Vintage 101: sun damage in vintage textiles

I’ve been thinking of presenting a series of posts about some of the things to look out for when you collect vintage and antique garments. The irreparable or costly to repair issues: it could include topics like silk shattering, the clothes moth and other insect damage, dyes that eat fabric away, devil dust….and here I have a good example. Sun damage!

Vintage dyes are not as stable as modern ones that are based on petrochemicals. Many are from natural materials and fade or change colour over the years. If you like (as I do) ’40s crepe dinner dresses you may have noticed how the blue ones may turn purple in patches, or grey will turn to brown. It’s a natural process and seems to be speeded up by exposure to air or sun.

My vintage clothing collection started in 1980 with ’50s party, prom and cocktail dresses – by age 20 I had fifty of the beauties hanging from the picture rails in my bedroom. I shudder to remember it now that I know better, but think it was a good thing that I moved often and the collection grew quickly so none of them would have been very exposed to the sun whilst hanging up there – and I was living in art deco apartments too, which tend to be dark.

In modern times many of us hang our clothes on clothing rails too – which exposes one side to the sun, or rather exposes one sliver of one side to the sun. It’s a frequent issue, many older garments have sun damage but this one takes the cake.

Here’s a shot of the dress separately.

And a close up of the jacket.

It’s a stunning ensemble – or rather, was once. Silk chiffon, with hand beaded and sequinned appliques. Fully lined – 1930s. In generally pretty good condition except that an antique dealer put it up on the wall for a display – and a few years later, the colour had completely changed.

Such a pity!

Now, what can we do with such an issue?
Firstly, what won’t work: dyeing. Applying dye to a garment with fade will usually result in a dyed garment with uneven colour, because the dye will not cover the faded spots, it will colour everywhere to the same degree. A possible exception is when a black garment of natural fibres is dyed black, but in this case a professional treatment is recommended because it’s still hard to get a good result (I consider black to be the hardest of all colours to dye, to get a true black rather than a charcoal).

Another issue with dyeing is that not all the materials may be the same: eg, the silk and cotton thread will dye well, but the rayon lining less so. If there have been any repairs in modern times, a polyester thread may have been used which will not dye well either, so you’ll end up with a few different shades (a tip for telling when a garment has been dyed too).

When there are small areas of fade, you could cover them up by applying additional fabric, trims or appliques. Alternatively, you could also remove the affected areas if the fabric is full (eg, in a skirt) and there is surplus fabric.

Another option is to wear your vintage garment and it’s ombre shadowing effect with pride! Many flaws are less noticeable on a garment when it’s being worn, and especially for evening garments where the light is not likely to be strong. Many vintage and antique garments have issues of one sort or another and depending on how bad the damage is, it may not significantly diminish it’s unique and historical beauty.

This particular ensemble is now available from the webshop.


  1. Thank you so much for this very informative and helpful ‘exposé’ of sun damage to vintage garments. I have a beautiful blue crepe late 1930s dress which shows some areas of purple in certain lights but I think it is gorgeous – rather like the effect of iridescent shot silk. Sadly most customers see it as detrimental. To me the curious colouration enhances the vintage ethereal beauty of the garment in much the same way as those heartbreakingly neat darns on early 20th century vintage chemises and WWII dresses.

    Just the same I find it hard to forgive any self-respecting antique dealer who should know about sunlight damage on everything from watercolours to furniture, including fabrics.

  2. Dear Nicole
    Thanks so much for that post – very informative. I have a bit of sun damage on two suits I bought on etsy. Not very noticeable so the suits are totally wearable. One of them also also has stains under the arms to the OUTSIDE of the jacket but not on the INSIDE (?). The seller was totally honest with me about that flaw and I bought the suit priced accordingly ($35) but we were both wondering how you could get underarm stains only on the outside (presuming they were caused by perspiration)? Thought that was an interesting one. Again, I don’t mind wearing that, its not often that you raise you arms up in the air in a working day (althought I don’t wear it for lectures). Thanks again, Maria x

  3. Thanks Nicole!

    I bought a Lilli Ann Suit recently, for resale, even though I knew it was sun damaged. I just Had to buy it being the vintage wearer- buyer- seller – lover that I am, because it is after all a Lilli Ann- It must be save from our Montana land fill! Any way, thought I’d hit the web to see if there was hope for sun damaged items… there really isn’t – I’ve dyed a Few dresses, never turning out well
    Still ever hopeful, not smart though
    Thanks for the reminder,

  4. Hi Amy, congrats on your Lilli Ann! Depending on how bad the sun fade is, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a buyer because it really is a wonderful, and sought after label and many of us don’t mind a few flaws in our vintage. I’m sure it’s still fabulous. Good luck!

  5. I am interested in finding someone who would purchase two gowns worn in weddings. One from the 80s ;the other from the 50s. The lining is what faded so I don’t think they could be worn. Does someone remake such gowns?

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