Bertha, the Acme Dress Form

Here she is, the newest addition to my studio: Bertha, the Acme adjustable dress form.

Bertha, the vintage Acme dress form.

Bertha, the vintage Acme dress form.

And yes, when you have something as anthropomorphic as this around, you have to name it. At first she was going to be Bessie, but after I got a good look at her moth-eaten wool, steel wing nuts, and sturdy 60-year-old frame, I decided she needed a more formidable-sounding name. Bertha it is.

A dress form, if you’re wondering, if a handy tool for fashion designers and dressmakers. It’s the faux body you can try clothes on. She doesn’t mind at all if she accidentally get stuck with a pin. I wanted this particular model because it’s adjustable, which means you can create facsimiles of variously shaped bodies.

I bought Bertha on eBay last week for $75. She arrived on Saturday, a little more rusty and worn than the listing suggested. That’s fine though, because she’s got character, and history: this model of dress form was made mostly in the 1940’s and 50’s in Brooklyn, NY. She shipped from New Jersey, where apparently she’d been sitting in an attic for some time.

I could have purchased a new one, like the Dritz My Double. But reviews I read suggested these newer adjustable dress forms, which are made of plastic, are pretty flimsy. Buying a vintage dress form meant more solid construction, a cheaper price, and giving new life to an already-existing object.

I took her apart to do some minor repairs: removing rust, lubricating the adjustable bits, fixing a couple torn spots. Since she smelled a little musty when I took her out of the box, I decided to seal the paper insides with Mod Podge. I figure that will protect her from moisture and give everything a little reinforcement.

Bertha, disassembled. The horror. The horror.

Bertha, disassembled. The horror. The horror.

Bertha is an interesting example of how things were made before plastic was a readily available material. The form appears to be made from a papier-mache like material of thick paper, probably pressed into a mold or formed over a cast. Metal screws, winguts, and sliding hinge-y bits (I have no idea what that piece of hardware is called) hold the pieces together and allow for adjustment. The outside is covered in a heathered blue-gray wool knit. The center rod and base are steel. And all of that is good enough to last, and still be usable, for more than half a century.

She’s reassembled now and all ready to go. Time to get out some fabric.

4 thoughts on “Bertha, the Acme Dress Form

  1. Pingback: Improving: A Better, Bigger Bag | 24 Kites to Fly

  2. It is so funny, I was given one of the yesterday. My first thought was that she needed a sturdy, timeless name. I am leaning toward Mildred. Bertha is in better shape than Mildred and I had concerns about taking it apart, but you make it look easy. I have the confidence to do it to mine. I like the idea of Mod Podge to seal the chipboard. I hope she is serving you well.

    • Mildred is a fantastic name! If you’re having some trouble taking her apart, apply some WD-40 or other spray lubricant to the nuts or screws. Wait a few minutes, and they should be much easier to unscrew. The thing to be careful about is where the metal adjustable bars are attached to the inside of the dress form: they’re attached to paper and can pull out easily. This happened in a couple places on Bertha, but I was able to reattach them by using the Mod Podge to reform the torn paper.

      And Bertha is serving me very well! I can’t believe I’ve been sewing all this time without a dress form. It makes a huge difference.

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