The average cosplayer has probably made a duct tape dress form at least once. For most applications a torso-only dress form is fine, but what about the times where you need arms and legs? I needed a full body dress form for a few upcoming projects and didn’t want to shell out $500+ for a commericial option. I also wanted the chest to be bound so I could use it for crossplay, which pretty much eliminates any possibility of finding a stock commercial option that would be even remotely close to the measurements I wanted. So I ended up making this guy!
I also want to give a HUGE thank you to @stella-sews who helped me with the parts of this project that required two people, and I couldn’t have completed this without her.
The dress form not only accurately reflects my measurements but also has removable arms and a removable stand so I can actually put things like bodysuits on it. Making the dress form turned out to be a little less simple than I initially thought, but the final result is something that I’m probably going to be able to use indefinitely unless my body shape significantly changes.
Here’s the super quick version of the changes I made to the normal duct tape dress form routine:
- Made duct tape shell
- Taped wire to outside of shell to make a temporary rigid exoskeleton
- Put in internal PVC skeleton for support stand and detachable shoulder joints
- Filled with expanding foam
- Removed wire exoskeleton
- Cut arms off and cleaned up shoulder joints so arms are removable
For an in depth walk through of what I did, read below the cut!
This tutorial, as well as future tutorials, will be cross-posted to my new Patreon account! It will be 100% free always, but is another way you can keep an eye on my cosplay tutorials and write-ups.
You can substitute some of these materials with whatever you have around the house to save on costs, but here’s what I used:
- Duct tape – I used white duct tape because I didn’t want to be staring at a giant silver dress form when I was done, even though silver duct tape is cheaper. I ended up using a total of 200 yards (10 rolls x 20 yds each) during the project. We used every last bit of the initial six rolls I bought for the body wrapping, then I ended up having to buy four more rolls for touch-ups and the like. (For reference, I’m 5′10″ and about 150 lbs, and body surface area calculators say I’m around 1.9 m^2.)
- Clothes to sacrifice to the duct tape – I used an ugly long-sleeved clearance shirt and an old pair of nylons with runs in them – I would NOT suggest using old nylons unless you have multiple pairs and you put them on at the same time. Other options might include pajama pants made out of a thin knit material (might be a little baggy, could get folds incorporated into your form) or yoga pants (might compress once the duct tape form gets cut off you – but you could probably peel it away from the form if you did things right).
- Wire – This should be stiff enough to stand up on its own once you shape it – 14 gauge or thereabouts. We used a mix of copper and aluminum wire for this project because it’s what we had on hand. Spools of aluminum fencing wire can be bought at hardware or rural supply stores, or if you don’t need a whole spool there are some places that will cut lengths of wire for you.
- Clear packing tape – A less adhesive, see-through alternative to duct tape for fastening the wire to the duct tape shell. I found that this stuff was easier to peel off the form once I was done with it and it was nice because I could see where the wires were, but if you’ve got a ton of duct tape on hand already it’s not really necessary.
- Expanding foam – For this project, I used around 15 cans of Fill and Seal expanding foam. Read the last section of the tutorial for more thoughts about this, as this was definitely the touchiest ingredient of the project. Some of my cans were duds because they were old, so it threw off my total count. I would suggest buying more than you think you need, opening one can at a time, and returning what you don’t use to the store.
- PVC pipe and fittings – I used two 5′ lengths of 3/4″ PVC pipe, four 90° connectors, two straight connectors, three T connectors, and three end caps. You’ll also want something to cut the PVC with – as I ended up having to make at least ten cuts, any appropriate power tools you have access to will make things much faster than using hand tools. I used a miter saw. Wear proper ear and eye protection when working with power tools!
- Plastic grocery bags, batting, or other thin padding – For smoothing out any folds or lumps in the dress form once the foam has cured.
Hopefully not totally consumed during the project:
- At least one friend you trust! They should be comfortable with patting down duct tape over your chest/butt/crotch. (RIP stella thank you for your brave service)
- Blunt-ended safety scissors or medical scissors – For cutting the duct tape shell off of you.
- Baby powder or corn starch – For dusting any sticky spots on the inside of the shell so it doesn’t stick to itself.
