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CIAD exhibition costume mounting workshops

Written by Daniele Alexandre:
Costume mounting.  What comes into your mind when you read these two words together?

Mannequin 1Maybe simplistic actions such as acquire a quality mannequin first, then see if the size of the costume fits on mannequin’s body and then, finally, make little adjustments on the garment so it looks as good looking as what is seen in shop window displays that we are used to seeing every day.

Surprisingly it is soooo beyond these three steps! And this is what I’ve been learning with the costume mounting workshops training provided by CIAD’s partnership with Gesa Werner and Suzana Fajardo, both professionals from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

On our first day of training Gesa introduced her work by showing us some examples from the V&A collection, so we could visualize the telling difference between a costume dressed on a standard mannequin, with no previous adjustments, and one fitted on a crafted dummy.
Costume mounting is a mix of artisan and plastic surgeon skills. These skills are needed to give impression of a real body, historically and physically speaking. All is studied, from the head to the toes – all the volumes, shapes, curves and everything else that defines the human body. Gesa explained that we need to be precise in what we want to add to a mannequin and visualize the whole process in a 3-dimensional way.

Furthermore, Gesa and Susana highlighted that costume mounting is systematic work. It is not only about fitting the garment properly, but also about its conservation during the time it will be exhibited. Concerns such as the weight of the materials used to construct a garment; the condition of a piece and the difficulties this can pose to the overall integrity of the garment in terms of strain to the fabric or damage to its original shape; and, of course, how to avoid some external agents, like light and dust with a view of minimising the damage these can cause to the costume being displayed.

After the theory the practice began! The first day only myself, Kate and Tony (two of my fellow assistants) were a part of the workshop.  We got so excited with the possibility of literally sculpting a new body. So from this time we started to dedicate our weekends in June and July to transform flat mannequins into curvy Afro-Caribbean women!

Before we started the mounting process Kate, Tony and I were presented with three Caribbean costumes to mount.  These costumes were reproduced by Teleica Kirkland, CIAD’s creative director, and by Tony, a trained seamstress with Caribbean heritage.  Teleica and Tony spoke about the history of each costume, showing us some pictures of how they are worn.

Mannequin 4Each of us had to choose a costume to mount. I really wanted to mount the Jamaican national costume but as I saw that Tony wanted to mount that costume as well, I decided to mount a costume from the French Caribbean instead. Kate chose to mount a garment from Carriacou.

We used our recently acquired knowledge from Teleicia’s and Tony’s talk to work with Gesa and Susana to make the required adjustments to our mannequins.

In my case, I needed to lower the waist so I could make the hips larger and also make bust more voluminous. The intention was to define the mannequin’s curves in a subtle and proportional way. Gesa taught us that to add these extra volumes we need a material called wadding that we could mould in infinite forms.

The main concern when padding mannequins is to avoid unnatural looking bumps and adding too much padding so that when the mannequin is covered with black jersey in the final stage of its manufacture, it doesn’t look over-stuffed. At each place that we added volume we also needed to visualize the other parts that we need to fill, so the body shape doesn’t show any strange gaps. Layers of wading were added in the shoulders, shoulder blades, tummy and ribs areas to create contours and proportional curves.

Mannequin 3Personally, I’ve already done some hand-sewing, however, to be honest, I was never that good. I could do some random stitches when necessary, but my motor coordination has always been quite clumsy and I’m the kind of person that get distracted easily, so it was a challenge to me to keep a pattern while doing the “herring bone” stitch used to hold the wadding to the calico of the mannequin. I must say that it was quite a fight to do what was needed though I guess I did quite well.

In the first weekend the work required to build up a mannequin was quite hard, but I was so keen to do it that I didn’t give up. Gesa and Susana were always near, telling me to keep calm and reinforcing that with practice, patience and passion you can finish the work and feel happy with the result.

Apart from all the responsibilities we also had pleasant times. Undoubtedly we are going to miss these 2 months of meetings. Our conversations during the tea/coffee break, the amazing summer environment of the studio at Dock Cottages and, of course, our lovely and “curvylicious” mannequins, that become like babies in our heart!