Making a Workable Dress Form – or – The Violent Transformation of Franken-Lilly

This is Lilly straight out of the box. 

Lilly is a dress display mannequin, as opposed to a dressmaker’s form. She has a nice jersey cover over a molded, hard foam body. She has removable arms that can be posed. Her measurements are B34-W25-H35.

LIES. She has CRAZY boobs, and a weird square waist about 26″ around.

The original idea with Lilly is that I could stuff some cotton batting around her waist to help achieve my waist circumference, but also length. This didn’t work at all.

Lilly’s problem is that she’s just too busty. She’s a 34″ yeah, but not at all like MY 34″. She also had some funny square-ish-ness to her waist. As you can see, the stays don’t work on her.

Solution to Lilly’s problems? A dress form masectomy.

These are actually more common than it may seem, and often happens to Uniquely You dress forms. In Lilly’s case, I was able to pull down the jersey cover and saw away her body with a sheetrock knife. A large bastard file and some rough-grit sandpaper helped smooth things out.

Here’s Lilly in her new shape. I actually hacked off more of her chest after this photo, because my plan was to add the cotton batting over the waist and the chest, to make both areas squishable.

Other alterations to Lilly’s bod – I brought the back in a bit to mimic my swaybackedness, and I narrowed the waist considerably, down to 23″, to allow the stays to cinch in and achieve the correct waist.

Lilly doesn’t look female at all anymore, in her naked form. Here she is with the batting wrapped around her middle and over her chest. The jersey cover has been pulled back up and reattached at the top, with the arm sockets screwed back into place.

At this point you may think I’m crazy, but just wait…

What a difference it makes, though. Lilly looks great in corsets of all periods now, and she not only has the right measurements – B33″-W26.5″ – but the bust and waist are in the correct places.

I can now drape and fit things with confidence, knowing they won’t come out short-waisted, as is always the case. One caveat about Lilly, though, is that she is purely for historical costuming, because she always has to wear underpinnings. Oh darn.

And finally Lilly is dressed. This is me playing with the pose-able arms, and they are a delight. The existence of shoulder caps makes a HUGE difference. I can’t wait to correctly fit shoulder width and sleeve heads with Lilly’s help.

This method will work for ANY mannequin form made out of high density “carvable” foam.  This is a hard foam that is very lightweight – the mannequins on this page are made from this foam, and finished with a nice jersey covering.  The prices are great, as well of the variety of arms, no arms, legs, miniature and plus sizes.


  • rebekah

    May 14, 2011 at 5:03 AM

    That is amazing. I have a store mannequin that I use. Sadly it is hollow plastic, so no renovating for me. I like this post though in case I ever get one that is more pliable.

  • Olympe de la Tour D'Auvergne

    May 14, 2011 at 5:49 AM

    I took a class at USITT (US Institute of Theatre Technology) a few years ago on how museums adapt their forms for displays of period garments. It was very similar to what you've described.

    I'm still trying to carve down my Uniquely-You form to be more precise to my awkwardly small-but-busty measurements.

  • Anonymous

    May 14, 2011 at 10:49 AM

    Wow, she does look fabulous (with clothes/underpinnings on!). You've done a great job – one of my favourite things about your blog is your resourcefulness and here's another perfect example!

    It's amazing how much difference it makes to photos having those arms, too.

  • Artemisia Moltabocca

    May 14, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    American Duchess, you my dear are an enabler. You make everything look so easy. Thank you for sharing this information. Lily looks beautiful! *kicks her own duct tape dummy and searches for replacement*

  • Anja

    May 14, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    I only just stumbled upon your blog (and loved it immediately), but I would like to add something to your post.
    I've used this method to make fitting mannequins for expositions in museums and I would like to point out, that good protection (glasses, masks) should be used, while carving those mannequins, because the polyurethane they use to make them is very poisonous.
    To prevent the mannequin from keeping shedding polyurethane dust, you can wrap her in plastic foil (like that stuff you use in the kitchen).

    But your mannequin looks fabulous. Love the clothes she's wearing!

  • Jenny Wren

    May 15, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    Fantastic! I just got a dressmaker's form for my birthday, and after one large and time-consuming dress disaster, I realised that of course making the bust measurement larger doesn't increase the bust in terms of cup size at all, so rather than makming a D-cup bust, I was making a fatter B-cup. Padding ho!

  • Lauren Stowell

    May 15, 2011 at 8:49 PM

    Yeah, the poison aspect…wear a respirator mask thingy and glasses. I didn't because I'm an idiot, but I'll never do this again without those things. I was literally covered in dust and had to shower it all off. Mr.C vacuumed up my pile of boob-bits as I carved them off, but I shoulda been more careful!

    So here it is Sunday and I still haven't done any draping or patterning on her. Been painting the walls in my bedroom…soon, though!

  • Katie

    May 17, 2011 at 5:01 AM

    That looks great! Can't wait to see how she works when you start draping! I'm currently fussing with my dial-form that is just no where near my actual body type. Might have to try padding her next!

