After months -- or even years -- of planning a beautiful wedding, even brides who are on their best behavior at their receptions often end up in gowns that look like they've been involved in a barroom brawl.

Food and drink have been sprinkled on expanses of frothy fabric. Sweaty handprints and smeary lipsticks of distant cousins have migrated onto the gown. And champagne-fueled dancing feet have stomped on the hem and train.

Maybe the bride kicked off her shoes and walked on less than pristine floors -- or on grass, mud or a beach.

And all the while, on what is probably the most nerve-wracking day of her life, the bride's radiant sheen of perspiration has made its own contribution to the downfall of her gown.

In the afterglow of a wedding, there are decisions to be made about the future of the gown. Many women dream of someday having their daughters or granddaughters wear their dress, or at least having it survive as an heirloom.

So if you want to preserve the special dress from the special day, here's what experts say you need to know.

It all starts with the fabric

If you don't want to worry about red wine spills, lipstick smears, sweat, grass or mud stains and sand on your wedding dress, start planning during the dress-selection process. Pay attention to the fabric of dresses you like, keeping in mind that polyester is the sturdiest. It can be found in satin or mock-silk finishes.

Here are other dress-fabric tips from textile conservator Kathy Wright, owner of Heritage Gown Preservation.

Lace: Wright uses a toothbrush to clean lace, which requires very delicate cleaning. Jewelry should not be worn on the hands or wrists when cleaning lace.

Silks: Some silks can be wet cleaned, but others will change drastically when wet, Wright says. Some silks will shrink while others will get very stretched out. Wet silk fibers are weak and creases that form while the fabric is wet can become permanent. Silk items labeled "dry clean" can be hand-washed, but those marked "dry clean only" really mean it. Dry cleaning is best for brightly colored silk, to prevent bleeding and fading. Hand-washing is more effective than dry cleaning for removing water-based stains, such as perspiration, from silk. Never use chlorine bleach on silk. Silks are best kept out of the washing machine. The final spin cycle sets wrinkles that even a dry cleaner might not be able to reverse. Since silk is weaker when it's wet, it should not be hung on a hanger or over the rung of a drying rack. Instead, lay the piece flat on a mesh rack or a towel.

Sequins and beads: The most common solvent used by dry-cleaners is "perchloroethylene" (aka "perc"), which is excellent for removing greasy stains but can damage sequins and beads and melt the glue used to adhere them.

Dry-cleaning questions

Archivist Sally Jacobs, owner of Jacobs Archival Services, knows plenty about preserving garments. She has a master's degree in library science with a specialization in Archives Management and has worked on collections in the Library of Congress, the Wisconsin Historical Society and Pleasant Company.

Jacobs suggests seven questions to ask a dry-cleaning service before you let them touch your wedding dress:

1. Will you clean the dress in your shop or send it elsewhere? Many Madison-area dry cleaners ship wedding dresses to a leather cleaning company in Minneapolis. Some in the Madison area (Best Cleaners on Raymond Road and Lake Mills Cleaners are among them) do their cleaning on site. If the cleaner sends the dresses elsewhere, ask for the phone number of the plant where they will be treated, and ask the people there the following questions:

2. Will my wedding dress be cleaned individually, or in a batch of other dresses? Cleaning it alone is ideal, because you don't want something on another dress snagging your gown.

3. Will you do wet cleaning or dry cleaning? The best answer is "We follow care labels on the garment." Polyester can be safely washed with either wet or dry methods. Water - by itself, in steam, or in chemical solutions - is the only way to get rid of sugar residue from things like 7-Up or Champagne. Many cleaning hucksters claim they have a "secret solution" that gets rid of stains caused by sugar. Expensive cleaning and preserving services are often advertised at bridal shops. Dry cleaning is best for getting out food spills, grease, and the mud and grass stains that turn up on hems and trains.

4. Will you ask me about the origins of stains on my gown, or just guess? They should ask, because different types of stains require different types of treatments. If they're having trouble with a stain, they should call you and ask for more information about its possible source.

