Detail of dress as it is now

Differences in interpretation while dressing

While dressing the mannequins for the latest exhibition, ‘A Day at the Beach’ it was brought home to me how much subjectivity there is in preparing the dresses for exhibition. In many cases I realized how many choices I had to make in creating the silhouette and accessorizing the dresses. Before arranging the mannequins on the platforms in the Alumni Gallery, my assistant, Joanne Arnett, and I photographed each piece. These photographs provide a perfect opportunity for comparing the way they are currently dressed with earlier photographs of the same pieces as they were dressed in the past.

The main difference between the two interpretations of the dress is that the front and back were reversed. The way the dress currently is has the fasteners up the front while the earlier dressing had the buttons in the back. By placing the buttons in the front there is an awkward placket just to the side of center front. While this is slightly unsightly I have concealed the opening with the end of the wrap. Dressing it with the fasteners up the front enables the collar to fall in a v-shape that echos the wrap. This orientation also puts the gathered, longer end of the skirt to the back.

There has been an alteration to the bodice of the dress which causes the front to lie slightly awkwardly and makes it difficult to fasten the top closure. I have chosen to fill the rather deep v-neck with a collar that is in our collection. The high necked collar of net is from the same period as the dress (ca. 1910).

The confusion over dressing this piece highlights the decisions that must be made by the curator. When the mannequin appears in the gallery, all of the alternative interpretations are obscured in favor of the one that has been selected. The dress as it appears in the gallery naturally appears correct. There is an authority lent by the museum that strongly supports the visitor’s perception that this is how the dress would have looked when it was originally worn. Seeing how radically altered one dress can appear when put on when the forms and accessories are swapped suggests just how challenging it is to dress a mannequin.

Sara Hume, Curator
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2 thoughts on “Differences in interpretation while dressing

  1. As a costume historian and reproductionist, I often have this issue with my own clients. Upside-down corsets, reversed skirts. You can almost always tell when it is correct though, it just clicks. The person or mannequin no longer looks like the clothes are wearing it. Your updated display is just so perfect, the differences are huge. Thanks for sharing the insights.

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