Every Bride Should Know How to Preserve Her Wedding Dress
Today's brides have plenty of options for what to do with their wedding gown post-"I do." Some donate or sell their gown, others re-purpose their wedding dress into lingerie or cocktail attire, and others "trash it" with a wet n' wild photo shoot. Many brides, however, want to hang on to that dress that represents so much love, happiness, and celebration.
That's why wedding dress preservation is so important. A wedding dress is usually intricately designed and extremely delicate, and can't be cleaned like any old dress. Wedding dress cleaning and preservation is key to making sure your dress lasts a lifetime. Here are ten things you need to know about wedding dress preservation.
What Is Wedding Dress Preservation?
Preservation refers to the unique cleaning and packaging techniques used to ensure your gown retains its beauty. A professional preservationist will survey your dress—the materials, embellishments, and various stains—then formulate a specialized cleaning procedure. “Cleaning your gown is the single most important part of the preservation process and all the stains, including the hidden ones containing sugar that turn brown over time, must be removed," says Sally Lorensen Conant, the executive director of the Association of Wedding Gown Specialists.
You can usually wait until after the honeymoon to take your dress to a preservationist, but remember it's better to take your gown in while the stains are fresh and not set in (especially if it's stained with mud or red wine). “The longer you delay, the less likely all stains can be removed, and if you wait years, your gown will need restoration rather than just cleaning," Conant warns. After cleaning, your gown is wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and placed in a museum-quality archival box.
Here are 13 Tips About Wedding Dress Preservation
1. Wedding Dress Preservation and Standard Dry Cleaning are NOT the Same Things
Unlike one-size-fits-all dry-cleaning, wedding gown preservation begins with an experienced specialist's assessment. The specialist creates a unique treatment plan according to your dress's fabric, stitching, and details, and analyzes stains along them hem (which are virtually unavoidable on a ground-grazing ensemble like a wedding gown) an entire dress. Whatever the specialist comes up with will keep the give the dress a new life without harming the delicate fabric.
There are, however, some dry cleaners who also offer specialized wedding dress cleaning. You can use them, but make sure to vet their process first. Make sure to find a dry cleaner who uses a virgin solvent rather than a recycled solvent. Recycled solvents (which are used for regular dry cleaning) contain impurities that can redeposit onto clothing and leave your wedding dress with a strange smell. Wedding dress cleaning and preservation should only be done with pure solvent.
Before committing to any cleaner or preservationist, research their policies. You want someone who guarantees they won't do any damage as they preserve wedding dresses, and in the event any damage is done, look for a guarantee that the cost of the dress (not just the preservation) will be refunded. Furthermore, find out how long they guarantee that the wedding dress will remain pristine after their preservation.
2. Finding a Preservationist
Before choosing a preservationist, do a little detective work. You'll need to investigate where to take your gown for cleaning a few weeks before the wedding. That way, if your dress is poorly stained or damaged on your wedding day, a family or bridal party member can take your dress to the preservationist while you’re on your honeymoon getaway. Ask friends and family, bridal shops or your wedding consultant for preservationist referrals.
Though many dry cleaners claim to clean wedding gowns, most are not specialists. Unless the dry cleaner processes more than 100 wedding gowns a year, consider going to a professional gown preservationist with a noted track record instead. “I always tell my brides to ask a lot of questions. You want to make sure that the person taking care of your gown pays attention to detail and knows fabrics as well as how gowns are constructed," says Karen Jean-Aimee of Madame Paulette.
Ask about the type of cleaning method used, do the cleaners hand clean and if they will pretreat any stains and soiled areas. Also, find out if the company does the work on location or if it ships gowns elsewhere to be cleaned and packaged. Don't rule a company out if it doesn't work in-house, especially if they have good reviews.
3. Ask Questions
Ask your gown preservationist whether you must sign a release or disclaimer that states the company isn't responsible for any damage done to the gown during the cleaning process. You’ll want to find someone who will guarantee every last bead and sequin. Next, ask if the company offers a warranty and how it will reimburse you if you see the gown to be damaged after a certain number of years. Read the fine print of the agreement: Some companies will refund the preservation cost—not the replacement value of the dress. And consider it a red flag if it claims the warranty is void if you open the box. Finally, beware of companies that give quotes over the phone—different materials and stains require specialized care. Your gown will receive the best care if it's individually inspected before a price is given.
