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The Problem With Dress Forms

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I remember when I bought my dress form. For several years, my aunts and I would take a trip to New York City for a girl’s weekend. I have a crazy family, which accounts for my insanity, and when the ten or so of us Flanigan women were in the Big Apple, there was a lot of fun to be had. The fall that I was a sophomore is both college and my sewing career, I asked my aunts if we could make a detour to hit up Superior Model Form. Thankfully, and without any smacks upside the head, they agreed (interrupting an itinerary that included Canal Street and Serendipity could warrant physical pain).

On the Friday we were in town, my aunt Terry, Meg, and I walked to the heart of Chelsea, where Superior Model Form was located, to buy the closest approximation to my figure. I remember the feeling I had while riding the elevator up to their offices – this is when New York City was an intimidating place and I thought I was so damn cool for being where I was. The staff’s personality was typical New Yorker – straight, blunt, and to the point – but within thirty minutes, my order for a size 2 dress form was complete. About three weeks later, it arrived at my apartment in Miami.

A novice seamstress and pattern maker, I thought a dress form would be the key to making perfectly fitted garments. I had visions of draping and fitting with ease  but each time I made a garment, pants, dresses, skirts, and blouses all included, the fit was never quite there and I couldn’t quite figure out why. The balance the armhole was always off and on every pair of pants I draped/drafted, I had to increase the length of the rise ½” at the inseam. Other garments brought other fit problems.

The answer came when I was working in technical design. When a fit sample, which is the equivalent of a muslin or toile, arrived, it was first fit on the form and then on a live model. Many times, there was a fit issue that appeared on the form but didn’t on the model. Drag lines across the back on the form disappeared on the model. A shoulder seam that appeared to be forward on the form would be in the correct spot on the model. After evaluating one garment on my own, on both the form and the model, I asked Macy, the tech designer I was working under at the time, what I should do about a neckline that was wonky on the form but okay on the model, she said, “Go with what it looks like on the model because it’s the model, and not the form, that is our customer.” It hit me – the light bulb went on. And it was so simple! The form is just that – a form and not a human figure. A form stands perfectly poised but that’s not how we stand. If you’re like me, you crouch over a sewing machine and/or a computer and your posture is less than perfect. I also have a sway back and one shoulder that is higher than the other, which both effect fit. So even though I measure the same as my dress form, garments to do fit us the same because I am a human and she isn’t.

But I still find lots of uses for my form. Actually, I rely on it heavily! I use it mostly as a visual tool for my designs. When I manipulated my block to make the pattern for this dress, I used the form to determine where and how much to slash, open, and pivot darts and fullness. I had an inspiration image but it wasn’t enough – I needed to decide how big the flounce would be, what the bottom opening would measure, etc. So I made a mock skirt to test different flounce heights and widths. When I achieved the look of the skirt I wanted, I transferred that to the pattern.

I have also learned the flaws of my dress form and account for it when draping/drafting a pattern. It’s a lot easier to drape a rise than to draft one. So when I’m making a pair of pants or shorts, like this one, I drape it first and then add ½” of length to the rise at the inseam. I know to do this because all the previous pairs of pants/shorts I have made gave me an incredible wedgie.

25 Comments

  1. Reply

    Sewing Princess

    That’s why I haven’t bought a dress form in the end…I know there will be some use for it…but not enough to justify the purchase for me. Thanks for sharing your experience…yours looks beautiful, BTW

  2. Reply

    TessaMelissa

    I have a cheapie adjustable dress form that I use mainly to put my “works in progress” on to keep them from getting wrinkled (and in the forefront of my mind lest I start a new project before finishing that one). I notice that while its up there, I think about it more. I discover I want the pockets to be different, the neckline changed, and so on. In that way, it becomes a styling tool more than a fit tool for me. I think I might use it more (or use a better one) if it had collapsable shoulders. Does yours?

  3. Reply

    Carlee McTavish

    I am my own dress form. Which, can get irritating if I have to keep adjusting fit. I can see how it would be a useful tool, but I think at this point, I’d rather spend my money on more fabric.

  4. Reply

    Seraphinalina

    I have come close to buying a dress form a couple of times but I think because I know that it won’t be the be all and end all that I want it to be, I have held off. I’ve managed so far…

  5. Reply

    janet murphy

    YEARS ago when I took costume design in college we made these amazing body sleeves of our own bodies out of muslin. Then we fit them onto a dress form that was slightly smaller, lined up all the middle and side seams and then stuffed with padding to create our own form perfectly shaped for us. I LOVED that form and how easy it was to drape an outfit to fit me perfectly. I never bought my own but if I did, I know that is how I would personalize it.

  6. Reply

    Lauren

    I have a dress form but I neverrrr use it… unless you count hanging UFOs (or WIPs that I don’t want the cat making a nest out of, ha) off it “using it.” I spent a good bit of money buying the padding kit, and then hours padding it out to exactly my measurements… and my clothes don’t fit on it. It took me a couple of years to figure out that my *frame* is smaller, so even though the measurements match, the form is still bigger and thus doesn’t work for fitting purposes. Wah.

  7. Reply

    Lady ID

    This is why I haven’t bought a form. I really want one for draping but I KNOW it will not fit without padding. I’m pretty curvy with a small waist. I have a mydouble and have used it for about eight years but I can’t drape on it.

