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Wedding Gown Preservation

Updated on September 10, 2011
You love your wedding gown - take care of it so it lasts!
You love your wedding gown - take care of it so it lasts!

Preserve Your Gown for Future Generations

A wedding gown is a major investment these days, both financial and emotional. It would be a shame to let all that go to waste when careful handling can help to preserve the gown for the next generation. This is everything you need to know about proper wedding gown preservation.

Many a bride has decided to wear her mother's wedding gown. It is a wonderful custom, not to mean an excellent way to save money on your wedding attire. Imagine the disappointment the bride and her mother feel when they open a vacuum sealed box from the dry cleaner, pull the vintage bridal gown out from the blue tissue paper and discover that the gown is horribly discolored with yellow stains. The cause of the yellowing? The very methods used to preserve the gown after the wedding. That is why the correct preservation methods are so critical, and avoiding improper or outdated techniques is so important.

Improper care after the wedding can result in permanent staining and deterioration of your bridal gown.
Improper care after the wedding can result in permanent staining and deterioration of your bridal gown.

Step One: Professional Cleaning

Once you have committed to treating your wedding gown to the best possible preservation methods, it is time to get educated on what is acceptable and what is not. The first step is to have your bridal gown professionally cleaned as soon after the wedding as possible. Cleaning will help to remove the obvious marks, such as dirt on the hem and train, which are inevitable. Even more importantly, cleaning will remove the future stains which are not yet visible to the naked eye. That little splash of Champagne that got on the bodice of your gown during a toast may not leave a noticeable mark, but over time, the sugars will oxidize, causing brown stains which will be permanent. This is because the very fibers of the silk are damaged by the oxidation process. Who knew that a little bubbly could cause so much trouble?

Another very common type of stain on wedding gowns is perspiration. It is not just the underarm portion of gowns which are vulnerable, either. If you spent every minute of your reception enjoying yourself on the dance floor (and if you did, good for you!), your gown will surely have absorbed perspiration all through the bodice, as well as on any straps your dress may have. Sometimes the dress will look fine initially, but over time, the salts will oxidize creating dreadful yellow marks in all the telltale places. You know how hard it is to get yellow stains out of the underarms of your favorite white cotton t-shirts? It is far worse for fine materials like silk which can't be thrown in the washing machine with bleach or oxygen-based stain lifters (they will actually devour the silk fibers). Prevent yellow stains by having your seamstress add thin dress shields into the underarms of your wedding gown if it has sleeves, and ensure that any perspiration present is cleaned off before it has the chance to do lasting harm to your precious wedding gown.

Don't take your wedding gown to the same dry cleaner as your every day shirts and pants.
Don't take your wedding gown to the same dry cleaner as your every day shirts and pants.

Not All Dry Cleaners Are Created Equal

As cleaning your wedding gown is the first step in preserving it for future generations, a bride must start by finding a professional cleaner to use. You know that dry cleaner that you use for cleaning all your wool trousers and sweaters? No matter how pleased you are with their results on your everyday wardrobe, that does not mean that you can trust them with the most important garment you have ever owned. Dry cleaner horror stories are rampant, from the ones who created terrible water marks, to those who shrank linings or melted sequins, to the ones who completely destroyed the silk of a gown. Even if you can get the dry cleaner to completely reimburse you for the original cost of your wedding gown (a battle which is not easy to win), it will not take away the sting of having forever lost your bridal gown to careless handling. This is why seeking out a specialist is absolutely necessary, even if it means having to ship your gown out of state.

Ship your wedding gown out of state might sound drastic, but it can truly be worth it if there are no bridal gown specialists in your area. What is the difference between having your wedding dress cleaned at the local dry cleaner as compared to a specialist? Everything! Put another way, it is the difference between seeing a general practitioner and a doctor who specializes in rare diseases. The first might be just fine for treating your average flu or cold, but if you came down with a rare fever from the Amazon, you would definitely be better off with the latter. The same goes for wedding gowns; cleaning them is nothing at all like laundering pants and shirts. A cleaner who specializes in bridal gowns will carefully inspect each individual wedding dress to come up with an individual plan of action.

