How Dress Forms Are Made

Dress forms are incredibly important in fashion design. They are the forms a designer, tailor, or seamstress use to drape new patterns or fit garments properly on a body. They are a stand in to a real live model, one you can stick pins in and that never fidget.

As a fashion historian, I use dress forms often to exhibit garments or explain to students how historical clothing fits on the body.

So I was excited to find this video from the Science Channel on the making of dress forms. Each are still hand made of cardboard, paste, and muslin. I had no idea how they created the forms’ collapsible shoulders. Take a look!

The Calash


calash, 18th century, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the second half of the 1700s, women’s hairstyles grew to be very elaborate in extreme sizes. The most fashionable and wealthy women were known to sport extravagant coifs. But women were still expected to wear hats for protection and modesty. For outdoor use, the calash was introduced.

The calash was a style of bonnet or hood designed to accommodate the large hairdos, without damaging them. Supported by semi-hoops, the calash was made of fabric and looked like a French carriage. It was worn through the mid 19th century.


calash, 19th century, from Museum of Fine Arts Boston


calash, c. 1820, from Metropolitan Museum of Art


calash, mid 19th century, from Museum of Fine Arts Boston

As you might expect with such an odd-looking, oversized accessory, the calash was ripe for satire. Cartoonists took aim in their illustrations.




The cartoons were exaggerations, meant to mock women for their fashionable choices in hairstyles and hats. But what did the calash actually look like in real life? The photos below reveal a more accurate proportion.


The above photos were taken in the late 19th century, many decades after the calash went out of fashion. The best guess is that the woman pictured is dressed up in historical 1820s fashions, specifically for the photograph. Even though the hat and dress are in essence a costume, it is still a great look at what the calash actually looked like on a woman.

Friday File

Happy Friday! I admit I am ready for Spring Break next week, even if it means I still have to work. I had a lot of class visits in the Fashion Study Collection this week plus a donor visit. I need a rest from lecturing, even if that means getting some monotonous cataloging done at my desk. Is there something you do at work that is commonly thought of as boring but you actually enjoy (at least from time to time)?

Aside from work, I’m looking forward to the Marc Le Bihan trunk show at Robin Richman this weekend. His spring/summer collection and pre-sale fall/winter collection will be 15% off, and there is a cocktail reception tonight.

Now, the best links of the week:

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has smart, funny, and compelling thoughts on gender, feminism, and Africa and she’s stylish as all heck. Her Ted talk is incredible. I need to get my hands on her books. Someone get this woman a bigger platform immediately!

My good friend Liz is headed to the National Stationary Show. And her business, Betsy Ann Paper, needs a little help with a Kickstarter. If you love beautifully crafted stationary, you will want to back this. The rewards are stellar!

I’m planning to sit down with my iPad this weekend and read through the New York Times special section on Museums, which was published earlier in the week.

We need to do something to better support female fashion designers in the United States. The following section, reported as industry culture, makes me rage: “Over the past six months, I’d estimate that nearly a dozen publicists and designers have mentioned to me that it’s more difficult to sell an editor on a female designer. To them, the hierarchy goes like this: straight men first, gay men second, women third.”

I would visit a Museum of Food and Drinks.

I can’t wait until the Yves Saint Laurent movie comes out (June 25)! Also, I’m clutching my pearls over so many original garments worn in the film.

Rena Tom wrote a great piece that muses over handcraft versus machine craft.

Designer L’Wren Scott was found dead on Monday, which was ruled a suicide. Cathy Horyn wrote a personal reflection about Scott’s life and her relationship with the deceased designer.

Black Pump Hunt

RIP Nine West pointy toe pumps. They died a few months ago, unable to be revived by the cobbler one more time. I’ve been leaning heavily on my Madewell booties to get me by. But I finally decided enough was enough — my wardrobe couldn’t support the void any longer.

So my quest became finding a low, delicate heel with an extremely pointy toe in black. I favored d’Orsay styles — closed heel and toe, cut down to the sole on the sides — this time around because I find the shape interesting. D’Orsay pumps were popular in the 1940s, and I’m happy they are having a revival.

A big concern was finding a heel that didn’t provide too much coverage. I know that sounds odd when you are talking about shoes, but low-heeled, pointy-toe shoes can go matronly fast. A little less leather, a little more foot revealed is sexier.

These Calvin Klein Dolly heels are classic and would get the job done. I like the slight contour dip on the outer edge. They were a solid contender.

I considered these French Connection d’Orsay pumps. The striped toe is textured, which is a cool detail to break up a monotony of black. The kitten heel is cute and practical too.

I dreamed about buying the Jess pumps by Kate Spade New York. The shoes have smooth contouring, which adds a hint more femininity. These are as timeless as you can get my friends.

These Christian Louboutin Malachic pumps went on my Pinterest wishlist board immediately. The wingtip vamp is equal parts lady and evil. Just like Malificent, right?

I ended up trying these Mairi heels from Nine West. My last pumps were from Nine West, and they lasted years (with some cobbler touchups). But alas, the vamp pinched my feet too much and sizing up only caused them to slip off my heel as I walked.

I finally settled on Anne Klein’s Christa heels. They fit great, are made of buttery leather, and have an alluring d’Orsay shape. The heel is slightly higher than my general preference (three inches), but they were comfortable for a full day of work last Friday. They seem to have solid construction, so let’s hope they last.

Clovers in Fashion

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! In honor of the holiday, I rounded up some cool examples of clovers in fashion design. Enjoy and Erin go Bragh!