5. Is there a specific person on staff who specializes in wedding dresses? If an owner does the work himself, great. He or she will have a greater investment in returning a well-cleaned dress. If another member on staff will do the cleaning, ask how much experience that person has with wedding dresses.

6. What preservation methods do you use? Most cleaners pack gowns in boxes with plastic windows, but if it is cheap plastic it can damage the dress. Not all plastic is bad for this purpose: polypropelene or mylar are examples of plastics that are acceptable because they are inert. Ask to inspect your dress before it is packed for storage.

7. How much do you charge for cleaning and pressing, and how much for preservation? There are huge differences in prices, and most brides who only spend a couple hundred dollars on a dress are probably not going to want to spend an equivalent amount - or much more - preserving it for posterity.

For the long haul

A dry cleaner may do an excellent job of cleaning a wedding gown, but may not necessarily be expert in archival preservation to keep the dress in good condition long-term. Most preservation companies pack gowns into a white box with a clear plastic viewing window. They tape the box shut.

For long-term preservation, gowns need to be protected from light, heat and humidity. Avoid storing gowns in a basement, attic or unheated garage.

The box should be made of cardboard that is free of materials that will disintegrate fabric over time, such as acid, lignin, adhesives and unidentified plastics. A true archival box has metal corners, which makes them stronger, but more importantly, they can be built without adhesives. Adhesives (as well as unidentified plastics) are a wildcard that can cause damage to the gown in the long run. Paper is porous, and over time whatever is in the adhesive will make its way into the fibers of the dress.

Most museums store dresses on hangers padded with acid-free tissue, and stored in unbleached cotton garment bags. Dresses that are packed in boxes need to be taken out occasionally and refolded in order to prevent permanent creases that weaken the fibers over time. Hanging eliminates that problem.

Asking for help

If you want someone else to handle all the details of cleaning and preserving your dress, Jacobs Archival Services will come to any Madison hotel, collect the gown, take care of the cleaning and packing, and deliver it to the bride's home or office.

"We'll even gather up wedding mementos like the cake topper and the guest book and pack them up safely for long-term storage," Sally Jacobs said.

Dick Tarnutzer's company, Lake Mills Cleaners, has been cleaning and preserving wedding gowns for 60 years. He says each bridal dress is spot-cleaned with steam or chemical solution before the entire dress is cleaned.

"We look everything over first," he said. "Usually you can even see Champagne stains. We clean each wedding dress individually, and use a higher level of solvent so we don't have to use as much agitation."

If spots remain after the first cleaning, the dress is spot-cleaned and dry-cleaned again. Tarnutzer said the dresses are air-dried, hand-pressed and sprayed with moth-proofer. The dress is then put on an acid-free "bosom form" shaped like a woman's torso, wrapped in acid-free tissue, and sealed in a box with a plastic window, often with other mementoes such as Bible verses or a veil.

Tarnutzer said brides are among his toughest customers. And sometimes he has to tell them - especially brides who partied hard at their garden weddings - that "there's no sense in beating a dress into a rag to get all the spots out. If their daughter or granddaughter wants to wear their dress someday, it's probably better to do alterations on the dress someday than beat it to death now."

Tarnutzer said he attends about a dozen bridal shows a year, and at many of them he sees New York companies offering cleaning and archival packing services for bridal gowns starting at $250 and going much higher.

"I don't know what they do that I don't do," he says, noting his company charges a total of $121 for wedding dress cleaning and preservation.


For those who want to handle the archival preservation process on their own, there are several sources for supplies.

Brides who want to preserve a dress themselves after it is cleaned can order a "Do-It-Yourself" kit from Jacobs Archival Services for about $100. It includes an unbleached cotton garment bag, a specially padded hanger, acid-free tissue and full instructions.

Note that you should never touch your dress after it has been cleaned without wearing clean cotton gloves to prevent oils and salt from your skin from transferring to the dress. White gloves are usually available at scrapbooking stores. You can also drape an unbleached white cotton cloth over a hanger padded with acid-free materials, and build a torso to fill out your gown with acid-free tissue.

\ Contact Chris Martell at, or 252-6179.