Dressing a garment

Dressing a garment onto a mannequin is likely the most stressful moment in its life as a collection item. In this guide, learn about the practical steps that can help to create appropriate and believable body shapes that aid in the care, interpretation and presentation of textile garments.

Historic garments can be used as a dramatic focal point in the telling of an exhibition story however they are also one of the trickiest collection items to prepare for display.

Bustle dress, silk satin with cotton lining, whale bone, and metal fastenings, James Spence and Company, manufacturer(s); 1885/1890; London. Gift of Mrs. M. Hely, 1979. Te Papa (PC001941)

This is because they are so intrinsically linked to the body and in many cases a particular wearer at a specific time. In order to safely and sympathetically display items of dress, it is essential to give serious thought to the display method and selection of the mannequin dress form.

Before the mounting of a skirt and bodice ensemble. 'Going away' dress, about 1887 brown silk and velvet with Petersham trim. Te Papa PC002693 

‘Going away’ dress, 1879, maker unknown. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (PC002693)

Dressing a garment onto a mannequin is likely the most stressful moment in its life as a collection item. The processes of dressing and undressing have the potential to cause immediate and lasting damage to a textile.

Manipulating a garment onto a rigid and unyielding mannequin or dress form can place a huge amount of strain on the textile and the process always requires a high level of care and sensitivity.

Undressed mount for the brown silk and velvet 'Going away' dress. Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

Dressing and undressing can be made even more eye-watering where a garment is damaged or fragile. For this reason, it is crucial to check the garment over for signs of weakness or deterioration before attempting to fit it onto a form.

Areas to pay particular attention to

Under the arms

The combination of perspiration and increased movement can result in textiles that are weakened and damaged in this area.

The bodice of a walking dress, circa 1897, maker unknown. Gift of Mrs P E Cousins, date unknown. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (PC001068)


Hooks, loops and bars on waistbands are often particularly worn and may need attention before they can safely be used to hold a garment in position upon a form. These metal components may have rusted which means they are weakened and may also risk staining any textile they come into contact with.


Check the stitching along seams to make sure it is secure. It’s worth paying particular attention to bodice side seams and shoulder seams.

The overall textile

Look for areas of fading and colour loss, this can indicate areas of weakness. Look inside pleats and at inside seam allowances to gauge the original colour of the textile and measure against areas that may have been exposed to damaging levels of light.

*Before you begin mounting any ensemble be sure that your garments are in a stable condition to handle and fit onto a dress form. If in any doubt please seek advice from a conservation professional.

Handling historic textiles

Afternoon dress, about 1850, maker unknown. Gift of Mrs P Cousins, 1965. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (PC001060)

Handling a garment is best done with a high level of care and sensitivity to ensure the garment remains in the best possible condition.

Wearing well-fitting disposable nitrile gloves is ideal for handling textiles to protect them from natural oils and acids on your hands.

Clean cotton gloves can also be used, and freshly washed and dried hands are occasionally appropriate if textiles are particularly fine and fragile.

Think about where you are moving garments from and to. Always ensure routes are clear and there is a big enough, clean space to lay the garment out upon.

Ensure you have enough help to properly support heavy or large garments. Fitting or dressing is always best attempted with at least two people to safely support and manoeuvre the garment onto the form.

Always fully support a garment to make sure the weight is evenly distributed.

Further information:

The New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials | Pū Manaaki Kahurangi

Caring for Textiles and Clothing – He Rauemi Resource Guide (1.19 MB)