the shoulder and waist supports.

T-shirt stuffed with batting
T-shirt stuffed with batting

Next, we put a boy’s white t-shirt over the form structure.  We stuffed the shirt with batting, which is firm enough to support the top and flexible enough to rearrange as needed.  It takes some time to get the batting just right.  It shouldn’t be straining the fabric or buttons, but it needs to be full enough to support the garment.  It’s important to firmly pack the batting around the wood piece, as the wood should not be touching the historic garment.

Second t-shirt sewn at bottom, with historic garment on top

Once the top was stuffed, we sewed an upside down t-shirt to the bottom of the stuffed shirt.  This allows us to stuff around the hips and give the outfit some shape.  We first tried using a men’s XXL t-shirt for the entire dress form, but it was impossible to form the batting and keep it in place with so much extra fabric.  When the second t-shirt was stuffed, we put the skirt on and adjusted the batting as needed.  Finally, we used archival tissue paper to stuff the sleeves, and cut a piece of fabric to cover the PVC pipe showing at the top’s neckline.

The finished dress form
The finished dress form

A lot of trial and error went into making this dress form.  One of the major concerns with a homemade form was minimizing the use of any materials that could harm the garments.  Anything with chemicals, dyes, or metals that might rust could potentially harm fabric.  When this dress form is complete and dressed, the only thing that should be touching the garment is a white cotton t-shirt, which will not damage the clothing.

Due to the minimal cost of construction one of these dress forms, we will now be able to display clothing which is too small to fit on any of our existing dress forms.  We can also customize the shape and size, providing more support for our historic garments.  This completed and dressed form will be on display in the Anderson Store Museum, showing an outfit similar to what Miss Lizzie Anderson would have worn.

-Guest Blogger Emily Irwin

1 thought on “Making a Custom Dress Form”

  1. Very interesting Emily, not to mention resourceful! Thanks to Dave for his efforts. Fun to see the photos during construction. Good job.

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