Bust enhancement

This week we have been dressing mannequins to add to our Fashion Timeline display. The exhibition is a permanent feature of the museum but the individual garments on view have to be replaced regularly. We are working on replacing the pieces from the 1840s-70s which are now due for rotation. I noticed as we undressed a few of the bodices that there was significant padding to enhance the bust line. Coincidentally all four bodices that I examined yesterday had such padding. Because historical dresses were custom made for their wearer, they could easily be crafted to conceal any figure flaws and create the desired silhouette. These four examples clearly had such custom work. It is possible that some of the padding was added by later wearers as the dresses were altered.

The earliest example is from a dress that dates to the late 1840s or 1850. The bodice fastens with hooks and eyes up the back but features a deep opening at the center front. The padding appears to be original to the dress because the two round pads are added between the lining and the silk taffeta of the dress. From the interior you can see the round circles where the padding has been added. The bodice poses a challenge when dressing on the mannequin because we have specially designed forms that have generous bust measurements to accommodate the usual shape of a dress worn with a corset. We will have to find a dress form or mannequin with a relatively flat chest to accommodate the padding.

Plaid silk taffeta dress, ca. 1850 (KSUM 1984.16.15)
Interior of bodice of a plaid silk taffeta dress ca. 1850 (KSUM 1984.16.15). You can see the circles where padding has been added between the silk taffeta outer layer and the inner lining.

The second dress is an evening bodice from a dress of deep pink silk moiré from the 1860s. The dress was probably originally decorated with lace or other trimmings but is now stripped of its ornamentation. The bodice originally laced up the back but at some point hooks and eyes were added and now cover the original openings. A look inside the bodice reveals significant padding added to the bust. The padding is a separate layer added inside the lining so it may have been inserted during a later alteration, perhaps when the hooks and eyes were added.

The third dress is a magnificent ensemble of black silk faille, velvet and lace from ca. 1870. The interior of the dress is beautifully preserved and even includes a label from the New York dressmaker “Mme Douglass.” Unlike the other two dresses, this particular bodice is only padded on one side. The padding appears to be original because although just tacked in inside of the lining the fabric matches the rest of the lining.

The final bodice was discovered in storage while I was looking for additional pieces to add to the Fashion Timeline. The purple taffeta bodice from the 1860s lacks a skirt and is not in perfect condition. However, the fact that it is coming unstitched actually provides a glimpse into how the padding was added. The little pillows have been covered with a layer of waxed cotton which is coming away along the left side. This bodice has padding at the bust and also in the underarm area. Like the other evening bodice made of dark pink silk moiré, the padding may have been added by a later wearer who was not as well endowed as the original owner.

Purple 1860s bodice interior
An evening bodice from the 1860s showing how the padding has been attached at the left.

These bodices which were each custom made for their owner were fitted to the particulars of her body. Some of them had padding added when they were originally made in order to disguise figure flaws. Others may have been reworked to fit a new body. In many cases, these later alterations are as interesting aspect of the life of the garment as its original construction.

Sara Hume
Curator/Associate Professor

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2 thoughts on “Bust enhancement

  1. This is super fascinating! I can’t find images of the first dress you showed (KSUM 1984.16.15) on the KSUM online archive or anywhere online, and I’d LOVE to see it because I’ve never seen a gown with s slit down the front like that! Do you know where I might be able to see images of the gown?

    • There is no photo of the dress because it has never been exhibited or mounted since it came into the museum collection in the early 80s. We are working on preparing it for exhibition and at some point while it is on exhibit we will photograph it. I will be sure to share the photographs once we have them.

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