- Disposable gloves – For handling the expanding foam and cutting into the foam-filled form later. Boxes of nitrile gloves are super cheap and also give you the option of picking a size that’s appropriate for you (I wear smalls).
- Plastic wrap – For wrapping around certain areas of your body if you want extra protection during the duct tape wrapping, also for wrapping around the PVC skeleton near the shoulder joints so things won’t get gunked up.
- Acetone (nail polish remover) and cotton rounds – For cleaning up uncured foam.
- Box cutter and/or serrated knife – For poking holes in the foam-filled form and cutting the arms off later.
- Wrapping paper or butcher’s paper – For protecting the floor of your working area.
- Temporary stuffing materials like plastic grocery bags, newspaper, towels, blankets, etc. – This is to bulk out the inside of the dress form while you finish the wire exoskeleton. You will get these back, and you don’t have to stuff the entire dress form at once if you’re limited on materials.
- Wads of cruddy towels, pillows, or other padding – For propping up areas of the duct tape shell while the foam is curing. Pick something you won’t be sad about accidentally sloshing expanding foam on.
- An isolated room or workspace – Pick a low-traffic area where you can leave the expanding foam to cure that is away from pets and small humans. Hopefully it has a door to close and/or a window to vent, because expanding foam smells pretty bad and you shouldn’t inhale the offgasses. If I did this project again with the Fill and Seal foam I probably could have cleared out of this room in about a week, but the first time around it took THREE weeks of my dress form occupying the floor of my guest room before it cured.
Making the Duct Tape Shell
You’ll need a friend to help you with this part, but if you can get two or more people to assist you things will go faster. My ideal setup is having one person to wrap the model while a second person tears strips of duct tape off the roll, but what works best for you may be different. It took me and my friend @stella-sews about two hours to create the duct tape shell for this project and get it cut off of me.
Tips for prepping yourself:
- Go to the bathroom immediately before you start. If you’re the type to have to use the bathroom frequently, don’t drink a ton of water prior to this.
- If you have breasts, pick what you want the top of the dress form to look like. Wear a bra or a binder, depending on what you want. Make sure whoever is cutting you out of the duct tape shell is careful not to cut your bra/binder.
- Pick the proper clothes to sacrifice to the duct tape. You won’t get these back. Ideally you want something form-fitting that has a little stretch to it but not a lot of springback. Long-sleeved t-shirts or turtlenecks are excellent choices for the top, the bottom might get a little dicey based on what you can find. I used a pair of old, cheap nylons with runs in them because they were form-fitting and had minimal springback, but OH BOY imagine my surprise when they didn’t provide enough of a barrier between my skin and the duct tape and it came time to cut the shell off of me! (I bled a little, and probably traumatized Stella.) If you’re going to use nylons, make sure they’re thick enough to provide a good barrier or wear multiple pairs of nylons.
- If there are any unprotected areas of your body that you’d like to duct tape to cover, use plastic wrap to reinforce those areas (e.g. the neck if you’re wearing a t-shirt). DO NOT wrap your entire body in plastic wrap – you’re going to be sweating enough as it is once the duct tape goes on. Don’t prolong that any more than you have to.
- Pick which sections of your body you want to lose mobility in first. Once the duct tape goes over a joint, consider that joint immobilized until the shell is cut off. We started with my torso (but left room for my neck to move), did both my legs, did my non-dominant arm, then my dominant arm, and finally finished with my neck.
- Give yourself an approximately butt-level surface to rest against. You won’t really be able to sit properly, but if you have a high stool or the edge of a bed to wedge a butt cheek over when you get start getting tired, it helps a lot.
By the time the shell is complete, you will probably be pretty tired and want to get out of it as quickly as possible. But before your partner cuts the duct tape shell off of you, it might benefit you to get started on part of the rigid exoskeleton.
Making the Exoskeleton
Although there are many parts of the human body that are round in cross-section, not everything is. The torso and butt are two main areas that have an oval or kidney-bean shaped cross section, and getting these areas the wrong shape can ruin a dress form, especially if you’re using a rigid filling material. Because of this, I would suggest having your partner start making the exoskeleton for your torso and butt and tape it to the outside of the duct tape shell before it even gets cut off of you.
