I’ve been asked several times about the vintage dress form I use to display shawls and jewelry. More specifically, I’ve been asked where one can be found, how difficult are they to find, and how much are they? The short answer to these questions is: several places, both easy and difficult, a lot or not-a-lot. Clear as mud, right? Let me explain.

New professional dress forms are readily available from major manufacturers such as the Wolf Form Company in Englewood, NJ. Still a favorite of clothing designers and manufacturers and used every day in studios and factories, Wolf forms are the Ford F150 of professional dress forms: durable, dependable, and portable. A new size 8, collapsible shoulder model retails for $775. For that amount, you get a pristine, white cloth-covered dress form on a metal rolling base, with the Wolf name stenciled on the neck.

Vintage dress formBut if you want a dress form with some character, some patina, a gal that’s got a story to tell … then you probably want a vintage form. This opens up an entire range of possibilities and prices. Remember the brand new $775 Wolf dress form? Well, expect to pay that amount (often several times more) for a beat-up, stained, worn or torn vintage Wolf. That’s the one everyone is fighting to find. There’s something a bit poignant about a worn, stained dress form draped with handmade jewelry, photographed in the golden, fading light of late afternoon.

Vintage, nicely tattered Wolf dress forms can easily be sourced online, with price tags ranging anywhere from $500 to $3,000. The acquisition of a vintage dress form at a budget-friendly price requires patience, persistence, and even a bit of luck. I’m going to share with you the techniques I used to find my dress form.

Successful online treasure hunting consists of two simple components: a targeted search “string,” and persistence. Really, that’s it. I’ve located many a desired item this way.

The search “string,” or description, are the words that you type into the search field on a website to help you find your desired treasure. No single search string is going to help you find the perfect vintage dress form at a bargain price. The key is to go at it from several directions, combined with persistence. This particular strategy works in online searches for other treasures as well (cough-cough: vintage cowboy boots).

My favorite sites are Ebay (ebay.com), Etsy (etsy.com), Ruby Lane (rubylane.com), and my local Craigslist (craigslist.org). Regardless of which website I’m searching, I will conduct several different searches during each session, typing in a new and unique search string for each one. You may run across the some of the same listings during these multiple searches, but you may also ferret out a unique listing that nets you a treasure.

Refining your search terms is essential to successfully locating your dress form. Simply typing “dress form” in the Search field on EBay will return thousands of listings for both new and used items, along with hundreds of qualifying, but unwanted items such as dress form rubber stamps or gift tags. It’s frustrating and unproductive to scan these listings for your targets.

Instead, conduct a series of searches, typing in the more targeted “vintage dress form,” “antique dress form,” “Wolf dress form,” “antique mannequin,” or “vintage mannequin.” Each targeted search will bring up smaller results groupings that are easier to scan. And yes, dress forms hide under listings for “mannequin,” “mannekin,” or even “dressform” (expressed as a single word).

Stockman mannequin

Vintage Stockman form. Photo courtesy of Vintage Style Mannequins: http://vintagestylemannequins.co.uk

Your local Craigslist can be a great resource, but dress form treasure hunters are becoming aware of it. Lately, I’ve seen more and more “wanted – vintage dress form” listings. But Craigslist is still a good resource, if you scan it daily. People cleaning out old estates often don’t know what they’re getting rid of (“Who’d want that beat-up old thing? Grandma used to use it to make dresses on. Sell it for $25 bucks.”)

Conduct your targeted searches on your chosen websites on a daily basis. Patience is the key. Sometimes a bargain will pop up, and you need to be ready to swoop in and grab it (or at least babysit an auction listing until the bitter end, if the price is right).

As you start noodling about on EBay or other online sites, you may run across some unfamiliar names: Palmer, Siegel & Stockman, J.R. Bauman, Girard. These are all names of retail dress display manufacturers from days gone by – gorgeous antique, pigeon-breasted, wasp-waisted, Edwardian display forms that you should expect to see selling in the $500-$2,000 price range. While not true dress forms (they were used in department stores to display clothing before the advent of the modern, human display mannequin), they are a beautiful vintage option to consider. If you run across one of these beauties at a price you feel comfortable with, buy it. They’re becoming harder to find as collectors snap them up.

So what is my dress form? And where did I find it?

Acme Adjustable Dress FormShe’s an Acme Adjustable Dress Form, Size B, circa 1940s. Her manufacturer is the Acme Dress Form & Hanger Company, started many years ago in Brooklyn, NY, and featured in the fabulous documentary, “Schmatta.”  Older Acme forms may be under the name L&M (or, Ellanam).

Acme Adjustable Dress Forms were the economical little sister of professional dress forms, marketed to the home seamstress back in the day when women made all their own clothing.

The old gal is in great shape – a little dusty, but she looks surprisingly good for having been around some 60+ years. I found her online two years ago at Ruby Lane, for $75 plus shipping. She’s covered in a neutral medium gray fabric that’s in decent shape and showcases my necklaces and shawls nicely. She adjusts from within via a series of body panels that slide along internal tracks, which are then locked into place with nuts and bolts. I’ve closed all the gaps between the body panels for a nice, smooth silhouette.

Acme Ellaman Dress FormA quick check of EBay this morning shows a nice selection of vintage Acme dress forms, ranging in price from $75 (local pickup only) to $550.99 ($395 + $155.99 shipping) for a gorgeous, older model Acme with wide, shiny, vertical chrome strips along the front, and a full skirt cage (the crème de la crème of the vintage Acme line).

I think the Acme forms are sleepers in the dress form hunt – great display forms at a nice price point. The prices have been inching up over the last year as dress form hunters are discovering them.

Try to find one with the blue-and-silver foil “Acme” sticker still intact on the breast – it adds that bit of provenance and panache similar to the higher-priced vintage cloth dress forms with Wolf or Stockman stenciled on the fabric.

Acme Dress Form, RebornBut if you run across a beat-up Acme dress form with torn fabric at a dirt-cheap price, snap it up. Strip off the worn fabric, and decoupage vintage yellowed sheet music, dictionary pages, or paper sewing patterns onto the pressed cardboard panels. Seal with a matte acrylic spray sealer.

Good luck and happy hunting!