  • Lauren Stowell

    May 20, 2011 at 7:46 PM

    So I've had her now a week and haven't done a damn thing with her! Lazy Lauren!!

    Lydia, your blog is lovely, I shall add it to my blogroll. Great chemise dresses; not everybody can pull those off.

  • Anonymous

    May 22, 2011 at 6:44 PM

    Your post inspired me to do something similar to one of my display forms. Thanks! I had previously padded her a little, but it wasn't a copy of me, and I was getting frustrated with never being able to fit myself. Since I'm well padded, I ended up using the guts of a memory foam pillow sewn inside jersey sheet forms to create squishy padding in the right places. It worked like a dream. Have fun with Lilly!

  • AvaTrimble

    November 2, 2011 at 2:15 AM

    I've been desperately wanting to do up a dress form like this ever since this post was published, and now that I'm settled in a house for graduate school (as opposed to the limbo that was my summer after graduation), I can finally DO this! Your points about being able to drape a sleeve head are very compelling, so I want to get this type of mannequin to work with, but they only have the one size.

    I am definitely not very close to those measurements, so I'm worried that even with padding and corsetry, the shoulders/torso might end up being too narrow. I'm a little on the plump side, but I'm also just, well, literally-big-boned. I'm broad shouldered and my rib cage is fairly large, etc. So I fear for the arms being too close together for me to use this. Am I making any sense?

    Could you possibly measure how far apart the seams of the arms-to-the-torso are on the form, across the back? If I had that useful bit of information, I could try to guess whether that's close enough in size to me to be workable. It would be so nice to have dress form arms! Thanks. 🙂

  • Rae Bradbury-Enslin

    December 31, 2011 at 7:59 PM

    I saw this blog a few months back, promptly sold my adjustable dress form and purchased one of these display mannequins. It took me several more months to get around to altering it, but I finally have, and I'm SO happy with the results. I completely removed the breasts on the form and replaced them with soft foam versions that I carved to match my measurements. I padded out the waist and hips with batting, so that she matches my un-corseted shape. Now I can put a corset on "my" shape, tighten it, and I have a fairly accurate view of how the fully laced corset looks on me. It's a great fitting tool, and it's beautiful for displaying costumes. Thank you SO much for posting this. I'm delighted with the idea and it's going to be extremely useful for me in the future.

  • Sharon B

    April 1, 2012 at 4:43 PM

    Rarely does so much violence achieve such beauty! I just finished making my own dress form from paper packing tape. Have to say I'm loving it, even if I don't like seeing every flaw.

  • Anonymous

    July 21, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    I am looking to make a high-fashion historical dress but I am rather . . . poor. Soooo in my quest to find an economical dress form, I came across making your own duct tape one. This is the video that taught me the wondrous ways of creating this very inexpensive dress form that gives you your own near perfect measurements. Since it is soft bodied, I am HOPING that I can put my corset on it and it will take the appropriate shape. If not, then I guess I can make one with me wearing my corset (if I can cajole my boyfriend into taping me up twice). Anyhow, here is the link. Have fun!

  • A Baronets Daughter

    July 31, 2012 at 1:40 AM

    once again, you inspired me, but alas..being a plus sized lady, i had to pad up….but, Im blogging with pics…and while not as classy as yours…same principle. I hope it helps me fit my regency things better. Thanks lady

  • Skye

    June 21, 2013 at 7:31 PM

    After searching and searching for a dress form with measurements close to mine, I finally found a dressform like Lily on a European site. (I was initially looking for one, but couldn't find any, so I started searching for a dress form with my own measurements, which I couldn't find either.) But I'm wondering, if you chop off that much and create the right measurements using batting, can you also use her to make garments without any undergarments on her? (For non-period or less-period clothing?) I'd like to use her for fitting, pattern-drafting etc. and not just for display. Would you also recommend mutilating a Lily for this purpose, or display only?
    Just wanted to make sure before purchasing… Thank you!

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 21, 2013 at 9:52 PM

      Hi Stefanie –

      Thanks for your note. I use Lily for modern stuff too, so long as I put a bra on her. If you pad out yours to your approximate measurements and shape, then you should be able to use her for pattern drafting, fitting, etc.

  • Unknown

    January 16, 2014 at 8:29 PM

    This is a great idea- and I considered it myself even; however my problem is not only proportions (i'm B:36 W:32 H:40) but also torso length. My back length is barely 14". Not even pettite dressforms come in my measurements! I've made a duct-tape form but haven't found the best way to fill it yet. Any suggestions?

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 16, 2014 at 9:01 PM

      Hi Elizabeth – I struggle with waist length too, and ended up carving even more off this dress form, and wrapping her in various battings and paddings before putting on the corset. The corset is one I know fits my waist length, so I use it to nip the waist on the dress form to where it needs to be. The result is that, when bare, the dress form has no shape at all, but when corseted, it gives me a close approximation of waist circumference and length.

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