Museum Life: Making the unseen visible

Making or modifying mannequins for exhibition is just one facet of the work we do in our field.  Once placed in the public space of the gallery, these dressed forms are perhaps the most visually communicative, tangible, comprehensible, and immediate vehicles to inform the public about our objects of study.  The history of the mannequin and the choice of mannequins and what that particular decision conveys has been the subject of much discussion on Worn Through, as well as strategies for properly preparing mannequins to safely receive and support a garment.  Hayley-Jane’s recent post discusses the use of invisible forms in the Azzedine Alaia exhibit at the Palais Galléria and the problems inherent in this approach, which essentially erases the visible female body or the body of a particular individual from the discourse of the history, production, or the experience of clothes.

As many Worn Through readers know, making a mannequin look good is no swift exercise—it is hardly ever straightforward, and it is no accident (although trial and error can often lead to unexpected, favorable results). This work results in a deeper knowledge of the garment and how it hangs, reacts to handling, looks on a human form, and was constructed and worn by its former owner(s). It involves the process of gaining knowledge of the material object that is essential to its understanding.

Unlike many of the museums discussed or featured on Worn Through, displays of costumes or textiles at my home institution generally occur once every three or four years, depending upon the particular exhibition’s theme and the curator’s choice to include costumes or textiles (there are, on average, three major exhibitions per year). In 2010, nine film costumes were shown in the main gallery for the exhibition Making Movies—unprecedented in the exhibition history at the Ransom Center.

Eight of nine costumes on display in the exhibition, Making Movies, 2010 Harry Ransom Center

Eight of nine costumes on display in the exhibition, Making Movies, 2010
Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

This year there will be costumes or clothing displayed in two consecutive exhibitions, so mannequins and support for costume is very much on my mind and immediate task list.

An exhibition display may please and wow an audience, but is the work that we do to achieve these effects really communicated? And is it necessary to do so? The topic of mannequins is often discussed solely amongst ourselves as professionals–in workshops, conference presentations, and during private conversations with each other.  In recent years, I’ve noticed a proliferation of efforts to convey this complex and vital work to the public in recent years, mainly through the avenue of the blog.  I’ll discuss a few examples below.

In 2009, FIDM presented a post on the building and design of their invisible forms for the exhibition, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture.  The final photo of carefully shaped mannequins, odd and somewhat alien-looking, was very intriguing to me.

"Floating" forms created by Carolyn Jamerson for the FIDM exhibition, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture (2009) Reproduced from FIDM blog post, 11/23/2009

“Floating” forms created by Carolyn Jamerson for the FIDM exhibition, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture (2009)
Reproduced from FIDM blog post, November 23, 2009

I would love to see such created and modified mannequins brought naked, so to speak, into the gallery space. Often period underpinnings are displayed in the gallery, but a small exhibition of garments and their accompanying mounts (the latter at half scale, perhaps, as they are very time-consuming to make), would be very interesting to show the audience.  Or, a period underpinning and the “museum equivalent” that is pared down to the necessary support, made from archival materials and devoid of embellishment, would be an instructive juxtaposition. It could also be visually interesting–the garments alive with color, pattern, or textural trim compared side-by-side with the largely reserved colors of beige or ivory of the archival mannequins/undergarments.

A recent post from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s conservation department treats us to striking photos of the beautiful underpinnings and supports created for a 19th century wedding gown, along with the unexpected tools and hands-on techniques of mannequin modification.  Photos such as this may help to dismantle the assumption that most of this work is precious and delicate (although, of course, much of it demands a delicate and experienced hand!)

Three videos of the final installation of the LACMA exhibition, Fashioning Fashion, at Les Arts Décoratifs last year (reviewed by Hayley-Jane here) shows glimpses of the often untold story of couriering a traveling show, from the crates arriving to the unpacking and condition reporting to the dressing and final placement in the gallery.  While all of these unseen activities are shown, the views are fleeting and without further voice-over explanation. The videos are beautifully lit and shot, with accompanying music that lends a magical, otherworldly feel to the visuals.  Overall, it is an idealized view of installation that shows the delicate final touches only.  Of course, these videos serve the purpose of enticing visitors to the gallery, not necessarily educating the audience about the tasks of couriering and installation.  But they do definitely convey that this is detailed, methodical, and, preferably, slow work (given the breakneck pace of most exhibition installation schedules).

