The Dress Form Mystique

{via Coup d’Etat}

I’d always wanted a professional-type dress form–the old-school kind with a linen cover, cast-iron base for rolling around and one of those trippy iron cage skirts at the bottom.

No, I’m not talking about the 18th century French version, although you can see why they needed the cage skirts in the first place. (But what exactly are they for now?)

{Wolf dress form, via French by Design}

I’m talking about something classic like a Wolf form. Maybe it’s because I’d seen them in my favorite shops, or perhaps it’s something I associated with “serious” design or sewing. My husband had friends at RISD in the 90s and they all had these. I don’t think I’d ever seen one up close, but no matter.

About eight years ago, I had a short-lived urge to get serious about fashion design. (I even took some college courses at an art school, which only ended up diverting me into fashion illustration and painting.) At the time, the little that was out there on the internet about patternmaking and draping seemed to reinforce the mystique of, or my need for, a dress form.

So I went on an eBay hunt for something like it, only to find a vast disparity between display dress forms with ordinary wood bases and expensive “New York-style” forms like Wolf and Superior. I couldn’t afford a $500 dress form, so I went with the $70 display form, which still sits to this day in my bedroom as an impromptu display for my scarves. (I also pin necklaces and earrings to it. Much better than jumbled in a drawer.)

Fast forward to last fall, when started going quite full on back into sewing and design. I started researching dress forms again and this time was overwhelmed with choices. There is a huge range of forms available online now, from a variety of companies, in every price from $150 to $2000.

I threw myself in and bought this form from PGM Pro, which is based in Los Angeles.

I don’t know how long this company has been around but I’m assuming their forms are made in China, and are a much more economical choice than the New York-made forms which used to be the only ones with the cast-iron base.


Here’s the rub: This form is quite sturdy, easy to pin on, easy to put together, and feels like I’ve got the “real thing”. But honestly, I haven’t used it one bit as a design tool. Or a fitting tool.

The first reason is because this form has a vastly different shape than I do. It is a size 6, which when I purchased it was the closest in measurements to mine. However, the back was broader than mine, the chest was broader, and the length from shoulder to waist longer. Adding to that, I’ve lost weight since then so it’s all-around larger than me now, and quite significantly in the bust area. Even if I would’ve gotten a 2, their smallest size, there still would’ve been some length problems (and the shoulders still too wide). and I would have to spend some time covering and padding other areas to make it a suitable “me”.

The second reason I’ve not gotten around to using this thing is its general posture. Very few women I know have the posture of this form. It’s so erect. Yes, it has a realistic-looking butt but the shoulders are so far back, the side so straight.

{Alvaform by Alvanon}

There are dress forms that are more body-realistic and these can go into the thousands of dollars. Unless you’re a designer or company aiming for a certain profile or sizing demographic, or manufacturing a line, there’s not much benefit (although pretty cool to look at!) for a home-based sewer. You’d still have to adjust the form to your personal size and shape.

If you are a fashion student, you probably have to use one of the traditional forms in your program, but you’re definitely not going to want to base your line on them. Some schools seems to understand the problem: see this article comparing traditional and more body-realistic dress forms by Bunka, a Japanese fashion school (their forms are not available in the U.S.).

I get it, design students could as well start draping on a ball. They need to learn patterns 3-dimensionally. But pretty soon you’ll move to real bodies.

PGM-Pro has three different Misses dress forms. While I bought the most expensive one (it came with a free package full of patternmaking supplies and rulers that I use all the time), the next two down seem to have slightly different shapes (mine is on the left):

I’m assuming the product quality is slight between the three. Maybe the cheapest doesn’t have bumped-out seams or collapsible shoulders, or a tacked down butt (which quite honestly is the droopiest butt I’ve ever seen). Despite the fact that it’s the cheapest of the three, the one on the right seems to have slightly angled shoulder and side seams, which could be helpful for some people. My shoulders are definitely not straight up and down.

Before you are taken in by dress-form mystique ask yourself why you want one in the first place. I’m asking myself that. (Heck, as collector’s items, they’re pretty sweet.) Do you want to drape patterns? And for whom? Do you want to use it for fitting? Fit whom? Because these dress forms will take some work to make them more like a real body, not an abstract upright body.