4. Time is of the Essence
Professional cleaning is the first step in wedding dress preservation, and the sooner you can get the wedding dress to the preservationist or the dry cleaners, the better. Brides often wait up to six weeks to take their dresses to be cleaned, and that's no good! By that time, stains will have had time to really set it. Take your dress off as soon as the reception is over and make sure it gets to the dry cleaner the very next day. If you're jetting off on a honeymoon, arrange for a bridesmaid or your mother to take it for you!
5. Invisible Stains Might Be Lurking on Your Wedding Gown
"Oddly, the most dangerous spills are the ones you cannot see," says Sally Conant, of the Association of Wedding Gown Specialists. "White wine and other things dry clear, and these latent stains contain sugar that caramelizes over time into dark brown stains that ordinary dry cleaning cannot remove. You may think your gown is fine, but in six months or more, the latent stain becomes pale yellow and then darkens as it ages. Heat accelerates the process."
Professional cleaners and preservationists are trained to spot the unseen, of course. They'll be able to deal with any stains on your wedding gown, from the invisible to the visible. Did the hem get dirty from your picture-perfect shots in a garden? Did someone slosh red wine on it? Did an overzealous aunt smudge her foundation on it when she came in for a hug? They'll create a treatment plan for each stain.
6. Pay Attention to the Label on Your Dress
This is one label you don't want to ignore. Look for any specific dry cleaning directions it might have, such as "Dry Clean Only with Petroleum Solvent." Whatever it says, listen to it, and make sure the preservationist or dry cleaner you choose has the appropriate cleaning solutions for your wedding dress.
7. The Wedding Dress Preservation Box is Sealed Airtight
A preserved dress is typically stored in an airtight box where the oxygen has been sucked out and replaced with nitrogen. This prevents oxidation (aging, discoloration, etc.), which can happen to clothes that have been stored for several years. Wedding gown specialists recommend that you never break the seal, and if you do, that you should have it preserved and sealed back up again. If you do, however, take it out for some reason, make sure to handle the gown with white cotton gloves and care.
The correct packaging materials are important in guaranteeing the life of your gown. And all storage materials should be clean and completely acid-free. After the cleaning process, your preservationist will wrap your dress in acid-free paper or muslin, then place in an acid-free or pH-neutral box, which allows the gown to breathe and adjust with changing temperatures.
Some boxes feature a viewing window: a clear panel designed to see the gown without opening the box. If your box features a window, look for acetate rather than plastic, and keep the box out of direct light, which can yellow the fabric over time. Some companies utilize boxes with Coroplast, a specially designed plastic known for its durability.
8. Budget for Wedding Dress Preservation
Include wedding dress preservation in your wedding budget.
Fabric, decoration, ornamentation, and degree of stain damage determine the preservation price of a gown. “Your heavily beaded silk ball gown will cost more than a simple polyester gown you wore on the beach, and you should never trust your designer gown to someone offering a bargain price," Conant says. “Saving a few dollars is simply not worth the risk of ruining your wedding dress.” Expect to pay $250 to $700, though prices can go as high as $1,000 depending on the gown and location. Costs vary across the country, with higher rates in metropolitan areas.
9. Store the Wedding Dress in a Cool, Dark Place
Once the wedding dress has been adequately cleaned, it's time to store it. Protect your dress from direct sunlight, which can quickly fade and turn the dress yellow. Take it off the hanger, which can cause the most massive dresses to become misshapen. Whatever you do, [avoid storing your dress in a regular, zip up-plastic bag! Plastic like that holds moisture and can potentially discolor a wedding dress. The exception to this is acid-free plastic, which wedding preservation boxes are made from. Go with a professional wedding preservation box, or better yet, a wedding chest.
"An acid-free wedding chest that protects your gown from air and light is the safest way to store your gown for many years to come," Conant advises. "Breathable bags provide safe short-term storage, but long-term hanging is not good for you to gown."
While some companies choose to seal the box to keep out insects and vermin, others say sealing is unnecessary—if the gown is packaged correctly.
If you do open the box, remember to use discretion when handling the dress. Jean-Aimee recommends wearing clean white cotton gloves (which many preservationists provide to you), but at a minimum be sure to wash your hands first. “There’s no inherent reason why you cannot open your gown, but we’re trained in museums not to handle something unless absolutely necessary because there’s always the potential for danger," Conant says. Talk to your preservationist about including other items such as jewelry and shoes in your box. It may not be the best idea depending on the type of materials you'll want to add, but your professional will have an opinion on how to store properly.
10. Before and After
Before sending your wedding dress to be cleaned and preserved, there are a few steps you need to take to maintain the integrity of your gown. First, don't wrap your dress in plastic. This can seal in off-gassing vapors and trap moisture, inviting mold and mildew. Don't hang your clothing on an ordinary wood or wire hanger—the weight of the dress will stretch and distort the weave of the fabric. Try a plastic or padded hanger instead. And definitely, don't try to clean the stains yourself—you risk setting them in the material.
Once your gown is back from the preservationist, pay attention to storage. "Keep your dress in a cool, dark and dry environment with relative humidity at 50 percent at all times," Jean-Aimee says. Most professionals agree that light and heat play the most damaging roles when it comes to gown preservation. As a guideline, store your preserved gown in a location with a neutral temperature—under your bed or in a dry closet are your best bets.
11. General Rules of Thumb for DIY Wedding Dress Preservation
If you aren’t entirely sold on investing in the Wedding Preservation kit, you can also take certain precautions on your own to ensure your dress is protected. “Cloth or Tyvek bags can offer short-term protection, but your gown should not hang for long periods, and a wedding chest provides more protection from sharp objects, smoke and from fire," Conant suggests.
The acidic content of ordinary paper will literally scorch your gown. Don't use colored tissue paper either. If the box accidentally becomes wet, it could stain your dress. For storage, professionals recommend wrapping the dress in prewashed unbleached muslin and then placing it in a sturdy box under your bed. That way, if you decide to preserve your dress down the road, it will be right there waiting for you.
If you want to preserve your wedding dress yourself, following these guidelines will set you up for success. (Just remember DIY wedding preservation comes with no guarantee!)
Always use white cotton gloves when handling the wedding dress.
Before you go all-out cleaning the dress, spot test the fabric in an inconspicuous area just to make sure it's not going to harm the fabric.
Soft-bristled brushes will help you get the job done. Pick up some soft toothbrushes and have at it.
NEVER use bleach on your gown. The delicate fabric can be irreversibly damaged if you use this incredibly harsh chemical.
When the wedding gown is clean and dry, wrap it in acid-free tissue paper or pre-washed unbleached muslin. Avoid coloured tissue paper as it can stain the dress over time. Place layers of tissue paper or muslin between the folds of the dress, as well, to avoid permanent creasing. Stuff the bust of the dress with tissue paper, as well, to maintain the full shape of the dress. If you dress has sleeves, that's another area where you will want to fill with tissue paper.
Place it in an acid-free container and store it in an area that is safe from harsh light or temperatures (think under a bed). You should also add silica desiccant packets inside the box for humidity control.
Alternatively, you can use an acid-free plastic garment bag and hang the dress in a cool, dry closet.
Avoid hanging the wedding dress on a hanger made or wire or wood. Wedding gowns are much more substantial than ordinary clothes, and their weight will cause a pull on the fabric as it hangs, which can distort the gown. If you choose to attach a wedding gown, always use a padded hanger. Hanging your wedding dress offers dress the best air circulation and never leaves your dress at risk for permanent creasing!
Don't store your gown in an attic, a garage, a basement or cellar, as temperatures and/or humidity in these areas can become extreme.
Check in on your dress every two or three years and refold it to ensure further no permanent creasing occurs.
12. Don't Forget Your Shoes and Bouquet
Like your dress, the shoes you walked down the aisle in and the bouquet you held also hold a lot of meaning. You can preserve both of these alongside your gown, well. To keep your wedding shoes by giving them a good cleaning. For cloth shoes, use a gentle cloth and sponge and lightly scrub your shoes with a mild detergent. For leather shoes, give them a polish. If you really did a number on your shoes, you can take them to a dry cleaner. After your shoes are clean, wrap them in white tissue and place them in a box.
Depending on the type of material your shoes are, you may be able to include them with your dress in the preservation box. Talk to your preservationist about whether this is possible.
For bridal bouquets, you can press, hang, coat the flowers in wax, or use epoxy resin to preserve the blooms. (Get a breakdown of each process in How to Preserve Your Wedding Bouquet).
13. Proceed Without Wedding Gown Preservation at Your Own Risk
If you choose not to preserve your wedding dress, you risk the following:
• yellowing of the fabric
• brown oxidation spots
• mold and mildew growth
• permanent fabric creasing