So what exactly does a bridal gown dry cleaning specialist look for when they evaluate a gown prior to beginning the cleaning process? The best of the best will take the time to analyze the fibers and weave of the fabric, examine the beading, buttons, and lace, as well as run tests to determine the origins of any visible stains. This is critical, because silk bridal gowns can shrink or have their luster ruined by improper use of water based cleaners, yet traditional dry cleaning solvents can melt certain types of plastic beads or sequins. A dedicated bridal gown cleaner is part detective, and they rely on the results of their own tests rather than the tag within the gown. In fact, if you look at the care label inside many wedding gowns, they often state “spot clean only”, which is a completely vague and unsuitable option for a heavily soiled gown. When you choose the right cleaners for your bridal gown, they will put almost as much care into safely cleaning it as you did when selecting it.

This is your gown's worst nightmare!
This is your gown's worst nightmare!

Never Vacuum Seal Your Gown!

Professional cleaning is only the beginning. Then it is time to have the wedding gown boxed for storage. A generation ago, dry cleaners promoted vacuum sealing storage boxes for bridal gowns as the gold standard for storage. This practice now makes archivists shudder with horror, as this practice contributed to the rapid deterioration of countless wedding dresses before their time. First the wedding gowns were placed on a cardboard bust-form (non acid-free) and then stuffed with a “special” blue tissue paper before being sealed forever in the non acid-free boxes.

If you were to unpack a wedding gown stored in such a manner today, you would find that the areas which were in contact with the “special” blue tissue are now the most discolored and damaged. Women were given strict instructions to never break the seal on the box, or risk voiding their warranty (which is laughable, because how can you tell if the gown is in good condition without seeing it?). Add to that the clear plastic window on the top of the so-called deluxe storage boxes, which was the perfect way to promote the collection of condensation which can cause mold and mildew, and it is a wonder that any of our mothers' wedding gowns have survived the ages. Why do I mention all this? Because, unbelievably, there are still dry cleaners in this country who promote this outdated and discredited storage method as the best way to preserve a wedding gown!

Choose acid-free storage materials for your wedding dress.
Choose acid-free storage materials for your wedding dress.

Acid Free Storage Is A Must

Now that we know how not to store a bridal gown, let's discuss the proper way to keep your gown beautiful for your sister, niece, future daughter, or even future granddaughter to wear one day. Accept only acid free archival materials to wrap your gown. Cardboard acid free boxes and tissue are available at many bridal shops for boxing up your gown after it has been cleaned. The gown will be carefully folded and packed into a box of the appropriate size to keep it from shifting without being squished. This is a decent method, especially when compared to the horrid vacuum-seal box, but it is still not the best option for very long term storage of your wedding gown. Over the years, the acid free materials will begin to deteriorate and the cardboard can collect moisture, both of which can cause damage to your wedding dress down the road. If you opt for this method, it is advisable to replace the box and tissue every five years or so (sooner, if there is cause for concern).

The gold standard in wedding gown storage is an acid free box made of fluted polypropylene, which is a ph neutral material which will not deteriorate or absorb moisture. This is the type of box used by archivists at museums to store priceless textiles; doesn't your precious gown deserve the same? Upon completion of the custom dry cleaning process, the wedding dress is loosely folded to avoid creasing, and wrapped in layers of acid free tissue before being gently placed in the box. The box is never, ever sealed. In fact, air circulation is vital to the longevity of silk, which can otherwise be prone to dry rot. The fun part for women who love their wedding gowns is that it is recommended that you remove the gown from its box every twelve to eighteen months. This gives you a chance to see it again, and it will also allow you to inspect it for any signs of damage or latent stains starting to emerge. When you replace the gown in the box, slightly vary the way in which it is folded to avoid creating permanent creases along fold lines. Archivists wear white cotton gloves when handling precious textiles, and the same is recommended when you unpack and repack your bridal gown. White cotton gloves can easily be found at any bridal salon, and some of the premier bridal gown cleaners will actually provide a pair within your box.

Madame Paulette was entrusted to clean and preserve Melania Knauss Trump's couture bridal gown.
Madame Paulette was entrusted to clean and preserve Melania Knauss Trump's couture bridal gown.

Who Can A Bride Trust With Her Gown?

