1950s Lace Gown Cleaned for Historical Collection

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a team at Western Michigan University for a few years, cleaning the wedding gowns in their historical garment collection so that they could be displayed at an exhibition that was held last fall.

This spring, the curator brought me another gown that had not been obtained in time for cleaning and restoration before the show, but that they needed cleaned before storage. Unfortunately, the gown was in poor condition, but it is such a great example of a vintage gown and how we handle the cleaning and restoration process that it is a great subject for a blog post.

You can see in the photos below how yellow the gown has become and the lace damage and staining on the bodice.

First, we removed the buttons. Vintage buttons often have a metal shaft which will rust during the cleaning process if exposed to too much moisture. Since we often soak the vintage gowns in multiple water baths, the buttons have to come off.

Then we go through a series of tests to see how the fibers will hold up to the water baths and solvents we might use. This gown actually did give some indications that we might have further lace damage during cleaning. However, because this gown is for museum study, the risk was accepted. When we are cleaning a vintage gown that will be worn again by a bride, we would definitely take this time to discuss options and perhaps pursue other avenues of handling the lace.

Next we began the work of cleaning the gown. This gown went through several water baths, some including a gentle detergent and some including our proprietary whitening and restoration formula. We rinsed the gown well between each bath, watching the pH levels of the water and adjusting what we add to the baths as necessary. It is important keep everything as stable as possible, however the stain removal and whitening of the lace and satin only happens when the levels are changed enough to allow oxidation and soils to be released.

Once the gown was cleaned to our satisfaction (or in this case we felt that further cleaning would either be detrimental or at least not productive), we did a final bath with a fabric conditioner especially for delicate fibers. We then hung the gown to dry. Once the gown was dry, we pressed it out - which is always one of the most fun parts.

The next steps are to make lace repairs and replace the buttons. In the case of this gown, these are things which will be handled by the interns at WMU. Look how much creamier the gown is! And no more staining! Overall, a successful project.