In the market for a dress form? The choices can be a bit overwhelming! As you might have noticed, there’s not a lot of up-to-date info out there to help prospective dress form buyers. My hope is that after reading this article, you’ll feel prepared to buy (or not buy) with confidence!
Full disclosure: I make 3D scan custom dress forms for a living. But, I’ve been working with dress forms for a long time to sew for myself so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the years. Please do take my suggestions with a grain of salt as there are many valid perspectives out there besides mine. 🙂
The first thing to ask yourself is…
How will I use my form?
It’s important to carefully think about what you’d like to accomplish with a dress form before buying. It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many new buyers haven’t fully thought this through (been there, done that.) To get you started, here are few ways a dress form can function in your sewing practice:
- designing commercial apparel for the masses
- designing custom apparel for an individual
- draping original designs
- draping to solve fitting issues
- fitting partial & completed garments
- fitting paper patterns
- altering RTW
- displaying garments to share online or with clients
- design muse
- expensive hanger…you get the picture 😉
I’ve included a few links above if you’re not familiar with some of these techniques, but I encourage you to keep exploring online to learn more.
Who am I designing for?
Who will be wearing the clothing you design with your form? Will you be designing for one person or many different people? Will they be available for all the fittings you require to get a great result?
The needs of someone designing for mass manufacturing are quite different from a home sewist tissue fitting existing patterns for themselves, or a costume designer fitting a period garment for an actor on another continent. (Yup, we have technology for that!)
What features do I need?
Now that you have an idea of how you’ll use your form, the next step is to think about what features are important to you and which ones you can live without for now. Some key features to consider:
- Half or full size. Take a moment to consider what you’ll be making with your dress form most of the time. Just tops and dresses? In that case, you can get away with a half form (torso through the upper thigh or hip) with no leg separation. But if you’re fitting pants or let’s say a dance costume with a leotard, you’ll need leg separation and perhaps even a full leg. Many commercial designers require a form which includes both legs (bifurcated form) and perhaps some arms. Speaking of…
- Arms & legs. These can be integrated or removable. Unlike legs, you can pretty easily diy an arm upgrade later if your dress form doesn’t come with them. You can make your own arm “cap” by building up a ball of fabric and pinning it to your shoulder. It’s also possible to make your own custom arm from measurements.
- Mounting. Stability and easy access are important. A professional stand with a heavy, rolling cast iron base is ideal. Also, a working foot pedal to move the form up and down can be a real back saver. Think about how you will dress your form. In the case of a bifurcated form, hanging or mounting through one leg may have an impact.
- Collapsible shoulders. When you put on a tightly fitting woven garment without closures over your head, you can compress your shoulders inward to slip it on. Your dress form can’t do that – hence, the invention of collapsing shoulders. While they can be nice in certain situations, people have mixed feelings about them: sometimes they malfunction and get stuck, others think that you should install more appropriately placed closures in your garments. Personally, I’ve only had this problem once with a camisole that ended up too tight on me in the end. Whoops!
Dress form flavors
Now you’re ready to make an informed decision about which type is right for you (or if you need a dress form at all right now.) To make it easier, I’ve created this handy dandy cheatsheet to help! I’ve rated each form type on a scale of 1 (low) to 3 (high) for the following attributes:
Price. An average pice.
Custom apparel: Can you use this form to design & accurately fit apparel for a specific person? Folks who intend to use their form to make clothing for themselves or a client care about this.
Commercial apparel: Is this form intended to be used to design garments for an average person of a certain shape type? Is it durable for professional use? People who design for mass manufacturing may prefer this.
Pinnable (for draping/fitting pieces): Can this form be used to drape a style, whether for an average or custom shape? Can it be used to fit pattern peices and partial, unfinished garments (e.g. just the right half) by pinning? Must have a continuous surface for pinning and marking reference lines.
Inclusive sizing. Can this form be used to fit clothing for all shapes & sizes?
Visual appeal. Is this form going to inspire you to create beautiful things? Will you be sharing your work online or with a client displayed on this form? Maybe a professional tailor doesn’t care about aesthetics but you might!
