To Preserve Your Gown, Spring for a Specialist

The last thing I wanted to think about before or after my wedding was the preservation of my gown. in fact, I have no idea what actually happened to that sweet concoction of raw silk and French lace. There's a good chance that my mother took it somewhere to be cleaned and packed for posterity, but I'm not going to swear to it.

I wasn't interested in the future of my dress until recently, when the wedding photos started rolling in and I remembered how much it meant to me. I want my dress to be an heirloom someday. If I have a daughter, maybe she'll want to wear it at her wedding. Now I wonder what it will look like when the day comes.

Detective work

Most dry cleaners offer dress-cleaning services at a price tag of about $100. They can remove obvious stains and then steam and pack a dress, so why should brides visit a preservation specialist, who may charge more than twice as much Cleaning is only one component of dress care, explains Johnathan Scheer of J. Scheer & Co., a fine-apparel preservationist in Rhinebeck, New York. Conservation is the other, and it is the trickier of the two. "The hardest part of this job is the investigative work prior to cleaning." Preservationists run tests to determine the resiliency of fibers to different types of solvents. They test the impact of steam - will it melt beads or sequins? They examine the integrity of the fabric: Are seams damaged? Is that barely there stain courtesy of water or white wine?

White lies

"There is no magic embalming fluid for your dress," says Scheer, who works with institutions like the Tapestry Conservation Laboratory at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. "Conservators will not introduce foreign chemicals to a textile to enhance preservation." There are companies claiming they can maintain the brilliant white of your dress longer, often with bleaches. Scheer gasps at the idea. "If a bride wants her gown bleached, I cannot accept the job," he admits. You can expect most preservation specialists to treat afflictions like champagne stains and heel-punctured hems. They will also address loose seams and weary beading or tender lace - often matching and replacing the original when needed. You can expect to pay between $140 and $550 (sometimes more), depending on the complexity of your gown.

Inquiring minds

When choosing a specialist, do your homework. What kind of assignments does a specialist handle? What type of testing does he execute before cleaning? Does he offer a guarantee? This last question is vital. Never accept a limited guarantee that prohibits opening the box: If you can't examine your dress, how do you know what kind of treatment it received? Ideally, the guarantee should cover the work for a specific amount of time.

Follow the fold

The only long-term maintenance you need worry about is the annual repacking of your gown. While some preservationists will do the deed for you, you can do it yourself (wear those white gloves). It sounds like one more unnecessary chore, but if the dress is repacked yearly, folds will be less likely to turn into wrinkles and creases.