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Fashion and form: a sneak-peak into mounting a garment for the upcoming fashion exhibition

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I am very lucky to be undertaking a 6-month internship with the Fashion Curator at the Ulster Museum, Charlotte McReynolds. The first task I’ve been working on is to help the curator to mount garments for the upcoming fashion exhibition, La Belle Époque! I am going to share a little bit about the work that goes on behind the scenes to prepare and mount clothing for display in the fashion exhibitions. 

The first ensemble we’ve been working on dates from the late 1860s/early 1870s. This was an important time of transition in women’s fashion when there was a shift from the bell shape, that was created by hooped crinolines, to the weight increasingly being shifted to the back and bottom area, when the bustle became fashionable in the 1880s. The ensemble is comprised of a bodice and skirt. The garments are French and are made from cream silk embroidered with emerald green, white and yellow silk with sprays of daisies. I love how the embroidered daisies appear to tumble down the front of the skirt, as if the wearer of the garments was playing a game of ‘they love me, they love me not’ with the flowers! The bodice and skirt have lavish trimmings of green velvet and black lace. The bodice has ¾ length sleeves and a deep square neckline, edged with lace and ornamented with an emerald green velvet bow, similar to the décolletage of eighteenth-century gowns. To create the bell-shape of the shirt, the dress would have been worn over a small ½ crinoline or ‘crinolette’ consisting of ½ hoops placed at the back of the skirt.

The photographs below show the back and side of the ensemble on a mannequin before we had constructed the mount.

Image: This image is a close up of the beautiful hand embroidery including green, white and yellow sprays of daisies.
This image is a close up of the beautiful hand embroidery including green, white and yellow sprays of daisies.

To mount the ensemble, we first had to measure the bodice and skirt, so that we knew what size to make the mannequin mount. To support the garment for display and to recreate the silhouette we had to adapt the mannequin to the measurements of the body for which the clothes were made by adding wadding to the mannequin to fit the bust, waist, hips, bottom, shoulder etc. measurements of the clothes. When we had built up the wadding to the correct measurements, we sewed it by hand to the mannequin using herringbone stitch. At this stage, a jersey cover was added over the mannequin to conceal the wadding. To create the bell-shape silhouette of the skirt we made a hooped tube skirt from calico and rigilene, a lightweight boning. Then we hand-sewed lots and lots of layers of gathered netting to the skirt to fill out the bottom-half of the ensemble! When we were happy that we had recreated the silhouette, we made silk petticoats to cover the netting in order to protect the beautiful silk fabric of the garments going on display.

The image on the left below shows the wadding added to the mannequin to fit the measurements of the garment. The image on the right depicts a mannequin before adaptation and the adapted mannequin after the wadding and jersey cover had been added.

The image on the left below shows the mannequin before adaptation and the adapted mannequin with petticoat and layers of gathered netting sewn onto the form. The image on the right shows the completed mannequin with its silk petticoats.

Mounting historic dress for display makes a huge difference to how the clothes appear in an exhibition. The mounts properly support the clothes while on display ensuring their preservation. Mounts also help to embody the clothing and make the garments look as they would have if a person was wearing them! With clothing made bespoke by a dressmaker, such as this ensemble, a proper mount made to the measurements of the garment gives us a sense of the body of the person who the clothing was originally made for. I hope you can see how mounting historic dress for display makes a huge difference to how the clothes appear in an exhibition. This is a really exciting time for me as I see the clothing coming to life (so to speak!) as we prepare the garments for the exhibition. I hope that you will visit the museum to view the exhibition when it opens later this year and that the costume mounting will make the clothing come to life for you too! 

The images below show the ensemble on the finished mount ready for display in the exhibition.