You’ve seen these on Project Runway and in the background of every picture of someone who’s a fashion designer. They were originally designed for use in the commercial apparel industry so they generally represent the shape of the “average” customer in a base size and/or demographic.
While you can purchase expensive versions that are modeled on the latest shape data for a very specific demographic, most mass produced standard forms on the market are quite affordable. You can also get your hands on a cool vintage form for a reasonable price.
However, as a personal fitting tool, the standard form falls short. Even if they’re padded out to match someone’s girth measurements, they’re not ideal for fitting a specific person in most cases because they can’t be easily modified for torso lengths or an individual’s unique posture.
One thing to notice about standard forms is that they are perfectly symmetric. The right and left sides are identical. This means you can drape on one side and simply mirror it for the other side. It also means the woven cover can be mass manufactured and usually comes with reference style lines built-in as seams. This is really convenient when designing for an average shape, not so much for a real person with asymmetries.
An adjustable form (aka “dial-a-form”) is an affordable option that gives you the ability to modify girth. Similar in some ways to standard forms, they’re symmetric and come in a fairly inclusive size range. I found a very comprehensive collection of reviews of these kinds of forms here.
However, adjustable forms do have significant limitations when it comes to fitting a real person. For one, they only adjust in a few places and then only in girth, not torso lengths except maybe at the waist. Depending on how much you crank their dials, large gaps may appear between the adjustable sections. These can make it impossible to mark and pin in critical locations, like center front/back & side seams.
DIY custom forms
If you’re curious whether a custom dress form could improve your fitting results, a DIY custom form is a great way to test drive a real custom form without spending a lot of cash. You can make one from paper tape (my fave), duct tape, stuffing a moulage, or even cast yourself with plaster and then mold one from foam. Here’s the tutorial I used to make my paper tape form years ago (shown above).
While they’re absolutely transformational in learning how to fit your one-of-a-kind body shape (highly recommended if you’re up for it!), they may not have all the convenience features you desire as you develop your skills (like being pinnable or a nice mounting).
With the exception of the body cast version, they also lack some precision, the sewn version being the least accurate. I’ve also heard of a person fainting during a body casting session so please be mindful of your personal tolerance for the process if you’re thinking about making one of these!
Custom apparel: ✂️✂️
Commercial apparel: ✂️
Pinnable: ✂️ (tape) ✂️✂️✂️ (foam/sewn)
Inclusive sizing: ✂️✂️✂️
Custom form from measurements
Some dress form companies do offer forms made from measurements (or at least they used to – I’m having trouble finding any currently available online). In theory, they are certainly more accurate for personalized fitting than a standard form. However, they may not accurately represent someone’s unique posture, weight distribution around their girth, or their asymmetries.
3D body scan forms
These body doubles are the latest in custom dress form “tech”. Since they’re based on a 3D picture of your body, they very accurately model a person’s asymmetries and unique characteristics. Not only do they function as a fitting tool, but you can use them to drape original styles for a specific person. 3D scan forms are manufactured from foam so they’re light and pinnable. The downside is that they’re on the pricey side.
Depending on the company, the body scanning process generally comes in two flavors: by laser or by smartphone. Both are extremely accurate. Scanning by laser equipment may require travel while smartphone scanning can be performed at home or a remote location. Scanning remotely without special equipment opens up many possibilities, including fitting a client without them being physically present.
Another feature to consider is mounting. The mounting system plays an especially critical role for 3D scan dress forms when balancing a garment. Because these forms reflect the asymmetries and posture of the model, they need to be firmly mounted in relation to the floor as the person actually stands (which could be leaning to the side or forward, etc.)
Making a beautiful garment that is a joy to wear certainly does not require a dress form – a fitting buddy can be just as helpful. But, I do enjoy the convenience of my custom form in enabling me to work independently and drape for myself.
Whew, that was a lot – I hope it helps! If you have any other suggestions for prospective dress form buyers or have more questions, please share them with us in the comments.