Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Lori Nohner's blog

Dressing the Mannequin: Padding Hips, Chopping Feet and Other Lesser-known Exhibit Alterations

Faithful readers of this blog have known about the upcoming Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit since this past February. By now, they might be thinking, “Gee, this exhibit is taking a long time.” Likewise, my friends and family who read my blogs out of obligation might be thinking, “Gee, I wonder when Lori is going to stop talking about mannequins?” So, I decided to write about the time it takes to complete just one aspect of the exhibit production process: mannequin dressing. Hopefully, this will shed light on why it takes so long to put together an exhibit.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just slip an outfit on a dress form and call it good? That would make exhibit preparation so much quicker. But out of 140 outfits used in this exhibit, I can count on one hand the number of forms that didn’t need some sort of modification. (Former North Dakota first lady Grace Link, I love you and your dress.) A good mannequin dresser never makes the garment fit the form. It’s always the other way around. The form must fit the garment. Modifications may include building out the forms by padding out waistlines and hips, or even adding arms and legs. Alternately some forms need to be reduced, which requires chopping off specific body parts. The desired result of all this work is to make historical garments appear their best, while protecting and supporting them throughout the exhibit.

Let’s take a look at one example. Catherine Tschida Patterson of Sims, North Dakota, wore this cotton and lace dress to her graduation in 1912. (Learn more about this cool dress.)

Step 1: First, we try the garment on the form to get a sense of what needs to be done. In this case, Catherine’s dress looked pretty empty and needed padding at the bust and hips, as well as arms.

White dress on a mannequin with a silver ribbon around the waist. There are floral pattern cutouts throughout the dress.

Just an “empty” graduation dress. SHSND 1988.230.2

Step 2: I layered on polyester quilt batting to those areas that needed padding. Polyester batting is scratchy, so we added a layer of cotton stockinette tubing to protect the garment. This also helps hold the batting in place. Then the dress goes back on to see if it looks right. Sometimes I need to repeat this step two or three times before I get the padding situated correctly.

The bust and hips of a mannequin with polyester around the hips to give more shape and a cloth around the upper body

Here, polyester batting has been used to fill out the bust and hips. The top half of the form has also been covered with stockinette.

Step 3: The next step is usually to add arms and a linen neckline cover. Because Catherine’s dress is a light, cotton lingerie-style dress typical of the early 1900s, it also needed a slip. Our curator of collections management, Jenny Yearous, sewed a white cotton slip to protect Catherine’s modesty.

The bust and hips of a mannequin with cloth covering and stuffed arms attached

“Armed” and ready for dressing.

A headles mannequin with a full-length cotton slip over it and stuffed arms attached

Underwear is important.

Step 4: The final dressing. The finished product is a more lifelike shape consistent with typical women’s fashion during the 1910s. Most people won’t notice the form underneath the garments. But the work that goes into the form helps each item of clothing look its best.

White dress on a mannequin with a silver ribbon around the waist. There are floral pattern cutouts throughout the dress.

Catherine Tschida Patterson’s dress is now ready for exhibit. SHSND 1988.230.2

Other types of modifications used during exhibit preparation include carving down forms or removing body parts altogether.

A woman with black pants and shirt, black glasses, darnk har, and a red, white, and blue striped face mask stands holding a tinfoil wrapped mannequin leg on a table saw, about to cut part of the foot off

Here I am chopping off feet so boots can fit, a little something I call “Cinderella,” the twisted, non-Disney version.

A mannequin from neck to hips sits on a stand with black marks drawn on it and parts shaved off lying on the floor.

A curator’s work can be brutal.

Meanwhile, other staff are working hard on the many additional pieces of the exhibit puzzle. I’ll leave you with a list of some other parts of the exhibit-making process you may not have thought about:

  • Researching and writing exhibit text
  • Writing object labels
  • Editing exhibit text and object labels
  • Graphic design of approved exhibit text and object labels to make them visually appealing and easy to read
  • Graphic design of all photographic images in the exhibit
  • Video production and editing
  • Working with lenders for items loaned specifically for this exhibit
  • Design of exhibit floor plan and layout
  • Fabrication of the exhibit floor plan and layout
  • Fabrication of exhibit furniture (risers, boxes, etc.) and special object mounts

Beyond “Mrs. Husband’s Name”: Researching Women’s Full Names

While working from home the past two months, collection staff in the Audience Engagement and Museum Division started a long-needed data cleanup project. While often tedious, one part of this project I am truly enjoying is researching the first names of women who we only have recorded as “Mrs. Last Name,” or “Mrs. Husband’s Name.”

