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