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How to Preserve Vintage Clothing

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In a recent post, I spoke about how my sisters and I used to enjoy a pre-tea glamboree centered around my grandmother’s jewelry boxes. In addition to making ourselves fancy with any number of vintage jewelry baubles, like most kids, we did some dressing up, too. And lucky for us, our grandmother was not what you would call clothes challenged. Quite the opposite, she enjoyed fashion. Of course, there was the expected collection of awesome shoes — my sisters and I definitely inherited the shoe gene — but there were also dresses, skirts, twinsets, jackets, gowns, hats and even gloves (my very favorite were a pair of vintage cream-colored, buttery soft opera gloves with pearl buttons).

Our delight of dressing up in her clothes (and eventually our mother’s) didn’t end with childhood. In fact, in college, we all repeatedly wore a trio of LBDs that our mother had worn on the very same campus a few decades earlier. But the one gown we all would have really enjoyed trying on was off-limits — our great grandmother’s beaded Charleston dress. You see, there’s some vintage clothing that you wear and there’s some that you preserve. This dress definitely fell into the latter category. Now, many years later, that dress is still nicely preserved at our mom’s house. Likely because she adhered to a few standard rules for preserving old clothing.

When you have a cherished piece of vintage clothing — be it a great grandmother’s party dress, your aunt’s wedding dress or your grandfather’s old fishing vest — you first have to decide whether you want display it or tuck it away somewhere safe. Depending on which you decide, your preservation methods will vary slightly. Say you want to display that fishing vest in your lodge-inspired den. You need to protect it from dust, moisture and direct sunlight, all of which can — over time — damage the material. So rather than just tacking it on your paneled wall, you would want to put it in a shadowbox frame with UV-filtered glass or Plexiglas. And just because there aren’t any big windows in your den, doesn’t mean you can skip this step; any direct, bright light can be damaging.

If you want to preserve a garment for later use by storing it, you still need to be concerned about moisture, dust and light but you also need to consider temperature and pests such as moths and silverfish. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, first you want to make sure the item of clothing is clean. You can take it to either a professional dry cleaner or textile conservator. And no matter which professional you choose, you want to be certain that he or she has experience working with the type of garment you have (think about the fabric, fittings, any special appliqués, etc.). Once the item is clean, the cleaner will likely recommend storing it in an acid-free box with acid- and dye-free tissue. He or she will use the tissue to stuff and support the garment so that no permanent creases will develop. When you get the now-boxed vintage treasure home, store it in a clean, climate-controlled area where it won’t be affected by humidity, high heat or light.

Oh, and if you’re looking to preserve a current clothing item that may one day be someone else’s valued vintage piece — say a wedding dress — you can follow the same game plan: clean it, pack it and store it like mentioned above.

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