The New York Times recently published a series called “The Mrs. Files” discussing the same type of project. This article articulates the tradition of using a husband’s name to refer to a married woman.

Women using “Mrs. Husband’s Name” in a social and official capacity was very common, although it seems odd looking at it from a contemporary point of view. Many of the artifact donation forms from the early days of the State Historical Society are signed this way, and this continued well into the 1980s.

I believe it is important that these women are remembered as themselves, not only by the names of their loved ones. Researching and recording these first names ensures their work and contributions to the state’s history are remembered.

Mrs. Adams

In 1936, the North Dakota Federation of Women’s Clubs donated a sampler created by a Mrs. Adams from LaMoure. In this case, the artifact itself helped identify the artist, as Mrs. Adams embroidered her initials, “O.M.A.” I didn’t think many Adamses would be living in LaMoure during that period, so I looked through census records. In the 1940 census, three women with the last name Adams appeared in LaMoure County; one was Olive. To confirm this suspicion, I looked at the 1930 census, and listed below her husband Paul was “Olive M. Adams.” Digging a little further I learned Olive Marshall, born in 1879, married Paul Adams, a prominent LaMoure banker, in 1904. Looking into newspapers from the area would probably reveal even more about Olive M. Adams, but for now, her full name fills gaps in the sampler’s history.

Framed beaded piece that says North Dakota 1889 - 1936 In small things Liberty, In large things Unity, In all things Charity. There are clouds, a bison, covered wagin, tipi, squirrel holding wheat, farmstead, and the state capitol depicted.

Sampler by Olive Marshall Adams (the artist formerly known as Mrs. Adams). SHSND 1977.27

Mrs. William P. Zahn

There are beautiful pieces of beadwork in the State Historical Society’s collection attributed to Mrs. William P. Zahn. Researching Mrs. Zahn was not difficult because her son, Frank B. Zahn, donated the items. Frank, a prominent North Dakota judge and historian, was easy to find. According to his obituary, Frank was the son of William P. and Kezewin Zahn.1 Kezewin was the daughter of Yanktonai chief Flying Cloud and appears in some Federal and Indian census records under the English-Christian name Mary Josephine Zahn (an assimilationist re-naming practice deserving of its own full article). I knew the State Archives had records from Frank Zahn, so I did a quick search and they have multiple photos of Kezewin and her family!

How striking is it to put not only a full name, but also a face to the woman who made this piece!

A beaded cradle hood with yellow trim. The main area is beaded in white and there are red stars with yellow and red squares inside them, red squared with yellow and green quares inside, and triangle, diamond, and square shapes in the same colors.

Soft cradle hood made by Kezewin Zahn. SHSND 2557

Mrs. John Kruger

In 1956, Mrs. Otto A. Matzek donated the wedding dress of her mother, Mrs. John Kruger. This one was harder. I had two people to find. Once I found that Mrs. Matzek was Edith Kruger Matzek, finding her mother became easier. Researching Gerahdina “Dena” Detmer Kruger revealed two things. First, we had the wrong date recorded for the dress. The donor misremembered her mother’s wedding date as January 1912. The Weekly-Time Record out of Valley City announced the upcoming wedding of Miss Dena Detmer and John W. Kruger on January 15, 1913.2

An off white/tan wedding dress. It is full length and has long sleeves. There is a draped part over the chest. Beaded fringe hands off of part of the chest drape and the sleeves.

Dena Detmer Kruger’s time-traveling wedding dress. SHSND 13355

Second, it turns out that Dena Detmer was a postmaster for Lucca in Barnes County in the 1930s! How cool is that?!

A record of the different postmasters in Barnes county from 1928 to 1960, including John W. Kruger, Mrs. Dena F. Kruger, Mrs. Grace Leone Phillips, Pearletta R Fisk.

Dena, the mail woman (Ancestry.com. U.S., Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 [database on-line].)

The State Historical Society has artifacts and records attributed to women around the state using their husband’s names. We don’t know if they did this simply because it was the social norm, or if that was their preferred title. Perhaps early record keepers made the decision for them. Whatever the reason, documenting the women’s full names builds a richer and more complete picture of North Dakota’s history.


1 “Frank B. Zahn, Historian, Judge, Dies Here Sunday,” The Bismarck Tribune, July 5, 1966, 10.
2 The Weekly Times-Record (Valley City, ND), January 9, 1913, 5.