How to Care for Vintage and Delicate Garments

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I’ll never forget my first vintage blunder. I took a 1950s blouse with 3-D floral embellishments to a run-of-the-mill dry cleaner around the corner. It was returned to me with its chiffon over-layer in shreds and my previously thriving silk buds were rumpled, drooping, and wilted—like a flower bed dug up by the neighbor’s dog. I only had myself to blame, really. I should have known better. I didn’t communicate to the cleaners that this top was as old as their granny and it should have been handled with the utmost care. But mostly, I should have known that the garment should not have been dry cleaned at all.

Fashion is fragile. Consider that of all the extant objects from bygone decades housed in museums, the most care is taken in the conservation of fashion and textiles. While oil paintings remain forever on the walls of a museum’s permanent collection, fashion departments limit the display of clothing to six months only. Of course, vintage that isn’t housed in a museum is meant to be worn and loved, but it does require a level of care.

For this, I reached out to New York-based storage and fashion archivists Garde Robe. The company helps to store, maintain, and care for precious collections of fashion (vintage included) assembled by individuals and institutions. Garde Robe’s Doug Greenberg helped to walk me through his best practices of fashion storage; plus he offered some essential products that will help keep clothes looking great. All this, below.

Garment Bags

“All hanging pieces should be stored in breathable garment bags. Muslin and polypropylene (ppnw) garment bags are protective and can be washed in most cases, so they last a long time. Never use the dry cleaner bags for storage—in fact, take them off immediately when you bring them home from the dry cleaner. They can damage clothes.  Or better yet, bring re-usable garment bags to your cleaner so the cheap plastic bags don’t end up in a landfill.”  

The Butler's Closet garment covers

$58

THE BUTLER’S CLOSET

Hangers

“Never hang stretchable fabrics such as knits, bias cut, and heavily-embellished, heavy garments because they could get distorted. Store these items flat in a breathable garment box or folded with acid-free tissue to avoid creasing. You cannot use the same hanger type for every article of clothing in your closet even though that may be aesthetically pleasing.  There are specific hangers that are best for certain types of clothing, so be sure to always choose the appropriate hanger. For example, broad-shoulder hangers for heavier coats, pant-suit hangers with clips for slacks, and padded hangers that provide cushion for delicate items. When in doubt, store the item flat instead of on a hanger. No wire hangers, EVER!”

Hangerbee wooden core padded hanger

$14

Gaylord

Acid-Free Tissue Paper

“No luxe closet is complete without ample acid-free tissue.  Use the tissue to eliminate creasing, pad shoulders, stuff sleeves and/or handbags to maintain their shape. Tissue is also helpful for separating items in a crowded closet or storage box. Be sure to use tissue to separate embellished/beaded items from other items that could snag as well as to avoid dye transferring of leather, suede, and denim pieces.”

Snow White acid-free tissue paper

$16

PAPER MART

Wash and Stain Bars

“Couture-level garment care experts are few and far between.  Your average dry cleaner has no business handling expensive and delicate designer RTW or couture.  The best dry cleaners clean many items by hand and use different solvents and machinery for different fabrics; most dry cleaners use only one cleaning solvent, which may or may not be the best for your particular garment. Some solvents are better for the environment than others, but in some cases, those “green” solvents don’t clean heavily soiled items very well. Before you entrust a cleaner with a precious garment, ask them about solvents and cleaning processes. Do they offer a choice of solvents? Do they clean by hand? Do they outsource their leatherwork?  These are good questions to ask.  Depending on where you live, you may be better off working with an out-of-area, couture-level cleaner that does shipping.” For at-home touchups, Greenberg recommends The Laundress’s wash and stain bars. 

The Laundress 3-pack wash & stain bars

$17

THE LAUNDRESS

A Steamer

“Steaming is a great way to release creases and eliminate wrinkles. Use distilled water in the steamer for best results.  The heat from irons is harsher on fabrics than steam. Ironing is safe for flattening sturdier fabrics like cotton that can handle the higher temperature. Steaming and ironing will damage silk, velvet, leather, suede, and metallic embellishments. If you have a fashion emergency and need to steam wrinkles out of a delicate garment, try putting muslin between the steamer and the garment to lessen the impact. In general, leave these items to garment care professionals. Knowledgeable dry cleaners often remove buttons/embellishments before cleaning and then reapply them each and every time. That’s why the very best cleaners charge considerably more. ”

Steamery Cirrus No. 2 steamer in black

$130

STEAMERY

Beeswax Bars

If your garment has a metal zipper, first off, it most certainly predates 1965 as plastic zippers came into popularity in the late 1960s. Secondly, it’s sturdier and less prone to getting warped with age but sometimes it can get stuck. Apply a bit of beeswax to keep things running smoothly.

Beesworks yellow beeswax bars

$7

AMAZON

Purse Pillows

Want in-shape-looking handbags? Keep them fit with purse pillows. These from Fabrinique come in a variety of sizes. Tissue paper will also do the trick but a purse pillow is much easier to remove than several wads of balled-up paper.

Fabrinique purse pillow inserts

$18

FABRINIQUE

Distilled White Vinegar

Should you need to deodorize a piece of clothing, fill a spray bottle with 90% water and 10% distilled white vinegar. Mist the solution all over the garment and air it out. Smoke and thrift-shop odors will lift in the process.

365 Everyday Value, organic distilled white vinegar

$4

AMAZON

Underarm Dress Shields

An underarm guard (shaped like a shoulder pad, but it’s for your underarms) or any undershirt for that matter will add a protective layer to avoid staining and perspiration marks which are tricky to clean.

Kleinert's pin-in underarm dress shields

$12

AMAZON

Red Cedar Blocks

Cedar blocks aren’t effective against all moth infestations, but they do thwart the growth of the insect. Place a couple in your closets and drawers and replace when the blocks lose their piney scents. For more intense preventative measures, pick up some Moth prevention traps. 

Kilocircle red cedar blocks

$20

AMAZON

MothPrevention moth traps

$39

AMAZON

Shoe Tree 

When not in use, men’s leather shoes can be stored with shoe trees. Leather Spa makes an excellent pair in cedar. Women’s shoes, which often feature more variety in style and fabrication, are harder to find shoe trees for, but they do exist. For trickier shoe shapes, there’s always tissue paper. 

Leather Spa men’s cedar shoe trees

$30

LEATHER SPA

Lavendar Sachets 

These sachets won’t prolong the life of your wardrobe but they’ll have your closet, and drawers, smelling wonderful.

ElizabethW lavender hanger sachet natural linen

$20

ELIZABETHW