A cheaper form would suffice for fitting purposes, especially if you’re fitting yourself and you want to take the time to pad the thing out. There are dress forms on the market that are made specifically for home dressmakers like me who want to conform the thing to their own body shape. Uniquely You is a big foam dummy that is squeezed into a tight garment that you fit to yourself. It fills out into “you”.

Fabulous Fit makes a system of padding covers (which can be bought separately from their dress forms) that you place under a jersey cover to fill out into you. Personally, I think the this could be done just with some batting and shoulder pads of your own.

Oh, and definitely learn from me: buy at least a size down. Because a dummy can’t lose weight, but she can gain it.

Update June 2013: I’ve decided to close comments here because this post is quite old and I have changed a lot of my ideas about working with dress forms. If you are a home sewist, please do some research as many sewing bloggers have written about the plusses and minuses of working with dress forms. If you are a collector, I’m afraid I can’t help. If you are in the fashion industry, you have different needs than most of my readers, so can’t help there either. If you have a dress form to recommend, please do not hesitate to contact me through my email here.

12 Comments

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  1. I enjoyed reading your input. It helped me a lot. I am looking for a bunka dressfoam. I am not trying to fit myself but, clients. this is actually my second time falling in love with fashion (the relationship is more serious than before) I was a dropout once a upon a time. Had divorce fashion and myself for 7 + years, now and finally we are back together. thank you for your insight once again

    • Hi, thanks for visiting! I’m glad I was able to help and I hope you are able to find a Bunka dress form. I’ve heard those are very nice. Are you in Japan?

  2. i have a french cast iron adjustable dressform. i can’t find any info about it. i want to sell it. can you help with any info? thanks.

    • Hi Phyllis, unfortunately I’m not an expert on dress form models–what you see here is just research I did in my own search for a nice form. If yours is an antique, you can probably hunt around Ebay or Etsy to see if others like it have been sold. Does it have any numbers or text on it?

  3. I respect this article and I agree with the points you make about a dress form having ridiculously good posture but I have to disagree with the point you made about choosing a size down. It’s true that a larger dress form can be frustrating to drape on if you are smaller than it but what you seem to have misunderstood is that dress forms are basically ballparking your measurements. If you indeed size down on the dress form, you should consider what happens if you gain weight. It’s much easier to take a garment in rather than having to make it larger. That is what fittings are for.

    • Monica, I agree that dress forms are ballparking your measurements; I didn’t misunderstand that at all when buying them. I do not use them at the moment because I find it easier to sew and fit on my own body than go through a stage on the dress form. Perhaps if I draped I’d do it differently. However, my experience with forms (and similarly, patterns) is that it is easier to start with a smaller size around the chest area and then add width and length to the other proportions that are larger. Also I have both gained and lost weight since buying my first dress form that came close to my measurements, and even at a larger weight it was still vastly too wide in the chest and shoulders, despite being my actual bust and waist size. This is because of my bone structure. And while it is easier to take in a garment than let out, a dress form is in reverse–easy to pad out (which I have done), impossible to take in.

  4. Thank you so much! I was searching for one. Then I’ve read your article-thanx! what do u think about andy’s form?

  5. a dress form is a learning and fitting tool, but will never replace a person because of posture and human flesh. In class we made form covers that matche our measurements so the fitting processs for drapped garments was better. use use 1 inch badding, tearable fusing to create the shape, and twill for the cover. twill is an easing fabric to work with than muslin because of the stretch. you should take a draping class, it helps you learn how to use the dress form and how to alter your patterns to fit specific measurments. go to a technical school, not an art school.

    • @Virginia – This is an old post, but I just found your comment–sorry! I appreciate the idea of filling out a dress form, and I think draping works for many people who like the intuition of the cloth. Since I last wrote this post, I have started developing my own patterns, and no longer need a form to arrive at the solutions I want. Whether someone uses a dress form, drapes, or works from flat patterning, learning to fit (and how things should fit) is such a process of trial and error. It’s learning to develop an eye for it, which I quite enjoy. A class would be wonderful if there was one nearby but not everyone has access to that.

  6. Hi! I was searching for a Bunka and I finally found them in the US, just wanted to let you and your readers know if they are equally interested.

    http://beropa.co/products/bunka-half-size-dress-form

    • Andy, do you work for Beropa? (I just wanted to make it clear if that’s so.) Thanks for letting me know about it.

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