by Anne Peranteau, Textile Conservator, Te Papa
Most contemporary wedding dresses are best cleaned by dry-cleaning rather than washing. However, you should be aware that embellishments – beads, sequins, and other decorations – can be damaged by the solvents, mechanical agitation, and high temperatures that are used in the dry-cleaning process. Sometimes these decorations are glued rather than stitched to the fabric and items like beads may not remain attached to the garment. Consultation with your cleaner will alert you to any potential problems.
Clean your dress sooner rather than later
You should try to have your dress dry-cleaned as soon as you can after your wedding. Stains that are not coloured (such as white wine or champagne) will, over time, undergo oxidation and become darker. Cleaning your dress sooner minimises this process and ensures optimal preservation of the garment.
Don’t clean stains yourself!
Avoid the temptation to have a go at removing stains yourself. Rubbing stains can damage the surface of certain fabrics and may actually cause the stain to become embedded, reducing the success of dry-cleaning. Using water on some fabrics may cause spotting or ‘ring’ stains, especially very shiny silks and the like.
Keep any labels you remove. Labels are extremely important to the professional dry-cleaner as they provide necessary cleaning information.
Too delicate for dry-cleaning?
Antique dresses may be too fragile to withstand dry-cleaning, even if no beadwork or sequins are present.
Stains resulting from poor storage, such as brown ‘foxing’ spots (thought to be caused by mould), as well as oxidized food and body soiling, are usually not entirely removed by cleaning.
Consult a conservator to get an assessment of your vintage gown (see the Additional Resources section at the end of this article). The best option may be to have a dressmaker create a reproduction based on the original gown.
Wedding dresses should be stored using acid-free, archival-quality materials. Acids are present in many paper-based products, and they can cause discolouration and deterioration of fibres. Acid- free paper-based materials (or clean, washed sheets) are also preferred over plastic as they are better at buffering humidity. Dresses stored in plastic boxes and garment bags may develop mildew more readily.
Plastic dry-cleaning bags are not suitable for long-term storage of textiles as they leach chemicals into fabrics that can cause discolouration and degradation over the long term.
Box or bag?
It is advisable to store most wedding dresses in boxes rather than on hangers because of their weight and volume ,
Strapless dresses and those with narrow shoulder straps can become damaged over the long term if they are stored on a hanger because the entire weight of the garment is concentrated over a very small surface. However, lighter-weight dresses can be hung.
Choose (or make) a padded hanger with a broad profile that will not create permanent distortions along the shoulder of the dress. Guidelines for making padded hangers can be found on the web (a link is provided at the end of this article), on sites like YouTube, and on museum websites. If you do make your own hanger be sure to use thermal- bonded rather than adhesive-bonded padding. A conservator can help you with selecting materials or making your hanger.
The best box
If you do box your dress, you will want to store your garment in a box that is of an appropriate size, to minimise folds and creases.
Over time, folds can develop into splits in the fabric. Creasing also necessitates pressing and/or steaming when the item is used again (for example veils passed down in a family), and both of these procedures can become risky as textiles age. For this reason, bundling a dress or a veil into a pillowslip is not advised. Folds should be ‘padded out’ with sheets or with acid-free tissue.
To make a padded hanger, Dacron is stitched over the frame of the hanger and covered with washed calico.
The right temperature
Avoid damp and high humidity. Ideally your gown should not be stored in an area which is prone to extremes of temperature or damp. Fluctuating temperatures increase the risk of deterioration.
While it is a good idea to ‘air’ and inspect your dress occasionally, prolonged exposure to direct sunlight and indoor lighting causes fading, brittle fibres, and general degradation.
Storage at the dry-cleaners
Some dry-cleaners also offer to box wedding dresses for storage. Ensure that all materials are acid free and inspect the dress before it is boxed. You can also obtain archival boxes and tissue from conservation suppliers and box your dress yourself.
Te Papa's conservation work
Find out how our conservation team cares for the many collections and thousands of treasures held at Te Papa.
Te Papa's conservation work
New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials
The New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials website has a “Find a Conservator” tool on their homepage
Conservation Supplies is a New Zealand based company that sells acid free boxes and tissue. Their product called “Archival Boxboard Box 17” is ideal for storage of christening gowns, skirts and tops.
Triptych Archival Storage
Triptych Archival Storage is a Wellington-based company that can make custom boxes for wedding gowns, such as the one pictured on their website.
National Services Te Paerangi resources
National Services Te Paerangi has published several He Rauemi Resource Guides. Guides 18 and 24 cover care of textiles (guide 24) and taonga such as kākahu or cloaks (18), including instructions for storage and display.
Guide 18 Caring for Māori Textiles – Tiakitanga o te kahu āku (PDF)
Guide 24 Caring for textiles and clothing (PDF)
United States National Park Service
Another set of instructions and a pattern sheet for making padded hangers are available from the United States National Park Service (which operates several small museums)
Storage techniques for hanging garments: Padded hangers – Conserve O Gram (PDF)