Friday File

I’ve got good news to report — my strep throat is gone! And it’s the weekend, and I’m looking forward to celebrating my birthday (belatedly) with friends. Hope everyone has a great weekend too.

And now some links:


I feel strongly about overhead lights (ask my husband how much I dislike them). It delights me that David Sedaris feels the same. Seriously, this short story is lovely. I love how he describes his mother in candle light. Also, if you’ve heard Sedaris’ voice, is it possible to read a Sedaris piece in any other voice than Sedaris’? I think not.

In The Business of Fashion, Mark C. Oflaherty wonders if camera phones are killing fashion. I have to say, I agree with him mostly. I hate the crappy shots of fashion shows that appeared in my Instagram feed throughout the past month. Sure, every once in a while there’s a good image. But for the most part, the editors who attend them need a HUGE lesson in editing. Don’t post everything! And stop posting so many pictures of yourself. Seriously. It’s not just the fashion hanger-ons. Editors at major publications are just as guilty of terrible camera phone images and narcissistic selfies.

Robin Givhan examines how McQueen and Valentino have evolved since their founders left both fashion houses.

Oscar red-carpet fashion has a big economic impact on the brands who appear (or don’t appear) on celebrities. Vanessa Friedman and Elizabeth Paton break down who “won” Sunday evening. P.S. You need a subscription to read the article, but it’s free and totally worth it. Friedman is a really great critic, and I always love her analysis.

I never knew that arm knitting was a thing, but I totally want one of these “arm cowls.” They look so cozy, and who knows if winter will ever end in Chicago.

Oscar’s Red Carpet

The cold I was fighting off at the end of last week hit me hard this weekend, and it was confirmed that I have strep throat. So my lovely weekend plans with my parents were scrapped, and we spent most of it at home.

But I did stay up and watch the Oscars last night, because that kind of thing is up my alley. Unfortunately, I thought the red carpet was a bit dull this year. Nothing stood out as particularly stunning, but there were a few I enjoyed.


Lupita Nyong’o in Prada, photo by Jordan Stauss/Invision/AP

Lupita Nyong’o looked light and youthful in her pretty Prada gown. I thought Sandra Bullock was alluring in a very figure-flattering McQueen. I liked the way Cate Blanchett’s Giorgio Armani gown glittered as she moved. And Emma Watson looked smashing in her understated Vera Wang.


Sandra Bullock in Alexander McQueen, photo by Jordan Stauss/Invision/AP


Cate Blanchett in Giorgio Armani, photo by Jordan Stauss/Invision/AP


Emma Watson in Vera Wang, photo by Jordan Stauss/Invision/AP

Who were your favorites last night? I’m curious if you also thought things were pretty tame, and if there was anything good I missed. There sure are a lot of celebrities, so I’m sure I didn’t see everything.


Kevin Spacey in Burberry, photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage

Update: Also, I would be remiss not to point out the great Burberry suit Kevin Spacey wore last night. I love the black peaked lapel contrasting the navy blue of his suit. This was a great look for him.

Friday File

My parents are coming into town this weekend, and I’m looking forward to their visit. I’m taking them to Publican, a meat-centric restaurant with communal tables. All week I’ve been excited to get oysters!

I’m trying to fend off getting sick too. This has been a bad winter for my health. Stay warm, healthy, and have a great weekend!

And now here are this week’s links:


Solon and Emma Borglum in the Artist's Paris Studio, c. 1899, from Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of Peter H. Hassrick

I had no idea cowboy artists in Paris were a thing during the late Victorian era.

Great blog post by the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection on the shirt-waist, a blouse women wore at the turn of the century.

I think libraries are awesome, and so is this piece proclaiming their hipness.

My colleague and former boss, Karen Herbaugh of the American Textile History Museum, was interviewed about wearing pajamas in public alongside Clinton Kelly. Karen shared her historical point of view, while Clinton brought his What Not To Wear-trademark assessment.

I was fascinated by this piece in The Atlantic called “The Death of the Cool Feminist Smoker.”

I’m not sure I understand normcore. Do you get it?

I’m trying to figure out how I can see the traveling exhibition of Dr. Seuss’ hats.

A Century of Party Dresses

A few months ago, I was interviewed by Collectors Weekly about party dresses throughout the 20th century. We covered almost every decade, defining what looks were predominant. The interview was posted on Monday, and I wanted to share it with you. I had a lot of fun talking about party dresses!

It’s kind of funny to read a transcription of the way you talk, but this is my voice through and through. I only went on a handful of tangents, which as my interviewer Hunter said, “that’s often when you get to the most fascinating tidbits.”

I hope you enjoy!

The 1870s Lobster Bustle


evening dress, about 1873, from McCord Museum

In the 1870s, dresses shifted in shape dramatically. Instead of a full circle encompassing the wearer as was worn throughout most of the 19th century to this point, the skirt took the shape of an ellipse. The skirt was narrow over the hips; instead the fullness moved to the back. By 1873, this new shape was pronounced, and by 1875, it was often referred to as a mermaid’s tail.

Have you ever wondered how this shape was accomplished? How did they support all the volume at the back of the skirt?

To fill out this shape, a new bustle combined the crinolines of earlier decades with structural support in the rear. Sometimes called a lobster bustle, the structure is accomplished with exaggerated horizontal wire ribs or horsehair padding in a crinoline skirt that is slim at the front and sides.

Take a look at these great examples!

bustle, 1870s, from American Textile History Museum

bustle, 1873, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

bustle, 1870s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

bustle, 1870s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

I really love the lobster bustles from 1870s. Such a cool shape. Like architecture underneath a dress. And they do remind me of lobster tails!