The torso exoskeleton should ideally be shaped in two halves with slight spacing between them so you can still get cut out of the duct tape shell after they’re taped on.
Bend the wire before it gets taped to your body, don’t bend it as you’re taping if it can help it. You want the wire to have a passive shape, that is it holds its desired shape even without external forces (like tape) being applied to it. The closer you can get the wire to its desired passive shape before it gets taped on, the better. It doesn’t have to be totally perfect because you can squish and shape things later, but it helps to be as accurate as you reasonably can.
For my form, we really only reinforced my torso and not my butt before the shell got cut off. If I were to do this again, I would probably extend the exoskeleton to include my butt. (Stella made my butt look super awesome with the duct tape, but sadly it didn’t translate well to the final dressform because of the lack of external support. SIGH.)
To cut the form off of myself, I had Stella cut straight down the back and then make a slit up the back of each leg, which joined up in an upside down Y-shape around the butt.
After the shell gets cut off you, you’ll have a… floppy thing. Dust the inside of the shell with baby powder to keep it from sticking to itself if there are any sticky areas. I ended up pulling the nylons out of the inside of the form because they weren’t that well adhered and the springiness of the nylons was causing the shell to cave in on itself. This is what the shell looked like as it was freshly cut off and then after I cleaned it up a bit.
After that, you’ll want to reapproximate the cut edges of the shell and tape them back together. Now you’ll have a partially flat body that you need to finish adding the exoskeleton to.
Ideally you’ll have reinforced the non-round areas of the shell with wire already, but in case you haven’t you’ll want to pay careful attention to that in this step. Use some temporary stuffing material to stuff one or two limbs at a time, then curl the wire around the limbs and tape the wire down to reinforce it. Once the wire exoskeleton is finished, pull the stuffing material out and move to a different area of the shell.
After finishing with the arms and legs, I ended up re-stuffing the torso and shoulders and adding additional reinforcement there. Pay extra attention to the stomach area – my dress form ended up caving in a little bit here because there wasn’t enough wire. You’ll see what I mean in a little bit.
Once you’re done with the exoskeleton and you’ve pulled all the temporary stuffing out, the shell should match the shape of your body. I made a quick pair of calipers out of cardboard to double check the dimensions of the waist and chest area versus my own dimensions.
Making the PVC Skeleton
Some full body dress forms are held upright by a floor stand (easier to get shirts on), others hang suspended from the neck area (easier to get pants on). I chose to make a detachable floor stand but added some extra PVC to the dress form’s neck area in case I ever wanted to hang it in the future.
I made two shapes out of PVC, one for the floor stand with a square base and the other for the shoulder joints/neck hanger. In total, I used the following PVC components:
- 3 T joints
- 4 right-angle elbow connectors
- 2 straight connectors
- 3 end caps
- About 10 feet of 3/4″ PVC, cut into lengths to fit the shape below:
You can cut PVC pipe with a hand saw, but it goes way faster if you have access to a power tool. I used a miter saw to cut my PVC to the lengths I needed.
One important thing to consider is that in order to get shirts, bodices, or whatever onto the torso of your dress form, you’ll need to be able to remove the arms. To do this, the neck/shoulder part of the PVC skeleton has two straight connectors approximately where the shoulder joints are. When cutting your PVC, be sure that the two straight connectors on the neck/shoulder piece will match up with your shoulder joints, and that the end caps won’t stick out past the ends of the shoulders. Also, MAKE SURE you do something to prevent the expanding foam from locking the shoulder joints shut. I wrapped the straight connectors in plastic wrap, but you might also have luck with vaseline or another liberally applied release agent. This will make your life way easier when you have to cut the arms off the dress form!
The floor stand should have a base wide enough to keep the dress form from wobbling back and forth. I made mine in approximately a square shape, which seems to work pretty well. The two lengths of PVC sticking out of the floor stand should ideally go up to the knee or slightly higher, but you don’t want them so long that they run into and distort the sides of the duct tape shell when you insert them inside the legs.
