Here's What Wedding Dress Preservation Really Entails—and How to Do It
Whether it's for sentimental value or the possibility of passing it down to your future daughter, preserving your wedding dress is the best way to retain its color, fabric and shape. And now it's easier than ever, especially with wedding gown preservation kits like the one from Wedding Dress Preservation by The Knot. Here, our expert-guided FAQ all about maintaining your gown's beauty for years to come.
In this article:
What is wedding dress preservation?
Preservation refers to the special cleaning and packaging techniques used to ensure your gown retains its beauty. A professional preservationist will survey your gown—the materials, embellishments and various stains, and will then formulate a specialized cleaning procedure. "Cleaning your gown is the single most important part of the preservation process and all the stains, including the hidden ones containing sugar that turn brown over time, must be removed," says Sally Lorensen Conant, the executive director of the Association of Wedding Gown Specialists. After cleaning, your gown is wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and placed in a museum-quality archival box.
Is it the same as wedding dress cleaning?
No. Quite simply, wedding dress cleaning is essential. Preservation is optional.
"All wedding gowns should be cleaned by a professional after use to remove soiling," says Jeff Schwegmann, owner of Happily Ever After, the exclusive gown preservation partner of Wedding Dress Preservation by The Knot. There's probably at least one stain on your dress after the celebration, whether it's champagne, dirt or a little bit of frosting. Some substances—sugar, sweat and other oils, for example—might not be visible right away, but can show up as stains over time.
Some gown specialists use the wet cleaning method, which consists of washing the gown by hand with gentle cleansers that remove noticeable stains and unseen stains, such as champagne and sugar. If left untreated, unseen stains can oxidize and turn yellow over time. Other companies use a more traditional dry cleaning method, which involves pretreating the stains and then placing the garment in a dry cleaning machine. "The solvent in the machine should be safe for fragile decorations, and these should be protected with muslin during the cleaning cycle or removed before cleaning and re-sewn onto your gown afterward," Conant says. Solvents such as perchloroethylene or petroleum-based cleansers are used as stain removers. Petroleum-based solvents aren't as aggressive as perchloroethylene, and they're also not as powerful in stain removal, but because of its high oil content, petroleum nourishes certain fabrics and can give them a lovely sheen.
Which one should I do?
There are a few reasons you might want to just get your wedding dress cleaned. One is if you want to wear your dress again in the near future—for example, if you're a bride having two wedding celebrations or you bought a short or less formal dress that can double as a party dress.
You should also have the dress cleaned if you're considering donating or selling your dress. "Selling gowns is on the rise because of effective websites that help facilitate the sales," Schwegmann says. If you're interested in going this route, we personally recommend Nearly Newlywed.
Definitely have preservation done if you want your dress's beauty to last long term, and you aren't planning on taking it out of its box anytime soon. Dresses that aren't preserved can yellow over time. Even if you don't think you'll pass along the gown to a loved one, you may want to reuse it a different way. Some brides choose to repurpose their gown into a veil, baby blanket or christening gown.
"Wedding gown preservation is the process of packaging a gown in archival boxes using accepted preservation methods and materials for long term storage," Schwegmann adds. "You should only preserve clean wedding gowns." So if you're going have your gown preserved, you'll need to have both steps taken.
Are there wedding dress cleaning and preservation services near me?
Before choosing a cleaner or preservationist, do a little local detective work. You'll need to investigate where to take your gown a few weeks before the wedding. That way, if your dress is stained badly or damaged on your wedding day, a family or bridal party member can drop it off right away while you're on your honeymoon getaway. Ask friends and family, bridal shops or your wedding consultant for referrals.
Though many dry cleaners claim to clean wedding gowns, most are not specialists. Unless the dry cleaner processes more than 100 wedding gowns a year, consider going to a nearby professional gown preservationist with a noted track record instead.
Struggling to find somebody near you (or just don't have time to search)? To make things super-easy and convenient, some companies are now offering mail-away services. In fact, we partnered up with an amazing (read: trustworthy) wedding dress preservation service called Wedding Dress Preservation by The Knot. It will send you a mailing kit with a prepaid shipping label and all the instructions you need, then have your garment(s) back to you within four to six weeks. It even includes insurance on your wedding dress.
How can I make sure my dress is in good hands?
"I always tell my brides to ask a lot of questions. You want to make sure that the person taking care of your gown pays attention to detail and knows fabrics as well as how gowns are constructed," says Karen Jean-Aimee of Madame Paulette, a luxury cleaning and restoration service. Ask about the type of cleaning method used, do the cleaners hand clean and if they will pretreat any stains and soiled areas. Some companies, including Wedding Dress Preservation by The Knot, go so far as to photograph, measure, carefully remove and inventory ultra-delicate embellishments before cleaning to really prevent damage. (How's that for attention to detail?) Then, they'll meticulously reinstall them.
Also, find out if the company does the work on location or if it ships gowns elsewhere to be cleaned and packaged. Don't rule a company out if it doesn't work in-house, especially if they have good reviews. It's just good to know where your dress will be in case you want to check in.
You should also ask your gown cleaner or preservationist whether you must sign a release or disclaimer that states the company isn't responsible for any damage done to the gown during the process. You'll want to find someone who will guarantee every last bead and sequin. Read the fine print of the agreement: Some companies will refund the preservation cost—not the replacement value of the dress. Next, ask if the company offers a warranty and how it will respond if you find the gown to be damaged or discolored after a certain number of years. The best services will re-clean and -preserve the dress for you. Do note, however, that for wedding dress preservation, opening the box usually voids the warranty. So, resist the temptation unless you're absolutely sure it's worth it.
