Measuring a garment and selecting a form

Learn about the key measurements you need to make to prepare a garment for display on a mannequin or dress form.

The first step in mounting a costume is to gather accurate measurements of key dimensions of the garment.

Always try to take your own measurements as it’s not always possible to rely on the accuracy of others.

Lay the garment on a clean flat surface and use a narrow tape measure wherever possible as it is easier to manipulate this into fabric folds etc.

It is important to gather circumference measurements from the inside of the garment to get a true result and remember to measure to the fastening points rather than the edges of openings.

Taking measurements can be fiddly and time-consuming and it’s worth measuring twice to confirm dimensions. Asking a colleague to help open up a garment or hold a tape-measure end can reduce the risk of damage to the garment and improve accuracy.

Measuring the waistband of a fragile dress with a slim tape-measure. Photo by Sam Gatley

Key Dimensions

Green and fawn dress (bodice and skirt), circa 1855, maker unknown. Purchased 1951. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (PC000128)


  • Waist: Around the narrowest part of the bodice and/or waistband.

  • Bust: Through the fullest circumference of the bodice, usually under the arm and at the tip of darts on the bodice front.

  • Nape to waist: This is the length of the back, from the centre back of the collar line to the waistline. It is useful to try and estimate this measurement even if you are working with a garment that has a low cut neck-line (see image).

  • Length of sleeve: Usually from the shoulder seam to the cuff.

  • Around cuff: Measure on the inside of the hem if possible taking fastenings into account.

  • High hip: Is usually positioned about 8cm below the waistline.


Evening Dress, about 1890, London, by Mrs Oliver, Modes & Robes. Gift of Joan Moore, 1984. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (PC002880)

  • Waist: Around the narrowest point or the waist band. Remember to consider the positioning of fastenings

  • Lower hip: At the widest circumference over the bottom

  • Waist to hem: Length of the front

  • Waist to hem: Length of the back

  • Hem circumference: If there is a train it is best to lay the skirt flat and take an approximate horizontal diameter measurement.

These measurements should be used to inform the choice of mannequin or dress form.

It is crucial to remember that a dress form that is significantly smaller than the garment is needed to mount a historic dress of any period as you will need to alter the overall silhouette to the fashion of a specific era.

Commercially available mannequins reflect a modern ideal of the female form and cannot easily be made smaller. Even a size 8 can be too large to safely dress a period ensemble onto.

If in doubt seek advice from a conservator as significant damage can be done to garments by forcing them onto forms of the incorrect shape and size.