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Giving a mannequin a hand (and an arm and a head)

Displaying garments requires thought and preparation.
July 2, 2018
Image of clothing dummies

Prior to dressing, mannequins must be prepped.

Exhibiting historic clothes in a museum setting requires very different design and preparation than displaying outfits in a retail environment.

In conjunction with the Lab’s 75th anniversary, the Museum assisted in designing a display that features uniforms from the Manhattan Project era, for use by an internal group to commemorate “National Security Science Day.”

Exhibiting historic clothes in a museum setting requires very different design and preparation than displaying outfits in a retail environment. Stores use mannequins to help you imagine how certain items would look were you to purchase and wear them today. In contrast, a garment exhibit in a museum setting aims to tell a story (often about the past) and bring the textiles to life.

Just as people come in many different shapes and sizes, so do their clothes. As a result, the first step in developing a display is finding the right size of mannequin. If the figure is too big, the clothing will not fit. If too small, the outfit could end up hanging like an old sack.

Once we select the proper model form, padding and other items must be added to protect and support the clothing. Mannequin height, arm length, and orientation must also appropriately represent and convey the context of the uniform on display.

No detail is too small; posture, head placement (if one is used), and even potential hand gestures must all be determined. For example, mannequin features that look appropriate for a World War II general might not look right for a woman’s dress from the 1890's.

Once the “costumes,” (which is standard terminology) are in place, we use techniques such as steaming to render them wrinkle-free while ensuring the garment does not incur any damage.

As the Museum does not routinely display full uniforms, our Museum Artifacts Collection Specialist, Wendy Strohmeyer, sought assistance from others in the museum community. Santa Fe’s New Mexico History Museum also lent us several mannequins for the temporary display.

The Museum obtained the uniforms used for display through a donation by Jan and Roger Rasmussen, a couple who worked at Los Alamos during World War II.