  8. Reply

    Grace Jones

    It terrifies me when I see another techs (I’m also a technical designer) re tweek a style on a dress form after the livemodel fitting for this very reason. She says the form is “basically” our model, but the form doesn’t move!!!
    I have a foam dress form that picked up at ta yard sale for $30. It’s too small for me but it’s in the right range so I use it for visual designing

  9. Reply

    Shelley Pleger

    You can drape a pant on on a dress form? I thought you had to have a special form with legs. I’m curious about this.

  10. Reply

    anto

    The dress form I currently have is a nightmare to work on because it’s not my size, has a much wider back than I do and it’s super flimsy. I did get it on the cheap side a couple of years ago when a professor demanded it with little notice. It was a rushed and unsuccessful experience and I hope to get a better one in the future. It will be making an appearance in my corset post soon. It works for display but only with garments that have either buttons or a wider back.

  11. Reply

    Angela

    I like my dress form for draping, I need to get it padded to my exact size though! I never thought of a dress form being imperfect, but it makes sense. Good advice!

  12. Reply

    Jo

    Very interesting. I am still learning to fit, but it helps to have a body double. I made her by getting someone to wrap me in paper tape- you can see the tutorial here: http://makingitwell.blogspot.co.nz/2012/03/i-made-my-own-dress-form.html

    It’s really helped me learn…

    And LOL at incredible wedgie. Cripes!

  13. Reply

    Micheal Clark

    Inconceivable points. Sound arguments. Keep going the truly amazing work.https://www.facebook.com/bubblegumcasting

  14. Reply

    Lady ID

    Do you use a form with legs to drape trousers/pants, or do you just remove the cage?

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      I have a dress form with legs

      • Reply

        Lady ID

        Ahh ok. I’m about to order one and hadn’t decided on legs or no legs. Thanks

  15. Reply

    mlizbet

    For a few reasons (price being the main one), I opted to make my own personalized dress form rather than buying one. While it’s not quiiiiite the same shape as my live body, due to some distortion that happened during stuffing, I think it’s about as close as I’ll ever get. She’s no beauty queen, being made mostly of duct tape, but she stands like me, swayback and all. For a functional and cheap fitting aid, I strongly recommend googling “how to make duct tape dress form”.

  16. Reply

    mlizbet

    PS. Just started reading this blog, after seeing Lladybird’s post on your bra making workshop, and I love it! Pro-level sewing tips delivered in journalistic prose make my day.

    • Reply

      maddie

      Thank you! I try to put a literary spin on my posts. Sometimes I’m successful and other times I’m not.

  17. Reply

    Sharon Ely Forsmo

    I’m just learning to sew at 58. My mother is an immigrant from Poland who never took a sewing class and made incredible clothes (including my wedding dress through the mail), for over 60 years (she’s 94 so I’m guessing she started sewing in her 30’s). She never had a dress form and she did men’s tailoring as well. I’ve thought about buying one, but as a beginner I don’t think it’s warranted. I guess I also feel like if mom could get by without one, maybe I can too.

    • Reply

      Jimmy Lee Needham

      I learned how to sew from my mother and grandmother. I assure you Life was their school. I am 53 and have been sewing since I was six years old by hand and nine by machine. But they both had those old rickety dress forms that were INDISPENSABLE for looking at a garment you are working on in three dimensions. Everyone on this site seems to gripe that the “dress forms do not fit.” the primary purpose of a dress form is to give yourself the ability to walk around your work and look at it from all angles, even if it doesn’t fit properly. My mother also used to do many things simply because she could not afford them.

  18. Reply

    Jimmy Lee Needham

    Hello. I have actually found dress forms indispensable. While a form may not fit exactly, it helps to show how a garment looks in three dimensions. I miss the days when you could pick up one of those old adjustable dress forms at Goodwill for $20. Those days are gone forever. As a patternmaker/tailor/draper I find any form that allows me to place my work on to look at is a godsend. I am currently looking for an inexpensive dress form. Jimmy Lee Needham

  19. Reply

    Jimmy Lee Needham

    I learned how to sew from my mother and grandmother. I assure you Life was their school. I am 53 and have been sewing since I was six years old by hand and nine by machine. But they both had those old rickety dress forms that were INDISPENSABLE for looking at a garment you are working on in three dimensions. Everyone on this site seems to gripe that the “dress forms do not fit.” the primary purpose of a dress form is to give yourself the ability to walk around your work and look at it from all angles, even if it doesn’t fit properly. My mother also used to do many things simply because she could not afford them.

  20. Reply

    SharonX

    Maddie,

    I am SO glad that I stumbled across your blog last night! I have finally made a perfectly fitting sloper thanks to your tutorial! My gripes about poor fit with dress forms and standard sloper drafting techniques are actually what led me on my internet search that brought me to your blog. When you’re a size 0-2 with a 30F bra size, there is no standard pattern, sloper or dress form that will accommodate for this – not even close enough to require only minor adjustments. I already feel miles ahead now that I have my perfect sloper! But I still love to drape when creating new pieces, and have come across a company that essentially makes a 3D printed replica of your exact figure. I am considering purchasing one because theoretically, this should solve all of my problems with standard dress form proportions… but given your experience with dress forms, do you think this will hold true in real life? I would love to hear your thoughts on whether a 3D printed form might solve most or all of your fit issues with standard forms.

  21. Reply

    Melina

    I have a question. What do I use to drape a pair of pants I’m working on?

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