If you’ve been sewing for any length of time, you may be asking yourself whether or not a dress form is something you should invest in. When I first started sewing, I quickly realized having a dress form made a lot of tasks much easier, and over the years we have tried nearly every brand and type of dress form out there. Whether you’re a relative beginner or an experienced sewist, I hope this guide to dress forms takes some of the mystery out of buying such an indispensable tool.
WHAT IS A DRESS FORM?
First, let’s start with the basics. A dress form is a facsimile of the human body and comes in a wide variety of materials, sizes, and body shapes. In a professional context like here at Closet Core Patterns, we use our dress forms primarily for patternmaking and fitting. Our patternmaker Celine uses our forms when she’s draping and exploring ideas, and as a base for testing out designs, she’s drafted on the computer. We also use it throughout our development process to test fit, and proportion and experiment with design details and revisions.
For anyone working in the fashion industry, dress forms are indispensable since they provide an unchanging, stable body stand-in that ensures you have a consistent body shape and size to draft for. Of course, it’s also important to test garments on real bodies that can move, bend and sit, but the first step for us is always the dress form since we know exactly how a garment should look and feel on the “standard” forms we use for drafting both our size ranges.
In the average person’s sewing practice, you’re more likely to use a dress form for fitting, figuring out pattern adjustments, or those sewing tasks that require the garment to be stabilized, such as straightening out the dress of a hem. While you don’t need one to draft patterns by hand or computer, it can make this process much easier since you have a form you can use to review your design. If you’re interested in draping, a dress form is a non-negotiable, since you need a form to actually drape on.
While they aren’t a requirement in your sewing arsenal, they are incredibly useful tools that may help grow and expand your practice. Let’s dig into how to choose the right form for you!
CHOOSING A SIZE
Most dress forms come in fixed sizes, so the biggest concern people have about making the investment is what happens if their body changes. My advice? If your size stays somewhat consistent, feel free to invest in a fixed size closest to your body measurements. If your body or weight fluctuates, I would recommend choosing a size on the lower end of your range; you can always make a form bigger with padding but you can’t make it smaller. Alternatively, you might consider an adjustable model, or may want to try making an inexpensive DIY form that you can remake or adjust as your body changes.
Of course, the other main consideration is that a “standard” dress form is highly unlikely to be a perfect stand-in for your body, given how widely variable and beautiful our bodies are. My advice is to take good measurements and do your research - different companies use widely varying body metrics to create their dress forms. If you are broad-shouldered, pear-shaped, or large-busted, there may be a company that caters to your body shape. Unfortunately, there are not a ton of options for plus-size folks - I’ve tried to identify the max size ranges for each company below. If you’re out of range and can’t find a close enough size to pad out, I would highly recommend making yourself a DIY form so you can get exactly what you need.
CUSTOMIZING THE SHAPE OF YOUR DRESS FORM
While most dress forms come in fixed sizes, there is no reason you can’t customize them to better replicate your particular body. There are a wide variety of options to allow you to experiment with padding to get as close as possible to your unique shape. You can purchase padding kits like this one and this one that come with different pieces for padding out shoulders, tummies, hips, etc. Or you can go the full DIY route and use quilted muslin and shoulder pads to pad out your form - this is often the route of tailors and dressmakers who do one-on-one client work and need a custom dress form to work from. You can see a great tutorial on how to do this by Brooks Ann Camper here.
Of course, you can also get a fully customized dress form as a 3D scan of your body - more on that in a minute!
TYPES OF DRESS FORMS
Dress forms come in a variety of materials. The traditional professional dress form has a rigid base with a canvas or fabric cover. It may or may not be gently padded in some or all areas to make trying tight-fitting clothes on easier. For example, our dress form has a squishy tummy which makes trying on something like skinny jeans much easier! Some forms are entirely squishy, like those designed for lingerie, to best replicate the softness of the human body. These days, some of the more affordable forms are made entirely out of foam with a stretchy fabric cover. Regardless of material - be sure to look for a pinnable dress form. This means you can insert pins into it as you work (which is extremely important when you are draping and using draping tape to work out style and seam lines!)
These days there are so many different options for dress forms! We will cover each of these in more detail, but here are some of the options you’ll want to consider:
- Commercial or professional grade dress forms
- Foam dress forms
- Adjustable dress forms
- Custom dress forms based on a 3D scan of your body
- DIY dress forms
Let’s explore each of these in a little more detail!
PROFESSIONAL DRESS FORM
The most expensive option by far, professional dress forms are designed for use in the fashion industry. They are made of high-quality materials, come on sturdy metal bases, and may have any number of the following features:
- Collapsible shoulders - really useful for trying on tops, jackets, etc.
- Detachable or interchangeable arms (our dress forms have both a short and a long arm)
- A “skirt” base with a metal cage below the hips or
- Detachable or removable legs
- Rolling bases that can be raised or lowered
- Fully or partially padded/squishy areas to facilitate tight-fitting garments
- Markings indicate key areas like bust, hip, waist, center back, etc.
With a professional dress form, you are also paying for the data and body metric research done by the company. For example, we use Alvanon forms here in the studio. Alvanon has invested a fortune in biometric body scans and data collection to create forms that best reflect the body composition of the “average” person. They have different forms for different markets and are continually studying how bodies change by region, market, and over time. For example, the North American form may differ from forms designed for the European or Asian market. They even sell “virtual” forms for use in 3D sample making!
