Follow the Thread

a textile & costume history blog from the Design Center at Thomas Jefferson University

Behind the Scenes of “Behind the Seams”


Behind the Seams exhibit, Hayward Hall, first floor, on view through October 15

∼ by Jade Papa

Nestled amongst the cases that display the work of our talented fashion design undergraduates on the first floor of Hayward Hall on Thomas Jefferson’s East Falls campus, you might notice a case where the garments look a little different from the rest. The Textile & Costume Collection is thrilled to have the opportunity to display a rotating selection of pieces highlighting a small sliver of the treasures our collection has to offer.

The inaugural display is one I’ve dubbed Behind the Seams. Three garments were chosen: a cocktail dress from the 1960s, a bustle dress circa 1880, and a Japanese kimono. In their own unique way, each of these garments focuses on the design potential at the back of the figure.

Often when we are invited to gaze upon mannequins, we are presented with the front of the garments while the backs remain frustratingly out of view. In real life, we have more opportunities to see garments in three dimensions with the back of the figure playing an important role in the overall design and impact of the garment – think of the vantage point of the audience to the bride in traditional Western weddings.

While these three garments from the Textile & Costume Collection are stunning from a variety of viewpoints, each eventually draws the viewer’s eye to a distinct focal point at the back of the figure. Spanning the globe and history, these garments remind us that in design, considering the figure in the round is something that can create an impact at any angle.

In this post, I’ll be focusing on the preparation involved in mounting the remarkable bustle dress pictured above.  Hidden in its box in our storage for decades, this is the first time the dress has been displayed. I wanted to make sure that each element of its construction – the individual hand embroidered buttons, the gorgeous silk jacquard fabric paired with coordinating bias strip details, the ruching and pleating of the skirt inserts – was shown to its best advantage.  

Bodice construction details

The process starts with a detailed set of measurements of the garment itself. I needed these to compare to the measurements of the dress forms we have available for display. It was almost guaranteed that we wouldn’t have one that was a perfect match, but I needed to find something that was in the ballpark so that it could be appropriately padded to correspond to the measurements of the dress. Although this dress, which is around 140 years old, is in fantastic shape, the padding not only serves to create a foundation that fills out the garment but, almost more importantly, aids in supporting it while on display. 

The woman wearing this dress in the early 1880s would have been wearing many layers of undergarments. One of those layers was a corset, which, along with the bustle below the waist, created an artificial shape. To make sure that I was capturing not only the dimensions of the garment, but also the appropriate silhouette of the period, I searched for examples to refer to as I began sculpting with padding on the dress form. The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art provided a number of good examples as did fashion plates of the period.

With the garment’s dimensions and these research materials in hand, I began padding the dress form I’d chosen. My materials consisted of a pair of pantyhose, needle punch batting and felt, pins to temporarily hold those items in place, and a tape measure. After cutting off the legs of the pantyhose, I slipped it over the foam dress form. This layer created a surface to which the padding could eventually be stitched. 

Needle punch means that the nonwoven material is not bonded with resins that might be harmful to materials placed on top of it, but is created mechanically using a long needle to entangle the fibers. Using appropriate archival materials is an important consideration when dealing with historic clothing and textiles. 

The padding in progress. The dimensions of the garment dictated a fuller bust and a waistline that was lower than the one of the dress form.

The goal is to use the initial measurements to get close to the dimensions of the garment without having to try it on the form more than is necessary. When it appeared I was close to achieving the measurements, I did carefully slip the bodice on the form for a final check. A few adjustments here and there and a few more additional layers of padding and it was ready to be permanently stitched in place. 

Using a cross stitch without knotting the ends (a simple backstitch is secure and eliminates bulk), I made my way around each of the layers of padding and batting attempting to make the edges as flat as possible. In areas with distinct ridges, I added more batting to smooth everything out. When all this stitching was finished, a jersey cover was placed over the entire form to serve as an additional barrier between the now appropriately dimensioned form and the bodice. 

For the bustle understructure necessary to create the shape below the waist and support the skirt, I was fortunate to have access to the costume stock of a theatre where I had previously worked. They were kind enough to lend me the reproduction bustle necessary to support the swell of the skirts that begins at the low back and continues down into the train of the dress. On top of this I placed an additional petticoat to smooth all of the layers.

Before installation in Hayward, the entire ensemble was photographed so that even those who can’t make it to campus to see the display can appreciate this remarkable garment. At this point, it was finally time to carefully transport everything across the street and install it alongside the other two pieces

These three garments will be on display until mid-October.  Over the course of the academic calendar, we look forward to bringing you more rarely seen pieces from the Textile & Costume Collection.  Keep your eye on the blog where we’ll provide more behind-the-scenes details and historical context for the items you can see in-person on the first floor of Hayward Hall.

Curator and Adjunct Professor, Textile & Costume Collection, The Design Center, Thomas Jefferson University

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