Sending your gown away for treatment? You'll worry less if you know it's insured during transit and service. Wedding Dress Preservation by The Knot includes $1,000 of shipping insurance with its Cleaning and Preservation kit. You can also add additional coverage for $15 per $500 of value. In addition, the company offers shipment tracking so you'll never be up all night wondering where your gown is.
What will my dress look like after it's been cleaned and preserved?
The goal is for your wedding dress to be returned looking as fresh and new as possible. A dress that undergoes wedding gown cleaning will likely come back to you steamed and pressed (but you'll probably have to do some additional light pressing right before you wear it again). A preserved wedding gown will arrive in a protective package that displays the finished product.
The correct packaging materials are important in guaranteeing the life of your gown. And all storage materials should be clean and completely acid-free. After the cleaning process, your preservationist will wrap your dress in acid-free paper or muslin, then place it in an acid-free or pH-neutral box, which allows the gown to breathe and adjust with changing temperatures. Some boxes feature a viewing window: a clear panel designed to see the gown without opening the box. If your box features a window, look for acetate rather than plastic, and keep the box out of direct light, which can yellow the fabric over time. Some companies utilize boxes with Coroplast, a specially designed plastic known for its durability.
How should I handle and store it?
Though many preservationists choose to seal the box to keep out insects and vermin, others say sealing is unnecessary—if the gown is packaged correctly. It's really all about your personal preference. If you do open the box, remember to use discretion when handling the dress. Jean-Aimee recommends wearing clean white cotton gloves (which your preservationist may provide you with), but at minimum, be sure to wash your hands first. "There's no inherent reason why you cannot open your gown, but we're trained in museums not to handle something unless absolutely necessary because there's always the potential for danger," Conant says.
Once your gown is back from the preservationist, pay attention to storage. "Keep your dress in a cool, dark and dry environment with a relative humidity at 50 percent at all times," Jean-Aimee says. As a guideline, store your preserved gown in a location with a neutral temperature—under your bed or in a dry closet are your best bets. Schwegmann recommends air-conditioned rooms.
How much does wedding dress cleaning and preservation cost?
Sometimes fabric, decoration, ornamentation and degree of stain damage determine the preservation price of a gown. "Your heavily beaded silk ball gown will cost more than a simple polyester gown you wore on the beach, and you should never trust your designer gown to someone offering a bargain price," Conant says. "Saving a few dollars is simply not worth the risk of ruining your wedding dress." Expect to pay roughly $250 to $700, though prices can go as high as $1,000 depending on the gown and location. Costs vary across the country, with higher prices in metropolitan areas.
Beware of companies that give quotes over the phone, since different materials and stains require specialized care. You may get charged more later, or you run the risk of them not giving your dress the attention it needs.
All that said, there are vetted services that work with flat fees. Wedding Dress Preservation by The Knot doesn't skimp on the details, but still manages to offer competitive rates. The Cleaning and Preservation package costs $285, while the Wedding Dress Cleaning Only package costs $230. Minor repairs, pressing and steaming, and shipping and handling are included.
How can I prepare my dress for cleaning and preservation?
You can usually wait until after the honeymoon to take your dress to a preservationist, but remember it's better to take your gown in while the stains are fresh and not set in (especially if it's stained with mud or red wine). "The longer you delay, the less likely all stains can be removed, and if you wait years, your gown will need restoration rather than just cleaning," Conant warns.
Before sending your wedding dress to be cleaned and preserved, there are a few steps you need to take to maintain the integrity of your gown. First, don't wrap your dress in plastic. This can seal in off gassing vapors and trap moisture, inviting mold and mildew. Don't hang your dress on an ordinary wood or wire hanger—the weight of the dress will stretch and distort the weave of the fabric. Try a plastic or padded hanger instead. And definitely don't try to clean the stains yourself—you risk setting them in the fabric. Chances are, your service will provide other instructions specific to their needs.
Can I preserve other clothing and accessories from my wedding day?
Talk to your preservationist about including other items such as jewelry and shoes in your box. It may not be the best idea depending on the type of materials you'll want to include, but your professional will have an opinion on how to store them properly. The Knot's service can accommodate everything from veils and garters to shoes and handkerchiefs. Cleaning and preserving a dress with one accessory costs $345—that's bumped up to $400 for two accessories. You can also inquire about additional add-ons.
How can I protect my dress without the help of a professional service?
If you aren't completely sold on investing in full-blown wedding dress preservation, you can also take certain precautions on your own to ensure your dress is protected. "Cloth or tyvek bags can offer short-term protection, but your gown should not hang for long periods of time, and a wedding chest provides more protection from sharp objects, smoke and from fire," Conant suggests. The acidic content of ordinary paper will literally scorch your gown. Don't use colored tissue paper either. If the box accidentally becomes wet, it could stain your gown. For storage, professionals recommend wrapping the gown in pre-washed unbleached muslin, and then placing it in a sturdy box under your bed. That way, if you decide to preserve your gown down the road, it will be right there waiting for you.
Of course, a DIY method is riskier than working with a trusted professional using museum-quality methods.
Still searching for your dress? Find bridal salons in your area here.
Find seamstresses and preservation professionals near you here.
Learn more about wedding dress preservation mistakes here.