What this means for you is the most up-to-date understanding of “typical” factors like waist-to-hip ratio, shoulder width, height, etc. Obviously, our bodies differ widely, but it is possible to draw conclusions about averages based on data analysis. We originally went with Alvanon because they were using the most up-to-date information available. Some of the more old-school dress-form companies aren’t as tech-minded and may be relying on data or metrics that aren't quite as up-to-date. We also like that they offer a variety of different body shapes in their line of dress forms. We use a form from their US ASTM series “Missy Straight” as our base model for our 0-20 range, and a different form from their “Missy Curve” line for our 14-32 range. This is because we surveyed the curvy sewing community and noticed that in general, folks in our extended range tended to have larger busts with more pear-shaped lower bodies - being able to choose a form that best reflects this means our drafting more accurately reflects the most amount of people.
I also love how much data they provide for free, and using their resources was really helpful when we designed our size and grading charts. You can find all their dress form lines here and see how the various body measurements change by size. Of course, all this tech has a cost - expect to pay $4-5K for an Alvanon form when you factor in customs and shipping.
Other commercial and professional dress form companies:
- PGM - US standards, come in a variety of formats, size ranges, genders, etc. - start at $299 and go up from there. Sizes 0-20 (33”-45” hip).
- The Shop Company - affordable forms starting at $289 in a variety of sizes and genders, sizes 0-24 for womens forms (34”-54” hip)
- Wolf Forms - an old-school American dress form company, you can easily find these second-hand or vintage. Sizes range from 4-24 (34”-56” hip).
FOAM DRESS FORMS
In the last ten years or so, I’ve noticed a variety of new dress form companies emerging due to advances in 3D printing and technology. Most of these are made entirely from foam and generally come without some of the more professional features we’ve talked about like collapsible shoulders or detachable body parts. Since they are made from foam, they have squishy bodies and can be more affordable than an expensive industry Alvanon form.
We’ve been sent forms like this to test and have enjoyed them. While we still use our Alvanon forms, we like having a variety of sizes and shapes around if we want to test grading on different sizes.
Here are some options for affordable foam dress forms:
- Royal Dress Forms - all foam dress forms that come in a variety of styles and shapes. Their Monica form comes in hourglass, pear-shaped, inverted triangle and rectangle shapes, starting at $695. Sizes XXS-XXXL (I could not find a size chart on their site so you may need to inquire). They sent us a form to test years ago (I think they used to be called Classy) and we liked it, although found the shape to be a bit more hourglass and busty than our Alvanon form.
- Fabulous Fit Forms - all foam starting at $299. They also sell a “Fabulous Fit'' foam system that will allow you to customize a form to your dimensions. Limited sizing from 0-14 (max 43” hip).
- One Forms - foam forms starting at $580, add more for the stand. They also sent us a form to try a while back. Similar to Royal but with a pretty gold stand and a sturdy plate for the neck. Can purchase additional pieces like detachable head and arms. Sizes 0-18 (hips 36”-51”).
ADJUSTABLE DRESS FORM
Perhaps one of the most affordable options, adjustable dress forms are readily available and a good entry point to see if you like working with a form. They are also a good option if your size fluctuates or you make clothes for other people, although I find them a bit flimsy when compared to a sturdy professional form.
Adjustable dress forms are hollow with soft felt or fabric cover, and depending on the model can be tweaked to have a larger or smaller bust, waist, and hip measurement using the turn of a dial. Some models may also allow you to adjust neck circumference and body length. As they expand, it creates gaps in the form which make these better for fitting and hemming; I would not recommend them for draping or complex pattern making since you won’t have a completely flat, solid surface to work from.
- Dritz Dress Form - Pinnable with dials for bust, waist, hip, neck, and center back. Comes in sizes small to medium, along with “Full figure” and petite options. The full figure goes from 51-57”, small starts at 34” hip.
- Singer Adjustable Form – 13 adjustable dials, pinnable, one size only with hip going from 34”-41”.
CUSTOM DRESS FORM
If you have the budget and a fairly stable shape, I highly recommend a fully custom dress form. These are one of the more expensive options, but if you struggle with fitting issues, I can’t think of a better way to work through them than with an exact 3D replica of your body!
Fully custom forms are now widely available because of 3D printing technology. I was sent a custom form based on a 3D scan of my body from Beatrice Forms (you can read a full review here) and it is such a wonderful tool! Most bodies are asymmetrical to some degree, so I find it SUPER helpful when I am trying to fit more complicated garments. I’m able to easily and quickly spot issues, and it’s so helpful to be able to adjust things like dart length and placement directly on a dress form and know those changes will mirror your body perfectly.
To get my custom form, Beatrice sent me a kit that included a tight-fitting top and an app that we used to scan my body. The form itself came on a sturdy metal base with pretty wood details. While I’m sure there are other custom dress form companies, I highly recommend Beatrice - they are a small family-run business owned by a wonderful member of the sewing community. Prices start at $1499 US so this is obviously one of the spendier options, but if you want a completely custom solution I have nothing but praise!
DIY DRESS FORM
Last but not least, I want to cover making a full DIY dress form. This is especially a great option for the budget conscious, and those who may struggle to find or adapt a form to their unique shape. The best part is you can always make a new one if you have a substantial change!
There are a few different methods out there, so I’ll simply link to a few tutorials.
- Duct Tape Dress form - try this quick and easy method or, this more involved method that is padded with a stand. You can also try making one from paper tape.
- Paper Mâché Dress form - make a more frigid form using this tutorial from Threads magazine.
- Foam Dress Form -make your own foam version using this youtube tutorial or this detailed photo tutorial.
Phew! Who knew I had so much to say on this subject?! I hope this was a great primer to all the dress form options out there, and if you have any questions or suggestions for other dress form companies, feel free to let us know in the comments!
And if you want to hear me ramble about dress forms in person, check out your youtube video below!
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