How to care for vintage clothing

Millionaire boxer Mike Tyson once admitted to donning a ski mask, dressing up in old clothes and begging for quarters at bus stops.

Yes, Tyson's behaviour is really weird, but, aslant to this, it also tells us something about the power of clothes; how clothes not only temper our own behaviour, but also inform the behaviour of those around us, influencing the ways in which we interact with one another.

how to care for vintage clothing
Vintage styles communicate something of the attitudes of the period

Brett Easton Ellis' psychopathic creation Patrick Bateman and his Wall Street buddies spend at least a third of Ellis' 1991 novel discussing sartorial edicts: whether a pocket square can be worn with a tweed jacket; ought a person's socks match their tie or their belt? 

As American author, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau observes: "It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of all their clothes."

Whether or not you happen to be a dedicated follower of fashion, antique and vintage attire is a booming market, and those outfits that happen to have been worn by a celebrity are, naturally, worth significantly more than their civilian cousins.

While a voluminous vintage Victor Edelstein gown might set you back several thousand dollars, the midnight black, Edelstein-designed fish-tail evening dress worn by Princess Diana in 1985 - the night she danced with John Travolta at the White House - made $362,500 in March.

However, valuable antique and vintage clothes will only retain their value if they are looked after properly. Already delicate fabrics become ever more delicate with age; pieces featuring fragile beading or embellishment will disintegrate if not adequately stored.

how to care for vinateg clothes
Never machine wash your vintage clothing and avoid dry-cleaning

Here are a few tips on how to look after your vintage treasures:

Storing vintage

Many collectors keep a written record of their vintage and antique purchases, which generally includes a brief description of the item, the name of its designer, and the date it was purchased. Additional information might include a garment's provenance.

Specialist archival storage is commercially available for textiles, however, it can prove costly to store a large number of items for an extended period of time.

Some collectors store only their most valuable and delicate pieces professionally, keeping the rest at home and following a handful of rules to maintain their condition.

Before storing any garments, make sure that all items of clothing are as clean as possible. If the garments have a stuffy, musty odour, air them indoors, away from direct sunlight.

how to care for vintage clothes
Antique clothes were made to last

If your pieces have a dusty appearance, you can gently vacuum them. Place a piece of nylon mesh over the surface of the garment and vacuum at a low speed (the vacuum cleaner should not come in contact with either the garment or the nylon mesh but should be held approximately half an inch above both).

Every garment should be thoroughly inspected before storage: check for insects and mildew; if anything untoward is detected, isolate the garment in question and store it separately in order to avoid contaminating your entire collection.

Light is the greatest threat to all textiles. Both artificial and ultra violet light (sunlight) can cause considerable damage to both colours and fibres. Clothes should therefore be stored in a dark, cool, dry place.  

Clothes can be packed with acid free tissue paper and then encased in plastic. Use plenty of tissue in the sleeves and bodices of your garments as this will help them maintain their shape, and liberally pad any potentially ruinous sharp surfaces or embellishments.

Use boxes made of acid free materials for horizontal storage. Heavier garments, such as beaded dresses, and dresses made from sheer or lacy fabrics, should all be stored horizontally. Lighter items may be stored, unfolded, on top of one another.

Storage boxes can be lined with un-dyed cotton. Avoid folding wherever possible and, since some fabrics require some air circulation, never completely seal the boxes.

how to care for vintage clothes
Look after your collection and you’ll reap the benefits

Cleaning vintage

Cleaning vintage clothing can be a risky undertaking as the fabrics you are dealing with are old and therefore increasingly delicate. Before embarking on a cleaning spree, identify the fabric, age, condition and construction of each garment. Different dyes and finishes require very different treatment.

Never machine wash your vintage clothing and avoid dry-cleaning even if your dry cleaner claims to be an expert in vintage. Harsh chemicals are extremely unlikely to improve the condition of your clothes.

As a general rule, cotton garments can be hand-washed in cool water with a gentle detergent while linen can be washed and occasionally dry-cleaned. Extra care should be taken with wool, silk and lace. Weighted silk should not be washed.

Most modern garments will have washing instructions somewhere on the label. These should be followed to the letter.

Removing stains from vintage

Great care should be taken when removing stains. To remove make up, gently pat a slice of white bread over the stain.

For perspiration, make a paste from baking powder and water or salt and water and massage it into the stain. Do not do this on weighted silk or raw silk garments.

A dark ring around the collar? Try rubbing shampoo into the collar. Baby shampoos are particularly gentle, while bluing shampoos designed for grey hair will offset the yellow colour of the stain.

And remember, if in doubt, consult an expert.

Paul Fraser.

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