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Help! I have a dress dummy!

So, you’ve bought, begged, borrowed, stolen (I hope not), or been gifted with a dress dummy. It came with directions about how to adjust it to your size. The instructions they gave you were for modern clothing, and you wanted the dummy for to make ‘bethans. And, most importantly, the instructions didn’t say a darned thing about what to do *after* you got the dummy adjusted! How do you use it? Are there care and feeding tips you should know? (No – dress dummies don’t eat. That’s the good news.)

Let’s start with getting that dummy set up for historical costuming. This article is based on working with my dress form, which is a Uniquely You model. It’s squishy — that’s why I bought it.

The first (three) things first – your dummy will need to be corseted, adjusted to your height, and you’ll want to mark the waist line. How you corset the dummy depends on the kind you have. Mine can (with some wrestling) just be laced into an old corset. The formed plastic dummies with the little dial adjusters, which are more common, can’t be. You’ll want to dial the dummy to measurements slightly smaller than yours, wrap and old towel around the midsection to smooth out some of the formed contours, and then corset the dummy.

Most dress dummies adjust up and down on a pole. I adjust Janey so that we stand shoulder to shoulder — you might notice that her shoulders are at a different angle than mine. I judge the height from the outside of the shoulder, as that’s where straps on a bodice hit. It’s a good idea to mark the pole where so that you can easily adjust your dummy in the future. I used a small file to make a scratch I could feel right underneath the little adjuster-do that holds janey in place on her pole. I have two scratches, actually — one at the exact right height, and one about an inch and a half above. I’m a nut, and I do have some costumes meant to be worn with heels. (Heels? On a faire ground? Yeah, well…. My favorite pair of faire shoes have netted me the marvelous nickname, "she of the incredibly impractical footwear".)

The last thing here is to mark the waistline of your dummy. This isn’t always obvious when you’re dealing with costumes. Janey is wearing my first ever attempt at a corset — it’s cut about an inch and a half too long. (It left scars on my back and sides when I wore it.) Most costume pieces fit at or slightly above the natural waistline, so it’s good to know where it is. I use a mirror for this one too — standing shoulder to shoulder with the dummy, I put one hand on my natural waist, and use the mirror to help me stick a pin in janey at the same level. I mark both sides that way, then pin a piece of ribbon all the way around janey at that level. (Note: if one side of your waist is higher than the other, base the waistline measurement on the higher side. You’ll be more comfortable in the long run.)

Next thing’s next — after several years struggling to fit doublets, I’m making janey a pair of falsies. See, the way that high density foam reacts to being corseted is entirely different than the way a human breast reacts. The foam squishes in, while the breast goes *up*. I’m using squares of quilt batting (about 2" total thickness)

I’m just using pins to form that square into something that looks a little more natural.

The pinned batting from the side — it’s larger than I want it, but after I cover it with muslin, it’ll compress down to about the right size.

Some things come in pairs…. Getting both of them to more or less match is more of a trick than I had anticipated.

Two bits of batting are great, but since I plan to use janey for fitting things, I need to cover the batting with muslin so that I can pin things to it without destroying the batting. The muslin is also stretched taut enough to compress the batting somewhat, and give a more natural, rounded sort of shape.

I like things to be nice and neat, so I trimmed the muslin and turned the edges under.

That’s the side view, when all is said and done. It’s not too bad, and it’s a more accurate silhouette than I had when I started….

I’ve used some more ribbons to mark a few more critical lines that I use when making patterns. The red ribbon, at the waistline, was already there. I’ve added a pink ribbon across the bustline — that’s marks a "modesty line" for cutting bodices, so that I don’t have to worry about exposing more than I meant to. The black ribbon running down the center of Janey is the exact center front line. If you look at the closeup, you’ll see that it’s off center from the center line of the corset she’s wearing. I’ve known about that for years, and it makes fittings kind of annoying.

A three quarters view shows another line I marked — the center side/top shoulder line. I use those lines a lot when making up patterns, and now I will finally know that I’m getting it right every time.

Technically, you could mark all of these lines with a marker if you wanted to. I don’t, because several of them (notably the natural waistline) fluctuate when I gain or lose weight. I also find it much easier to line up a ribbon neatly than I do to draw a level line around a curved dummy.

At this point, Janey is all set up with an accurate historical silhouette, and all of the crucial lines I need for pattern drafting are marked. Let the patterns begin!


  1. Monique
    Monique December 16, 2009

    I just got my plastic dial a size dummy last night as an early Christmas present. My husband couldn’t believe he had agreed to go halvies on support what he likes to call my “tactics” so I don’t have to do housework, etc. LOL

    Your instructions are incredibly detailed and a MAJOR help. You are my inspiration for making period costumes. I’m a beginner, but I’m a fast learner! This will enable me to get my Tudor 1540’s gown fitted properly and finished now. I was stuck at an impass as I realized I had to make my farthingale, bumroll, (i have a corset), a shift AND a kirtle before I could properly fit my gown. So far, I have my farthingale almost done and my corset/bumroll completed.

    Your tutorial on making the bodice was also just what I needed to read. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. Ever consider writing a book?? =) I know I’d buy a few copies for myself and my friends.

    A fan, Mo.

    • admin
      admin December 27, 2009

      Hey, Monique – I’m so glad you’ve found the site useful, and congrats on the dress dummy! Trust me, it’s going to open a whole new world of pain .. er, I mean, costuming. ;) I really don’t worry about having a shift when I fit a gown. I find that in the grand scheme of things, they don’t change your dimensions much. (If they do, you need to work with flimsier materials!) Generally speaking, you can use your bodice pattern to make your corset — add between 1/8th and 1/4″ to each edge, to guarantee that the corset will be covered and that the bodice will have a little ease so it fits over the corset.

      And yes, I’ve considered writing a book, but I thought I was just being a total egomaniac. I shouldn’t be encouraged on things like this….


  2. Jo Sieber
    Jo Sieber October 23, 2016

    i call mine Queen Anne because she has no head lol but she has broken and keeps falling over. dont know how to

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