We frequently receive questions about the best method of keeping a wedding gown looking its best and lasting its longest. The answer depends on several factors. Preservation and conservation of wedding gowns, or any textile for that matter begins by creating conditions which barrier factors that escalate deterioration, these factors are: moisture, light, acid, alkalinity, insects, degrading chemicals, fatty acids, oil, high temperature and combinations of the same. To help with this answer we look to the professional conservators in our finest museums which house antique textile items hundreds of years old and literally keep them in their best shape and condition. Those museums being the Louvre in Paris and the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
We find that there are several methods of preservation and they are: laying flat, rolling the item on an acid free tube, then placing in a conservatory environment, place on a body mannequin, carefully placing the gown in a specially designed chest, and hanging. By the way, laundered muslin seems to play an important part in these preservations as well. Either as an external wrap of the item, an underneath blanked in which to lay the item, used in the construction of specialty hangers on which to hang the gown, and as a base fabric of mannequin dummies.
Laying Flat The issue in this method is to keep the item from having gravity or the pulling force of the weight of the item stress the textile, seams, etc. It also minimizes folding providing the storage area is of adequate size. Large storage areas designed for housing textile items are found in many conservatory museums, these items are often inspected and exist in environments of the best conditions. Nothing is ever weighted on top these items. It may be impractical for a bride to consider this method but to know of it might be important.
Rolling on an acid free tube. This method, given the size of most gowns, while not entirely practical, provides a uniform distribution of weight and minimizes, if not eliminates stress points. This method allows some air flow since the items are not tightly wound on the tube. It is often a preservation method of choice for small specialty textiles like rugs, suits, fancy items, and some clothing.
Place on a Body Mannequin\ While the idea might be appealing to some brides and in actuality is used for special occasions, finding permanent storage on a body mannequin might create a space issue and certainly would present some environmental challenges. In looking at the "First Lady's" display at the Smithsonian, gowns from many of the first Lady's (Presidents wife's) are on display and one of the most popular visitors displays. These gowns and dresses are on specially made muslin body forms, which actually conform the body size and shape of the persons for whom they were made, and in specially lighted and tightly controlled environments. The display is loaded with monitoring devices that provide instant alarm if any single environmental condition is breached. Some brides have borrowed our mannequins at Iowa Bridal Preservation to use in display for special events of either their own gown or an historical family gown at weddings, anniversaries, and receptions.
Using A Specially Designed Chest Many professional conservators, The Association of Wedding Gown Specialist, and Iowa Bridal Preservation believe that using a specially manufactured wedding preservation chest is the method of choice.
This method emulates most of the factors of Museum Quality and Museum Method of preservation. If the proper chest size is selected which provides adequate room for the gown, all constructed on linguine and acid free material, muslin blanket upon which to rest the gown, acid free archival tissue placed in sleeves, at folds to buffer stress points all seem to emulate the earlier method of laying flat, described above. This method allows for optimizing environmental conditions, keeps out undesirable elements, is portable, and enables periodic inspection and re-positioning.
The Hanging Method Several factors emerge here. Gravity again is of concern. The weight of a gown is a factor. Gowns weighing as little as 5- 15 pounds can, if not properly addressed, over time cause serious distortion largely of the upper portions of the gown. Two straps are sewn in the front, and two in the back, making six points of weight distribution. It is often recommended that specially sewn hanging straps be sewn in at the waist and other points of weight distribution and have these straps attached to the hanger at the top. We never recommend that any metal, including metal hangers be used in this method. Wooden hangers specially created with padded muslin cover which providing the proper cushion for the weight of the gown are recommended. Hanging wedding gowns should never be placed in plastic, but should have specially made breathable bags, or cache made with adequate gussets to contain the gown. This is an acceptable method of gown storage, but is not considered preservation and should be viewed as temporary. In using this method it is recommend that a minimum of 3-4 inches on all sides of the gown be allowed so as not to create pressure from surrounding items in the storage area. This condition might be difficult to maintain.
If there are concerns regarding the effects of hanging weight, straps should be sewn to the waist at weight points and be looped around the top or lapels of the hangers as to distribute more evenly the supporting weight of the lower portion of the gown. Some very large and heavy gowns will become distorted in spite of using these techniques. Gowns cut on bias should not be subjected to this method of storage.
Those of us at Iowa Bridal Preservation actually have worked with all of these methods of storage and preservation. In our experience, the chesting of your precious gown, for all of the correct reasons, represents the best method for your gown preservation. In the past year we have processed several gowns which were subjected to house fires. The gowns which survived in the best condition were the ones, actually three of them, that had been properly chested. Two other gowns which were not and were hanging in closets were damaged to the point of no return.