As for locating a dry cleaner with whom you can trust your cherished wedding gown, there are several top names in the business. If you have selected a designer bridal gown, the designer may recommended a particular cleaning service, so it is always worth inquiring. Beyond that, there are a couple of time tested cleaners in the business located in the New York area. J. Scheer was founded by Jonathan Scheer, who is an expert at textile preservation and conservation. They frequently work with the textile departments of major museums, and they are truly dedicated to what they do. Meurice Garment Care is another NYC based cleaner with a strong tradition in caring for bridal gowns. They offer services in cleaning and preserving both recently worn gowns and family heirlooms which are being restored for a new generation of bride to wear. Perhaps the most famous dry cleaner in the country is Madame Paulette, which has been a New York institution for half a century. If you choose to entrust your wedding gown to them, you know you will be in good company; Melania Knauss Trump allowed them to clean her $250,000 couture gown.

Of course, no one said that such attention to detail and dedication to museum quality preservation comes cheap. Cleaning and boxing services at J. Scheer and Meurice Garment Care start at around $400 and can run closer to $800 for gowns with heavy beadwork, cathedral length trains, or heavy staining. Madame Paulette starts at approximately $600. Clearly, this is a service which would only be worthwhile for a gown which was fairly costly in the first place. But if you paid $3000 or $5000 or even $10,000 for a designer bridal gown, it is worth the investment to keep it in mint condition. When it comes to inexpensive mass-produced wedding gowns, it would obviously not be worth investing in such an expensive process which might actually cost more than the material value of the gown (obviously, the sentimental value of any wedding dress is priceless, no matter what the price tag). The sad truth is that many of the least expensive wedding gowns are not made to last, with fibers which do not hold up over time, and embellishments like plastic beads and glued on trim which will not withstand any dry cleaning process, no matter how careful. A cardboard acid free box will be a far more economical option. Be aware that leaving a wedding gown hanging in its plastic garment bag is far from ideal for the long run. The plastic does not allow materials to breathe, and the heavy weight of the fabric and embellishments can cause the dress to stretch out of shape after years on a hanger.

Antique gowns can be worn by generations of brides if properly stored.
Antique gowns can be worn by generations of brides if properly stored.
The best thing to do with your bridal jewelry after the wedding is to wear it!
The best thing to do with your bridal jewelry after the wedding is to wear it!

How to Store Your Boxed Gown

Once you have your wedding gown back, all clean and archivally boxed, you have some responsibilities of your own to ensure its longevity. First of all, the box should be stored flat, never standing up on one end. The perfect place to keep your wedding gown box is under a bed. The worst place to keep it is in the attic, where the high heat can wreak havoc on fine silks, no matter how perfectly they have been preserved. Your basement is nearly as bad, as the damp conditions can promote the growth of mold, mildew, and possibly even an invasion of critters. And don't even think of storing the box in a garage, with all of its noxious fumes! Your wedding gown will be happiest in the same conditions as you are: a comfortable room temperature without any extreme fluctuations and a medium level of humidity. Besides, you will be much more likely to remember to periodically open the box and check out the condition of your wedding dress if it is somewhere convenient, rather than buried under boxes of old textbooks in the attic.

As for the rest of your wedding trousseau, it should be stored separately from your bridal gown. The materials will be very different from that of your gown, and keeping them in the same box with your wedding dress can potentially cause harm. This is especially true of the metal combs used to secure veils and headpieces; should they come into contact with the fabric of the gown, they can leave permanent rust marks. Realistically, your handbag, shoes, and the like are not created with the long term in mind, and are likely to decay over time, no matter how carefully they are stored. A possible exception would be an all-lace veil, such as one created from fine heirloom quality Belgian lace. Speak to your trusted cleaner about the ideal way to preserve this wedding keepsake. Also keep in mind that in some cases, the best way to cherish your wedding accessories is to use them. See if your white silk shoes can be dyed black so that you can wear them for future special occasions (be aware that dying shoes can cause them to shrink a little sometimes). If you carried a little beaded clutch, use it for nights out on the town. In the case of your wedding jewelry, you should definitely keep it in circulation. Jewelry is most valuable when it is regularly worn and enjoyed, rather than tucked away, and it is nice to have a wedding memento which you can use on a regular basis.

Without a doubt, most women love their wedding gowns like no other garment they will ever own. It is definitely worth it to take the necessary steps to keep your special gown in pristine condition. It will delight you to revisit it through the years, and one day, you just might have the joy of watching your own daughter wear it down the aisle for her wedding.


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