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Proper Care Gives Vintage Wedding Gowns Another Walk Down the Aisle

Wedding gowns are a perennial favorite in the vintage clothing market.  They are probably the single most saved item of clothing.  However, often they are not saved very well.

Storage in areas with fluctuating temperatures, on hangers or in acid-leaching boxes with uncleaned spills or perspiration residue on them can cause stains, yellowing and general deterioration.

How do you clean and store a gown so it will be fresh and beautiful for a customer, daughter or granddaughter?  How do you salvage an heirloom gown that's yellowed an stained?

These and other questions about the care of period clothing were answered at a recent symposium of Region 1 of the Costume Society of America.  The symposium was hosted by the Department of Textiles, Fashion merchandising, and Design at the University of Rhode Island.  The Department of Textiles has a large costume and textile collection. including wedding gowns, that can be seen by appointment.

Evelyn Kennedy, a URI graduate and a restoration specialist, and her assistant Dee Paskausky, a URI graduate student, set up an exhibit and gave a talk on cleaning and restoring wedding gowns.

Kennedy's 15-year-old business, Sewtique, of Groton, Conn., specializes in bridal gown alteration, restoration and care.  Kennedy showed examples of cleaning successes, as well as let's call them lessons.

While most dresses are dry-cleaned, she showed how well a satin circa 1920's gown with dirt and stains responded to a process called wet-cleaning.  She cut the dress in half, washed one side only, then sewed the dress back together.  The difference the cleaning made was remarkable.  The cleaned side didn't deteriorate or shrink.

Due to the manufacturer's failure to correctly label a modern wedding gown, trim on the gown took on a bluish tint from the cleaning solvent used by the dry cleaner Kennedy often uses.  Kennedy, who stands by her work, was able to get a replacement in the same style and size from the manufacturer.  She kept the original marred gown for her teaching exhibit.

Kennedy also showed examples of vintage gowns and lingerie that her company had restored.

Now, on to the cleaning tips.  First after the wedding, have the gown cleaned as soon as possible.  Some stains start oxidizing rapidly.  Once they begin to oxidize, they become fixed in the fiber, making them difficult to remove.

There are the two cleaning methods: wet (not washing) or dry cleaning.  How do you decide if a gown should be wet or dry-cleaned?  Each gown, and each part of the gown must be analyzed on an individual basis.  The type of fabric, trim, and stains determine how to proceed.  Some trim may have to be removed.  Wet-cleaning can shrink some trims.

The dry-cleaning process can affect trims, dissolve some sequins or pearl accents, as well as react with optical whiteners, chemicals that give a gown that super-white look.  (That's what happened with Kennedy's example, above.)

What spilled on or stained the gown?  Sugar or starch spills call for wet-cleaning.  Dry-cleaning won't work on them.  Don't ever rub a stain.  You can chafe the weave and change the color.  If a stain is water soluble you can dab it with clear, cool water, then let a professional take over.

Oil or cosmetic marks must be dry-cleaned.  If the gown had a manufacturer's label, the care label directions should be followed.  However, Kennedy warns that many wedding gowns and formal wear do not carry appropriate care and maintenance labels as required by the care Label Law mandated by the FTC, therefore proceed with caution.  Kennedy has been called as an expert witness by the FTC in a Care Label Law investigation.

Once you've determined what the gown is made of and how it should be cleaned, who should clean the gown?  The best choice is an expert like Evelyn Kennedy, who will use her considerable experience to get the best results, either form her trained crew or from a trusted dry cleaner.  There are wedding gown cleaning specialists that use the wet-cleaning method Web-Re-Stor.

Vintage clothing dealers may wish to keep costs down by wet-cleaning a gown themselves.  First, as mentioned at the symposium, you remove as much surface dirt as possible.  This can be done by placing a screen over the fabric and then gently vacuuming the soiled areas.  Once successful dealer I know hangs dusty gowns in a damp shower stall.  She says that much of the dirt loosens and falls off.  She also vacuums her gowns.

Here are some of Kennedy's tips for wet-cleaning.  Please be aware there are no guarantees with these methods, especially with older fabrics with unknown stains.

Start by soaking a small section of the gown or lace trim at a trim in cold water for 30 minutes.  Next, wash gently (don't agitate) in tepid water (70 to 80 degrees and suds form a mild soap or commercial cleaner diluted according to label directions.  Don't use soap or wash in hard water as they may leave mineral deposits that cause yellowing   Kennedy recommends Easy Wash, a soil and stain remover, or Orvis, used by museums and restoration specialists.  After washing, gently pat each section between two hand towels, then air dry.  Steam press while damp.

An alternate method is to place the gown on a sheet in a bathtub and soak and clean the entire gown as above.  This is not recommended for most gowns, especially heavy ornate examples.  When finished, let the water drain out, and add new water, drain, and repeat until thoroughly rinsed of soil and soap.  Pat the gown with towels.  When as much water has been absorbed by the towels as possible, lift the gown out on the under sheet, or a dry replacement sheet and allow it to air dry flat.  Supporting the gown on a sheet while lifting it lessens stress on the fabric.  Steam press while damp.

If you go to a specialist or a dry cleaner, you should discuss the trims, stains and cleaning methods in detail.  A good cleaner will expect that the trim and buttons may have to be removed.  Some cleaners, like those affiliated with Wedding Gown Specialists Restoration Labs (800-543-8987), offer an optional Anti-Sugar-Stain Process.  If sugar residue isn't removed, heat from the dry cleaning can cause sugar stains to caramelize and become visible.

Kennedy recommends that you ask for a clean solvent and discuss the box and paper for packing.  They should be acid-free.  Avoid cleaners who claim to provide vacuum sealing.  It can't be done with a cardboard and plastic box.  Make an appointment to examine the gown once it is cleaned and pressed and before it is boxed.  It should be pressed free of wrinkles or they will cause permanent ceases.

Other tips from Kennedy when you are planning to heirloom, a gown:  Inquire for references.  Be prepared to sign a  release or a disclaimer, so read the fine print carefully.  Ask the professional about insurance coverage for catastrophic events.  Obtain an evaluation and cost estimate before leaving the gown.  Ask how long the cleaner has been heirlooming and the methods sued.  Be certain that all services will be performed on location.  Examine the box and tissue to be used.  Get a written receipt stating the market value of the ensemble, the anticipated return date or examination date.

Experts also recommend that padding and metal hooks and buttons be removed before a gown is put into storage.  Padding decomposes and metal corrodes.  These parts should be removed, wrapped, and stored in or with the gown box.  Accessories should be stored separately from the gown.  Kennedy recommends putting a picture of the gown with the accessories on the box for documentation.

It's usually best to store a gown flat in a box.  In some cases, they can be put on padded hangers.  A bodice liner is added to take stress off the dress.  Use a cotton, never a plastic cover, and clean it yearly.  All gowns in storage should be checked every few years and tissue replaced.  Gowns should be stored at an even temperature, never an attic or cellar, and away from a kitchen or fireplace.

With proper cleaning and care, and ensemble should keep well for 20 years or longer and can be worn more than one time.  A restoration or alteration of a gown is considerably less costly than purchase of a new gown.

A vintage gown, family treasure or not, projects an aura that new gowns lack  A gown of any vintage previously worn by a family member carries a sentimental value money can't buy.  In both cases, it pays to carefully clean and preserve these heirlooms.

Antique Week - Eastern Edition
By Debbie Regan Cleveland

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