Once you’ve built the PVC skeleton, you need to get it set up inside the duct tape shell so that the PVC isn’t directly leaning up against the inside of the duct tape anywhere. I used some scraps of cardboard and duct tape to create spacers which helped me position the PVC where I wanted it. It’s really fiddly at this stage because you’re working inside such a restricted space – I found it was easiest if I duct taped my spacers to the PVC parts before inserting them inside the duct tape shell. Here are some pictures of how I had the shell propped up with the skeleton pieces inside, immediately before I started filling it with expanding foam. I ended up taping over most of the neck hole, but left the wrist and ankle areas open so foam and air could escape if it needed to.
Filling with Expanding Foam
Make sure you pick the right space to set this up in, because it gets pretty stinky and also needs to be left undisturbed for a long time! A well-ventilated area that’s not your normal living space, like a garage or an unused guest room, is a good idea. Make sure you protect the floor with a plastic dropcloth or several layers of newspaper before setting up the duct tape shell. I used wrapping paper on top of a ratty blanket and set my shell up so it was laying on its stomach, with the back side up.
Using your box cutter or serrated knife, slice several holes about 1 to 2 feet apart along the limbs and torso of the shell. Make them long enough to be able to fit the nozzle of the expanding foam can. It may also help to use a sharpie to highlight where you’re leaving these holes because it can be easy to lose track of them – you can always add another piece of duct tape over the marks to hide them later. I found it made things easier to check by leaving small holes on the limbs and a large slash down the back of the torso, so I could peek inside the torso more easily and see how far it had been filled.
Following the instructions on the expanding foam cans, inject foam into the interior of the shell. Don’t use all your cans, maybe use about one half to two thirds of them depending on how the fill is going. Let the foam cure until it is somewhat firm when you squeeze the outside of the shell – at least several hours to a day – and then you can look inside the shell and add more foam to areas that didn’t get filled. Repeat until you’ve got the torso filled.
At this point, you need to get the foam to cure fully. This is a tricky part and requires the foam to be exposed to air so it can offgas. The problem is that you just encased all this foam in a big, airtight shell! Take your box cutter or knife and poke a bunch of vent holes all over the exposed surfaces of the duct tape shell. It’s okay if a little foam oozes out of these holes, it means that air is getting to the interior and you’ll be able to clean things up after the foam cures.
Once you can rap on the duct tape shell with your knuckles and feel a firm, solid resistance, flip the dress form over and redistribute the exterior padding so that it’s supported in its new position.
The stomach and chest area will likely still be somewhat squishy and kind of flat. Cut some vent holes in this side so that the air cure can continue. If the foam is still pretty liquidy, you might even be able to add another can or two to puff things out a little bit. But if things look a little flat, don’t worry too much – you can fix this later! Leave the dress form to cure and check it each day to see where spots are staying squishy and where you can add more vent holes. The first time I did this, this process took three weeks because I didn’t know what I was doing, but if I were to do it again I think I’d still need at least a week to let everything cure properly.
By now, you should have a cured dress form that is ready to stand up! Hooray! Remove the wire exoskeleton from the duct tape shell. If you’re the thrifty type, it’s worth it to bend the wire back to a straight-ish shape and save it for other projects.
Now you have something that’s approximately shaped like you, but probably caved in in some areas. This is super easy to fix – simply get some kind of squishy filling material and press it into the areas that need to be filled out, then duct tape over them. I used plastic grocery bags because I had a ton of them lying around. This is what my dress form looked like immediately after I took the wire off, and then after I filled in and smoothed the some collapsed areas in the stomach and chest. Later on I filled in the buckled areas on the arms as well, but that’s not in this photo.
It’s time to make the arms detachable! Use a sharpie to mark where you want the arm to join to the body. I usually think of this as where the shoulder seam of a well-fitted t-shirt would hit your body. Things can get a little messy at this stage and it’s easy to hit a pocket of uncured foam, so wear disposable gloves and use a box cutter or serrated knife that you don’t mind getting dirty. Neatly saw through the line you drew until you hit PVC pipe, and extend the cut all the way around the shoulder until the only thing holding the arm to the body is the the PVC skeleton.
