An 18th Century Bride and an Introduction to Costume Mounting

It finally feels like the preparation for Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 is properly underway, and the first object we have been working on is a Spitalfields silk gown worn in 1775 by Sarah Boddicot, when she married Samuel Tyssen at St Johns Church in Hackney on 28th September. Before showing the initial stages of mounting this particular dress, it seems pertinent to first explain a little bit about what costume mounting actually is, and why it is so important in the display of V&A dress objects.

Costume mounting is a preventive conservation practice relating to the way we display our garments at the V&A. As such, the underpinnings and padding we apply are multi-functional in that they provide a supportive foundation for the garment to rest upon, ensuring that the costume is not under stress, while also acting as replacements for the period underwear which would have once supported the garment.

Putting an outfit onto a mannequin can at first appear to be a very straightforward task and people are often surprised to hear the amount of time that goes into the mounting of three-dimensional textiles for display. However, once you get a peep at what goes on beneath the costumes, it all becomes a little clearer.

Photographs showing the stages of mounting a muslin pelisse on a mannequin

The images here briefly demonstrate the process of costume mounting as it happens at the V&A, and this garment is one of many which have spent the last three years travelling around the world with the Wedding Dresses exhibition. This stage of conservation can take anything between 5 and 25 hours per garment, depending on the complexity of the object.

Each and every mannequin is carefully selected so as to be smaller than the garment to be displayed on it. This allows us to pad the mannequin up to the specific dimensions of the costume, as determined when we carry out object assessments.

Padding is applied to the figure with polyester wadding, which is stitched firmly to the form in order to create the correct period shape. This figure is then covered with a stretch fabric, on top of which we add layers of underpinnings, usually made from net, calico and silk, to take the place of any period undergarments.

However, not every mannequin is the perfect starting shape, and the figure we selected for Sarah Boddicot was one such example. Rather than simply start padding, we first had to start chopping down!

Costume Mounting Specialist Keira Miller removing the bust from a papier-mâché figure

Beginning reconstruction of the bust, ready to apply padding

Often, the bust position on modern mannequins is incorrect for period garments such as this. The corsets and stays worn by women of the 18th and 19th centuries had a great influence on the fashionable silhouettes, and in this example, the bust would have been held much higher due to the rigidly boned stays beneath. There was nothing for it, the bust had to go.

With the bust gone entirely, we could get on with reconstructing it in the correct position and beginning to apply padding. 

Padding up the figure to an 18th century shape.

Padding up the figure to an 18th century shape

Below you can see the garment at the second fitting stage. The next step from here will be to start thinking about how to make the petticoats to hold the skirt up correctly.

The garment halfway through mounting

More updates to come as the project progresses…

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