This morning I received a package from the Blue Mountains – Marg sent me her Grandmother’s wedding gown that was “falling apart”, so that I could reuse the beads and sequins.
As someone who restores antique and vintage, I find that there is “falling apart” and then there is “an easy fix”, so I hoped that this gown might be restorable – however, I soon discovered that Marg was absolutely correct – this once fabulous, beautiful and expensive 1920s silk dress was no more.
Beaded silk ’20s gowns are amongst the most popular and collectable fashions out there: during the ’80s I would find them occasionally at antique auctions where they would go for $1000 at a minimum. Once an auctioneer taunted me with a tale of a leather suitcase full of them that sold “at last week’s auction” for a few dollars. I was collecting vintage for over twenty years before I bought my first one, an ebay bargain that I wore to Circa’s opening in 2004 and sometimes bring to talks on ladies fashions. I now have several, perhaps even ten, but they all need restoration and sometimes major restoration. Marg’s Grandmother’s dress takes the cake though: never have I met such a lost cause!
Firstly, let me show you a beaded ’20s dress in very good condition: these were worn over petticoats and the weight of the beads damages the delicate silk if they’re hung so not many have survived in good condition. The usual damage is around the shoulders due to the hanger. This one is from Viva Vintage Clothing’s webshop and is very well priced.
Now let me show you Marg’s Grandmother’s dress…or rather, bits of it, because it’s no longer intact and can’t be displayed as a dress.
I almost cried: once upon a time it would have been amazing.
No doubt you’ve already guessed that this beautiful ex-dress is suffering from dry rot.
Dry rot is a kind of funghi that eats away at the part of the textile that makes it strong and is a result of poor temperature and moisture control.
Fabrics are very prone to extremes of temperature, humidity, damp, mold and mildew – as natural materials they like to breathe and be dry and in a stable temperature, but many antique and vintage fabrics have suffered over the years from neglect. This is a big part of why you’ll find more vintage in Tasmania than Queensland: despite the bigger population, humidity is the enemy of fabric.
Museums control the temperature and humidity to create a stable environment but it’s not something many of us would consider for our homes. Dry rot happens when a textile is exposed to moisture over a period of time and is unable to dry out effectively – and this is why plastic like dry cleaning bags aren’t a good thing to store your fashions in. Eventually the textile becomes so weak that it becomes brittle and just crumbles into dust.
What to do? Hopefully, don’t buy it in the first place because once this process has begun, your beautiful piece is on a road to tragedy and will break your heart – am I being too dramatic? I love old silks. So yes, this seems to affect mostly old silks, especially pre-World War 2 silks. Delicate fabrics especially. The good news is that we don’t get much of it Australia.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a beaded ’20s dress of your own, I recommend that you roll it up with acid free tissue paper and store in a pure cotton pillow case and pop in a cupboard or cardboard box so the fabric can breathe and be protected from insects and sun damage.
Marg, thank you for sending me your Grandmother’s beautiful gown, we shall remove the beads and use them to restore the beadwork on other 1920s gowns.