Wearing your mothers gown can add meaning to a wedding

Every bride wants her wedding dress to be special, whether it is a handmade couture gown or an off-the-rack dress that captures just the right look. For many brides, however, wearing a gown that belonged to Mom or Grandma is even more meaningful.

“It adds something extra-special,” says Antonia van der Meer, editor in chief of Modern Bride magazine, noting that many heirloom gowns being worn today mirror contemporary styles harking back to glamorous evening gowns of the 1930s.

Still, wearing a vintage wedding gown is not as simple as pulling one out of the family cedar chest and taking it to the cleaners or the tailor, says Jonathan Scheer, president of J. Scheer and Co., a New York-based textile conservation firm that handles vintage wedding gowns. If a gown has not been cleaned and stored properly, it may not be wearable at all, he says.

Gowns that have not been cleaned or have been exposed to light or humidity may have stains that have permanently damaged the fabric. Food and perspiration stains also can weaken a fabric to the point where cleaning it creates holes in the stained areas, Scheer cautions.

How well a dress ages also depends upon the fabric. Plant fibers, such as cotton or linen, as well as some synthetics such as rayon are more acidic than protein fibers, such as silk or wool. The more acidic the fabric, the more likely it is to yellow rapidly, Scheer says.

Yellowing isn’t necessarily bad, he says, but there is a qualitative difference between the uneven yellowing of a poorly cared-for vintage gown and the aged patina of a well-preserved one. “A patina speaks to a gown’s antiquity,” he says.

Another problem is weakness in the fabric, which can be caused by mildew or dry rot. Such weaknesses are not always readily apparent until after the fabric has been cleaned.

For all of these reasons, it’s very important to get an expert assessment of an heirloom gown before choosing to wear it. Also, Scheer says, many commercial dry cleaners are not equipped to handle the delicate nature of the kind of cleaning or restoration that may be necessary. However, he says, most metropolitan areas have specialists like himself, many of whom belong to the American Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works (see its Web site at http://aic.stanford.edu). It costs roughly $500 for an assessment and cleaning, said Scheer, whose firm also will clean and store a dress for an additional fee after the wedding.

Brides should look for an expert seamstress if alterations are required, which is often the case because average sizes have changed over the years. An heirloom gown that has yellowed may be difficult to let out because the fabric beneath the seams often has not changed color, Scheer says.

Some brides may choose to update the style of an heirloom gown by altering the length, sleeves or neckline, van der Meer says. As with any wedding gown, she advises, such alterations should be left to an expert.

Choosing to wear a vintage dress may not be as simple as it sounds, but wearing a piece of family history is a unique way to celebrate a family’s traditions, van der Meer says. She strongly suggests making the dress and its history a part of the wedding if possible.

“If the person who originally wore the dress is still alive, it would be fun to talk to her about the dress and include any information in the wedding program,” she adds, noting that the dress’s history may be useful when taking it to a specialist to get it ready for the big day.