How do you dress a mannequin?

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First, I will begin with a confession. I do love a good museum mannequin. Obsession is perhaps too strong a word to use, but I can’t resist taking a picture whenever I see one. When the opportunity arose to go behind the scenes and watch the mannequins being dressed for the ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition I just couldn’t help myself.

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The first thing I noticed about the mannequins was their cold grey alien forms, it made them feel frozen in time, lacking personality and life. But when I looked closer I could see the detail and the amount of work that had gone into sculpting their faces and in particular their hands, which were amazingly lifelike.

Amazing detail on the hands
Amazing detail on the hands

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I enjoyed the chance to talk about changing fashions in mannequin designs, from museums using flesh-toned shop ‘dummies’ in the 1960s and 70s, to the more modern conservation-grade examples being used today. These mannequins were made from a fibre glass resin with low styrene grade. I was beginning to see that there was more to this mannequin making than meets the eye.

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We talked about how difficult it is to use clothes made 100 years ago, when people were not the same size or shape as they are today. Each mannequin has to be carefully sculpted and made to measure in order to fit the clothes. In particular, the female mannequin, which needed very slim calves to fit the leather gaiters of her uniform.

Stage 1 dismantle your mannequin
Stage 1 dismantle your mannequin

I watched them dress a female motorcycle rider from start to finish. It is vaguely reminiscent of attempting to dress a recalcitrant toddler, although I am not sure I have ever turned any of mine upside down to put their trousers on. At one point there were three grown men on their knees attempting to lace up some incredibly intricate gaiters. Joking aside, what immediately becomes apparent is the time and effort involved in getting it right, dressing the mannequin whilst also not damaging the original First World War clothing.

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'gloves on hands then on arms' Or 'hands on arms and gloves on'
‘gloves on hands then on arms’ Or ‘hands on arms and gloves on’

The display itself can cause all manner of complications, if the design ideal demands a striding mannequin, legs split, how do you support the mannequin in the display case? If you don’t want an unsightly (and painful) pole between the legs you are looking at damaging the shoes and museum artefacts in order to put a hole and anchor point for the mannequin.

Pole between the legs
Pole between the legs
Or pole in the foot?
Or pole in the foot?

The practicalities of moving the mannequins down to the exhibition space and installing them are also fraught with a few hair-raising moments. I think I have become quite emotional attached to my new mannequin friends.

I am not sure that is going to fit!
I am not sure that is going to fit!

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When I finally see my fully dressed female dispatch rider installed, I have a strong feeling of pride in her finished appearance. I am not responsible for the work involved but I have witnessed her birth. That once-naked grey mannequin lacked life, colour and purpose, she is now resplendent.

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The uniform is so smart, I can’t but think of the pride of those women who took part in the First World War. I think of the time it would have taken her to dress; did she tuck the laces of her gaiters in behind the buckle as we have done or did she leave them out? Did those gloves keep her warm? How did she wear her scarf?

Laces in or laces out?
Laces in or laces out?

Without me really realising it, the mannequin is telling me the story of this unknown motorcycle rider who wore this uniform, who played her part in the First World War. Now she is taking her part again, this exhibition is about more than machinery, it is about individuals, the men and women who all had a role to play. So when you visit, make sure you seek out the mannequins, because they also have a story to tell, often overlooked, but never to be forgotten.

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