Caring for a Special Member of the Family
Basement, attic or back of closet: those three storage options, though commonly chosen, are not the best for brides hoping to save their wedding gown for the next generation.
But if the dress is properly cleaned and stored, a bridal gown won't be a ragged, faded remnant of its past glory when unwrapped years later.
Sarah Scaturro, the conservator in charge of the lab at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said "Garments like to be where people are." Therefore, a basement or attic is not ideal. Neither, she said, is next to an exterior wall where the temperature and humidity vary.
"Garments, like people, need a stable environment with nonfluctuating temperature and humidity in order to avoid damage," she said.
Ms. Scaturro said the money spent (from a modest do-it-yourself price to up to $1,500 for a professional) to preserve a gown depends more on what the gown means to the bride than the original price of the dress.
"Cleaning should always be done by a reputable cleaner of wedding gowns," she said, adding that if a woman wants to clean her own dress, like one made of synthetic fiber that is washable, she should do so only after getting advice from a professional wedding-gown cleaner, and then buy proper museum-quality conservation supplies for wrapping (which most dry cleaners do not have).
Preservation should include protection from light, which means never put the gown in a box that has a see-through plastic window (the type dry cleaners often use). Other factors include protection from dust and insects; and the gown should never be wrapped in plastic.
Boxing a gown is a safe approach if done correctly, Ms. Scaturro said. Boxes should be big enough to minimize the number of folds required in a garment, be archival and be designed for costumes, she said. "Use the largest box possible to fit in the designated storage space," she said. Most cleaners use only one size container, but gowns come in many sizes, some with long trains.
A box isn't the only option. Ms. Scaturro said some garments may be hung on a padded hanger if not too heavy with embellishments. The garment should be covered with a dust cover made of cotton or muslin, archival Tyvek or silk. "The dust cover should be washed before it is put over a garment," she said, especially if it is made of new fabric.
Gown care goes beyond merely removing unsightly stains. It also means preserving memories.
Francesca Granata, an assistant professor of fashion studies at Parsons the New School for Design, said the dress has symbolic value, even though most are not historically important. "In contemporary society, the garments we keep are important in terms of rites of passage," she said. "The wedding gown is a garment worn when a woman goes from one place in life to another."
The dress can later be reworked into something different, like a christening gown or cap, and it may not be the only element preserved from the wedding day. When one bride found her grandmother's wedding veil more than a decade ago, 80 years after it was first worn, the delicate textile was wadded into a little cloth bag in the back of a closet.
The large square of silk net edged in pale satin ribbon was improperly stored and had faded, but the material had not deteriorated. It would be another few years before that same veil found use again: as a canopy at a great-granddaughter's wedding. The veil is no longer stuffed into a little bag, but properly wrapped and boxed in archival materials.
"There is nothing frivolous about my work, " said Jonathan Scheer, the owner of J. Scheer & Co. in New York, which cleans and preserves wearable textiles. The cost for this service can be $595 to $895. "Seeing your mother's wedding gown years later promotes family history," he said. "It encourages discussions between generations about time, place and cultural and religious customs."
Patricia Grunebaum of Bedford, N.Y., was married 20 years ago in a gown by Catherine Walker, the London designer. After the wedding, her dress was professionally cleaned and boxed for preservation. When the box was opened recently, she learned the preservation work was not done properly. Her gown was stuffed with blue tissue paper, which could have caused staining if moisture had seeped into the box.
"My wedding was so important to me, it seemed a fitting tribute to preserve the gown," said Mrs. Grunebaum, who has two teenage daughters. "I'm sure I'll show them the dress when they are ready to marry and give them the option to wear it." But she thinks her gown, a classic model, is not trendy enough for her daughters. "I don't think a gown is really an heirloom like a ring or a piece of furniture. But it's a moment to preserve, and a very important memory."
Ms. Scaturro recommends lining the box with the tissue paper and "padding out every crease and fold with the paper, stuff the sleeves and the bodice and fill out the pleats. Place a roll of tissue paper wherever there is a fold."
Cover the box but do not seal it, she said. Conservators suggest opening the box once a year, and most services include a pair of white cotton gloves for handling textiles. They recommend removing and inspecting the dress, and refolding and rewrapping it with fresh acid-free paper, creating new folds in the fabric if possible. Acid-free cardboard boxes should be replaced every 15 years, Ms. Scaturro said.
In time, the delight in unwrapping and sharing a well-preserved gown with future generations can create a long-lived family keepsake.