How to pad a dress stand to support period garments

Padding a dress stand physically supports a garment and helps to convey a number of messages about how people altered, enhanced or revealed parts of their bodies.

For this exercise you will need:

  • Reference material

  • A textile covered dress form that is smaller than the dimensions of your garment

  • Paper scissors

  • Curved (upholstery) needle and thread

  • Glass headed pins

  • Polyester Dacron - ideally 140-170 gm*

  • Dust mask

*Dacron is made from thermally bonded polyester fibres which get everywhere, including your lungs. When padding a dress form it is advisable to wear a decorator’s dust mask and ensure all objects are safely packed away.

Step 1: Do not only rely on the garment measurement to inform padding. Research and survey reference material of similar dates. Look primarily at photographs and fashions plates of the era in question rather than modern interpretations of the period such as other museum displays or modern illustrations. Studying underwear of the relevant era is also very helpful to understand the appropriate silhouette and get a sense of what was happening to the body inside the garments.

Always keep reference material to hand to refer to whilst applying padding.

Step 2: Mark up your diagram outlining where you intend to put padding based on the need to marry the measurements of the dress stand to the dimensions of the garment. This should be done after the dress form has been selected and a carefully detailed first fitting carried out.

Step 3: Mark the new waist position based on the measurement from the nape of the neck to the garment waist. Also, mark the approximate position of the bust using the point to point and dart measurements from the garment.

Step 4: Approach the torso as distinct areas keeping in mind basic human anatomy. For example, rather than increase the waist measurement by wrapping a single piece of wadding around it, think of the stomach, high hip and muscles around the lower back as separate sections. Keep in mind the effect a corset or other period undergarments would have on flesh and fat around these muscle groups.

Controlled padding helps to creates form. Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

Step 5: Cut pieces of wadding to the approximate shape and size of the area you are working on using paper scissors since polyester will quickly blunt the blades of good fabric shears.

Pieces of wadding cut to the approximate shape and size. Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

Step 6: Gently thin and tease out the edges of your cut shapes with your fingertips until you achieve a ‘feathered’ edge.

Gently thin and tease out the edges of your cut shapes. Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

Step 7: Lay the wadding piece into position on the form. Secure with glass headed pins that are not so easily lost in wadding fibres.

Step 8: With your large curved (upholstery) needle attach the Dacron padding with a large herringbone stitch across the feathered edges. Once stitched down, ensure all pins are removed from the padding.

Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

Build up the layers as if map contouring, this approach will build up a soft organic body shape that will help enormously to fit and interpret the garment.

Step 9: Check the progress of padding by measuring often, particularly at the bust, waist and nape to waist. These dimensions offer a useful reference point for other measurements, especially when looking at relevant reference images. Thorough checking of measurements should reduce the number of fittings needed and keep handling to a minimum. This is important when working with fragile historic dress collections.

Suit, Woman’s, circa 1997, Wellington, by Peter Homan. Gift of Dame Jenny Shipley, 2018. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (GH018264)

Step 10: Once the form is of the desired shape and size, protect your garment from abrasive padding fibres with a temporary cover before fitting the garment onto the stand. Sheer stretch fabric is the ideal material for this although a cotton jersey can be used or even a pair of tights with a small hole cut into the gusset to fit over the neck!

Using tights as garment protection. Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

Same size 8 Purfex© dress form before and after padding. Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

A carefully and sympathetically padded torso makes the best base for your garment mount. A temporary cover allows you to carry out a fitting at this stage to feel confident that the body shape will support the garment adequately.