Gently (or not so gently, depending on how hard things are stuck) wiggle the arm away from the torso to detach it. If your pipes get pulled out of the connectors in the wrong spots, that’s okay – just detach what you can and put stuff back in the correct place later. At this point you can let things cure a little more if you came across any uncured foam, or seal things up with duct tape to make a nice clean joint.
At this point, you are essentially done!! Make whatever esthetic modifications you like, like cleaning up the foam at the wrists and ankles, and doing your final smoothing of any collapsed or buckled areas. You now have a dress form that is customized to fit you exactly, can stand up on its own, is very lightweight, and CHEAP!
Final Thoughts on Filling Materials
There are a lot of cruddy things about canned expanding foam that makes it difficult to work with. It’s messy, it takes a long time to cure, and it can ruin your clothes if it gets on them. There are also lots of other non-canned options for expanding foam. If I were make another duct tape dress form again, would I stick with the canned expanding foam?
At this point in time, after having worked with both canned and mix-and-pour foams, I’d still probably go with the canned foam for this project.
The three main things that canned expanding foam has going for it are (1) cheap cost, (2) availability at local hardware stores, and (3) ease of dispensing. There’s no mixing involved and each can comes with a nozzle that allows you to inject foam into your duct tape shell through a series of small openings.
The curing conditions for the canned expanding foam are what really make it a pain in the butt to work with. Because it needs air to cure, you have to strategically poke holes in your duct tape shell to allow curing to take place. Because of how you have to time things, this means it’s going to take a lot longer for your dress form to cure. Mix-and-pour expanding foams don’t need air to cure, but depending on how quickly it takes them to react after mixing it can be an unwinnable race to get it all inside your shell in time.
Mix-and-pour expanding foams start to expand within seconds to a few minutes after you mix them, which means you have to work very quickly and they’re probably going to be even messier than canned foam and produce more waste with all the mixing vessels and stir sticks you’ll burn through. I’ve also noticed that they can be sensitive to being spread out over large areas, which may have something to do with the heat required to create the gas-producing reaction that makes them expand. (Foam more spread out -> heat is dispersed more easily -> foam doesn’t get as hot while it’s curing -> less overall foam expansion and sometimes undesirable consistency after curing.) Any mix-and-pour expanding foam is going to require a large opening for you to pour the foam into and a more rigid exoskeleton that will support you standing the duct tape shell upright so you can pour into a neck or a leg hole. I’m not sure if you can achieve that type of rigidity with just duct tape and wire, although a plaster or resin shell definitely could. But then again, this is a tutorial on how to use duct tape and wire to get a dress form, not on how to do a plaster body cast. I think if you’re married to the idea of using duct tape for the exterior of the shell, which is nice because it’s readily available and cheap, it’s probably best to just stick with canned foam unless you really know what you’re doing.
What about filling materials that aren’t foam? Newspaper, plastic bags, polyfill stuffing… You could totally skip the exoskeleton stage if you used these. My main hangup with these materials is that (1) you might accidentally stuff the torso too much and create an inaccurate cross-section, and (2) the interplay between your desired rigidity, density of packing, quantity of material needed, and total weight of the dress form. I like my dress forms to be as rigid as possible so they stand up to a lot of abuse and don’t get deflated later on. If I had used plastic bags or newspaper to stuff a full-body dress form, I would have had to save up a TON of stuffing materials for this project and my final dress form would have been extremely heavy. The final weight was a big factor in deciding to use expanding foam for me, because I wanted something that I could easily move around. My foam-filled dress form ended up weighing around 15 pounds – if I had used newspaper or plastic bags, it probably would have been at least three to four times as heavy.
In short, there are a lot of options for filling materials. Even though canned expanding foam kind of sucks, I still think it’s the most appropriate material for this application, although your mileage may vary. Think about what you want to achieve and choose your materials accordingly.
Anyway, thank you for reading this far! I’m really pleased with how this project turned out and I hope you guys get something out of this write-up. Here are a few ways in which I’ve gotten to use this dress form since I made it last year: