Caring for vintage wedding dresses & veils

Many style-conscious brides pick a vintage dress for their big day, but choosing and altering an older wedding dress needs careful consideration.

Wedding dresses

It might seem strange to us today, but up until the 20th century, no bride, regardless of her wealth, would expect to wear her wedding dress only once. An elaborate wedding gown would most likely become the owners 'best dress', to be worn on other special occasions, and would sometimes be dyed a different colour. As fashion became faster-paced and more affordable in the 20th century, wedding dresses were increasingly intended for single use, and were rarely made to be cleaned and reworn. Today, many brides seek out the sense of history and character that comes with an older garment, but finding the dream vintage dress can be far from straightforward, particularly if you want to wear white.

An older dress can require considerable maintenance to bring out the best in it. Common wedding dress stains include grass, champagne or white wine stains, food stains, sweat stains and possibly foxing (small brown stains), caused by poor storage conditions. Old stains and soiling can be difficult or impossible to remove, particularly if the dress is made from delicate fabric such as silk or satin-backed crepe (common in the 1920s and 30s). It may be worth consulting a textile conservator in case localised treatment is possible. If the wedding dress is in good stain-free condition, or with only minor stains that can be tolerated, then a good dressmaker should be able to make alterations for fit.

Organic materials naturally degrade, so it's not surprising to find that a once 'white' wedding dress has become badly discoloured. An interventive conservation treatment like wet cleaning can reduce yellowing, neutralise fibres and slow further degradation. It is, however, a lengthy and complex process. Is the dress robust enough to withstand washing? Will fibres be lost or deformations occur? Ultimately the pros must outweigh the cons when deciding whether to undertake such a treatment.

The benefits of wet cleaning can be seen in this Victorian wedding dress, first worn 165 years ago, by Henrietta Woodcock, on the occasion of her marriage to John Bell on 28 June 1848.

Henrietta woodcock
Wedding dress ensemble (details), 1848, United Kingdom. Museum no. T.53 to A-1930. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The dress is made of two parts, a silvery white satin dress and an embroidered cotton net overdress. The overdress was particularly dirty, as over the years it had acted as a barrier, keeping the satin dress relatively clean by comparison. In order for the dress to be displayed in a stable and aesthetically pleasing condition, it was determined that the two parts would be separated in order to wet clean the heavily soiled overdress.

The three deep flounces of the skirt were increasingly dirty towards the hem. The discolouration from the original cream to 'yellowy-brown' is due to a combination of cellulose degradation and carbon soiling.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The dress was cleaned using conservation grade detergent, for a total of two and a half hours.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The dress was then rinsed for nearly four hours! Rinsing was carried out thoroughly. Any detergent residue left un-rinsed could increase the rate of future re-soiling.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Drying is a delicate process. The dress was dried using fans and hand held dryers, while the front and back flounces of the skirt were gradually lifted in stages using an adjustable bar.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

After a lengthy yet very successful treatment, the overdress now resembles something much closer to its original condition when first worn in the mid-19th century.

Before after
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Lace veils

Many lace veils are made from cotton, but some are made from silk. Silk lace veils are very fragile and likely to be discoloured. Silk veils should never be bleached and should, instead, be treated by a textile conservator, who may be able to improve their colour. Cotton lace veils also tend to yellow and discolour with age. Washing cotton lace is fairly straightforward, but the drying process is likely to cause problems.

Veil (details), about 1890, Belgium. Museum no. T.366-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The process of making lace creates tension within the fibres. This tension causes the lace to contract and distort as it dries. In theory, tension can be removed by ironing, but this is likely to damage antique lace. While high humidity, such as a steamy bathroom, can be used to 'relax' creases, this will not be enough for a shrunken and distorted veil. In this case, a textile conservator will be able to prevent distortion by pinning the lace to shape as it dries and also reduce or remove staining. Torn or fragile veils should not be darned, but must be supported from behind with net fabric.

Dress storage

All wedding dresses, new and old, benefit from appropriate storage. This needs to be sturdy enough to eliminate light, protect from dust, heat, insects and accident. Wardrobes, drawers, suitcase linings and colour dyes in clothes all have an effect on fabric, so it is vital that the dress is kept separate from other items. It should be surrounded by a breathable (not plastic) and pH neutral medium (containing no acid or alkali, which causes yellowing/discolouration). A specialist box made of pH neutral heavy board with a fitted lid is ideal. If the dress is to be wrapped in tissue paper, this also needs to be acid free and white/colourless.

Once packed away, check the dress every six months to ensure nothing untoward has happened to it. A full annual unpacking and repacking can help prevent any creases becoming too permanent.

Avoid leaving the dress on a hanger for long periods, as this can cause stress on the seams and shape. Plastic dress covers are suitable for hanging the dress before the wedding, but over time they let in light that may fade the fabric. They also fail to allow for changes in humidity, risking condensation and mould. Lastly, never store your dress in the attic. Attics are prone to all sorts of disasters such as roof leaks, damp and insect infestations, which can damage a dress, even if it is well protected.