A video post from Indianapolis Museum of Art has the same spirit but takes a different approach, utilizing real-time sound for a video on exhibition prep for the 2010-2011 exhibition, Body Unbound: Contemporary Couture from the IMA’s CollectionWith the soundtrack of various power tools, the curator’s voice, and startling images of mannequin decapitation under bright workroom lights, this video shows the nitty-gritty of exhibition preparation.  It also demonstrates that mounting contemporary clothing (widely assumed to be easy-breezy to place on ready-made retail mannequins) can be pretty complicated.

Real-time sounds of the fabric moving, murmurs of discussion and problem-solving, or sounds of installation are often absent from such behind-the-scenes presentations, replaced by voice-over narration or music (or, are necessarily absent by format, as in still images).  Granted, no one really wants the added stress of a camera turned on them during tense moments such as lifting a heavy garment up on a platform, or closing up a fragile bodice, but I would like to see (and do!) this type of approach to “behind-the-scenes” content more often.

A recently closed exhibition at the Texas State Library and Archives here in Austin marked the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and included the suit worn by Governor John Connally. The suit jacket and shirt are visceral reminders of the violence of that day, evidenced by the bullet holes and blood stains.  In addition to archival materials detailing the events and media reactions, one wall case displayed photographs taken by staff and a description of the mannequin-making and mounting process for the shirt and suit.  Techniques outlined in Lara Flecker’s excellent resource, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting are evident in the photographs.

I was disappointed to hear from several people who visited the exhibit that they felt puzzled and slightly annoyed by the photographs—did they run out of material? Why didn’t they show more archival material related to the assassination? Who cares how the suit was mounted?  There is a perception that this work is somehow separate from the interpretation and the intellectual content of the clothing.  And yet these are the archival materials that make the interpretation and presentation of compelling three-dimensional archival materials such as clothing possible.

As pointed out by scholars Alexandra Palmer and Lou Taylor, the process of preparing mounts and garments for display and caring for garments within the museum may be fairly categorized as “women’s work” (as historically most curators and practitioners in this area have been women, and because of the traditionally categorized work of sewing and caring for clothing), but, because of this it is unfairly disparaged as frivolous work or “playing dress up” (which also recalls the debates of theoretical versus material culture approaches to dress) (Taylor, 2002; Palmer, 2008). Palmer has further asserted that the relentless pace of changing exhibitions leaves little time for serious research for the curator, and has called for a demystification of museum work, which can demonstrate for the public the challenges in display and care we face every day.

Obviously, we can’t control the perceptions of those who may view our work as fussy or irrelevant, but we can attempt to change these perceptions. If there is to be support for research and for costumes to be displayed safely and convincingly, this kind of information about the work involved needs to be continually put out there.

I am planning a blog post for my home institution that will discuss the various difficulties in getting from one unmodified dress form torso to the finished presentation for an ensemble, a World War I uniform, that presented several challenges for us.  And after the process of reviewing the posts above, I wish I would have documented my own process more completely!

Left: modified commercial dress form with custom arms and fosshape legs Right: World War I uniform on finished mannequin Uniform from collection of the Texas Military Forces Museum, Camp Mabry

Left: modified commercial dress form with custom arms and fosshape foundation legs
Right: World War I uniform on finished mannequin, ready to be brought to the gallery space for the exhibition, The World at War, 1914-1918, Harry Ransom Center
Uniform from collection of the Texas Military Forces Museum, Camp Mabry

Blogging or participating in making videos for your home institution may seem like just another job to do–extra work in a day with little time. But such posts go beyond merely illustrating for the public some cool, behind-the-scenes thing.  While it is certainly that, it is also the evidence of hard work that doesn’t just “happen”.  It is work that requires resources and support for staff and continued learning, and its dissemination can gradually increase an awareness of what is necessary in our field to do the best job we can–for the public, donors, and even colleagues within our own institutions, who may have very little idea of what is involved.


Palmer, Alexandra (2008). Untouchable: Creating Desire and Knowledge in Museum Costume and Textile Exhibitions.  Fashion Theory, 12 (1): 31-64.

Taylor, Lou (2002).  The Study of Dress History. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

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