Wearing A Vintage Gown

Every wedding gown is enchanting, but perhaps none more so than a vintage one. A bride who wears an heirloom dress bequeathed to her by a grandmother or mother is enveloped not just in satin and tulle but in the romance of family traditions as well. Of course, a bride may end up choosing a vintage gown simply because she is captivated by its beauty and exquisite workmanship, and not for sentimental reasons at all.

If you haven't inherited an heirloom gown but would like to wear one, treasures can often be discovered at vintage clothing boutiques, antiques stores, estate sales, or auction houses. You may see the leg-of-mutton-sleeved shirtwaists of the 1890s, and the wasp-waisted, bouffant extravaganzas of the 1950s.

But before falling in love with a vintage gown, be sure to consider its size, style, and condition. If extensive alterations, repairs, and cleaning are going to be necessary, the expense can become prohibitive. A $500 gown, for example, may end up costing as much as three or four times that amount. Consider your time frame, too: You will need to allow at least a few months for a vintage gown to be cleaned and reworked.

Vintage gowns almost always need to be made larger, as brides today are taller and more muscular than their diminutive ancestors. In the hands of a professional dressmaker who is experienced in working with bridal gowns and antique fabrics, a vintage gown can be updated. Wide borders of lace or satin can create a false hem to lengthen a skirt, a neckline can be changed from a 1930s sweetheart to a camisole, a back can be lowered, or sleeves can be cut out or restyled.

However, even the most gifted seamstress can't restore a gown whose fabric falls apart in your hand. Carefully examine a vintage dress, checking for rips and tears, stains, discoloration, loose seams, missing buttons, and broken fasteners. All of these problems can usually be solved, some more easily than others.

Repairs can include reinforcing seams (especially at stress points such as the shoulders and elbows), substituting buttons and clasps, and replacing stained underarm areas with new material when necessary. It's more complicated to fix damage to the body of the dress. Small holes can be rewoven (a labor-intensive and expensive process), and some tears can be repaired with special iron-on tape. More extensive damage can sometimes be disguised with fabric and trim.

But before any additions are made to a gown, it should be thoroughly cleaned so that the fabric's color is true. Cleaning and heirloom gown requires technical expertise and a knowledge of textile conservation that is outside the realm of most neighborhood cleaners.

"Cleaning historic textiles is much different than cleaning contemporary textiles," says Jonathan Scheer, president of J. Scheer & Co.,specialists in cleaning and restoring wedding gowns with facilities in New York City and Rhinebeck, New York. "Conventional cleaning may be too aggressive for an antique gown."

Before a gown is washed, its fabric and any trim or decoration must be identified to determine the proper cleaning method. For example, wartime 1940s satin dresses were often made not of silk but of rayon, which can shrink if washed in water. Some beads, regardless of age, can melt in the dry-cleaning process.

Vintage gowns made of cotton, linen, or lace are often wet-cleaned, or very gently hand-washed in room-temperature deionized or distilled water with a non-alkaline detergent. Bleach is almost never used as it can burn the fabric. Fragile fabrics that would shrink and wrinkle in water, such as chiffon and organza, are cleaned with dry solvents that are formulated specifically for antique textiles.

When it comes to professional drying, Scheer's process includes laying vintage dresses flat on a white towel because hanging them will create stress on the shoulders, distorting their shape and possibly opening up their seams.

After the wedding, the dress should be cleaned again, as it probably will have endured everything from buttercream icing on a sleeve to footprints on the hem. Invisible stains from perspiration, champagne, or the natural oil of a bride's skin can permanently degrade the fabric if they are not treated. Once the dress has been cleaned, it should be wrapped in acid-free tissue and packed in an acid-free box to avoid discoloration. Support the folds with tissue paper to prevent creases. The boxed gown should then be placed in a cool, dark place, such as on a closet shelf or underneath a bed.

Though an heirloom dress may require a bit more work and care than a new one, it is well worth the effort. Years from now, this cherished gown may be shaken from its tissue, the "something old" to be reworked and worn, yet again, by another appreciative bride.