Vintage 101: Dry cleaning your vintage.

One of the most common enquiries I get is about the cleaning of vintage garments – very important if you wish to wear them as the wrong cleaning can cause damage.

Where ever possible, I like to hand wash my vintage – it takes longer and requires a nice warm but preferably overcast day, but your clothes last longest and smell the nicest.

Not all fabrics can be washed though: satins, taffetas, velvets (with the possible exception of cotton velvets), crepes and tailored garments need to be dry cleaned. Vintage silks are usually best dry cleaned as the colours may run, or the fabrics shrink (georgette and chiffon are especially prone). It’s often best to dry clean beaded and other luxury materials too, as they can get damaged during the washing process.

Leathers, suedes and furs require specialist treatment – best to call dry cleaners first as many won’t do it. The first two, you can clean yourself using a product from a shoe repairer and furs can be cleaned by adding to a cup of bran in a pillowcase and giving it a good shaking. I love a home remedy!

From the in-box this week:

I’m just wondering if you can recommend a dry cleaner in Melbourne that specialises in vintage garments? I have a crepe rayon dress and matching capelet from the 30s that has a few marks/stains and needs dry cleaning. I took it to Bancrofts in South Yarra and they seemed confident that they could get the marks out but it will cost me $233 which I thought was rather expensive! So if you have a recommendation, I’d be most grateful.

Kind regards, Sarah

Bancrofts are the best dry cleaner in Melbourne, and the only one I will entrust my ’20s dresses to. They’re skilled at getting marks out, and that’s particularly impressive when you consider that vintage stains have often been there for decades and you can only guess at what they might be! Other options might be to contact a costume, theatre company or museum to see who they recommend. I’ve heard good things about Ferrari Wedding Gown Cleaners but am yet to use them myself.

$233 is a lot to pay for one outfit though, especially if it’s not particularly valuable or special – I spend about $3-4,000 per year on dry cleaning for Circa and here’s my general advice:

1 – secure any beadwork or decorative trims on the garment. If they’re particularly fragile or valuable, you might like to remove them altogether.
2 – I usually remove buttons too, if they’re old or special. Sewing them back on later is much easier and cheaper than replacing them if one gets damaged or lost during the cleaning process. If you don’t want to remove them, consider covering them in foil.
3 – I also remove the labels if it’s particularly cute, rare or designer – labels often seem to get lost and I’ve lost all too many.
4 – do any repairs needed: it’s likely to come back worse if you don’t.

Most dry cleaners can cope well with vintage in good condition as long as you’ve followed the precautions. I’ve been through quite a few cleaners, and my feeling is you’re best off with a small dry cleaner that’s owner-run, that does all the cleaning in-house. That way, too, you can explain your concerns and identify any issues. By all means show the cleaner the stains, but keep in mind they’re probably there to stay and if they don’t get them out, dry cleaning will set stains if they weren’t set already.

Sarah, regarding your outfit in particular, I recommend that you take it to another dry cleaner and see what they can do – you might be surprised. It all depends on what’s causing the stain and how long it’s been there. Alternatively, there are ways to live with a mark and cover it up with a decorative feature – or you could try your luck at Bancrofts!

Lastly, when you do get your goodies back from the dry cleaner, please remove the plastic bag they place over the garments – they do an excellent job of ensuring they make it home without dust or tangling but in your wardrobe, your clothes (and more importantly) your vintage, need to breathe – the fabrics will absorb and release moisture and the plastic inhibits this process and the result can be oxidisation – seen as brown marks on the fabric (often mistakenly called “rust”). Another name for this is foxing, and it can be removed from some fabrics but not others. A blog topic for another day.

Some cleaners will seal up your wedding gown in a plastic covered box: I’m sure you understand the problem with this method. Fine if your gown is polyester (which is not affected by oxidisation) or if you’re only storing it temporarily but if you have long term plans for your gown, like handing it down to your daughter you may find that it has unpleasant stains.

And because we all like a nice frock and it’s good to have pretty pictures, here’s a late ’70-early ’80s frock by Prue Acton – you can see the ’50s influence. It’s silk but because it’s modern (or modern in my world any way) I thought it would be fine at the dry cleaner but it came back with the bodice shredded along the top – a reminder that a certain amount, hopefully a very small amount! Of vintage will have trouble being cleaned – in this case, Esther and I were able to put it back together and it now looks fabulous. I’m sure her new owner is loving her too.

For more help on how to find a good dry cleaner, you might like to read Couture Allure’s great blog post on the topic.


  1. Thanks for posting this! I moved to Melbourne last year and have yet to look for a dry cleaner that can be trusted with vintage.

    I would like to ask if you have any advice on getting out old *smells* from vintage clothing. I have a lovely black cotton blouse with white applique detail on it. The label says “All Cotton”, but I’m not sure of the vintage. The black cotton has held it’s colour well with no stains, but the armpits have an awful odour when they get warm. I didn’t notice when I first got it, but as soon as I ironed it, it reeked! It stops smelling once it’s cooled down, but the normal warmth from wearing will make it smell again. I’ve hand washed it thoroughly with gentle soap and warm water. I’m worried about using anything harsher in case it fades the black fabric. I was wondering if this is something a dry cleaner may be able to deal with or if you have any tips?

  2. Hi Leonie, I recommend to try soaking the blouse in warm water and Napisan – keep an eye on it and pull it out if the colour is running. Then line-dry outside in a decent breeze…dry cleaning is unlikely to help, sadly.

  3. Nicole, I’ve been especially loving your recent posts on caring for vintage clothing, how to clean them, store them etc. They’re great, and have stopped a few more pestering emails about stains coming your way. Please keep posting more!

    I have a dry cleaner in my local town who I am on friendly terms with, they’re quite good at mending things that I’m not educated anough on, like bust seams, popped darts and zippers. I can only just manage resewing loose beading, buttons and slightly dropped hems.
    The drycleaner helps me identify fabrics, and the best way of having a go at cleaning them myself, which I don’t mind doing if it’s not particularly special or I didn’t pay a lot for it.

    In line with what Leonie has said, I’ve found lots of vintage garments have deteriorated under the arms- many with gaping holes, or incredible staining. I gather the perspiration damages the fabric to no end, what with all the bacteria in sweat etc, and just eats away at the fabric. That or on the delicate fabrics, perhaps someone has sweat so much that the dampness has caused the fabric to tear.

    I leant a white modern top to my MIL, and found out the hard way that she’s a profusive sweater. The top came back with huge yellow marks under the arms and the most revolting smell.
    From some research and trial and error, a white soap bar, with minimal other colourings or perfumings and some elbow grease helped to budge the stain. I seem to have other thoughts in the back of my mind that a vinegar boil might help remove the smell? Don’t take it on oath though, as I have no idea what it would do to the black dye (especially since it hasn’t become victim to the charcoal fading common in old black garments, plus, hot water and dark colours… never ends well). Bicarb can be good too, it’s fizziness can help lift stains and smells.
    Don’t do any of it though, until Nicole has given her wise advice! I may be completely wrong!!!

  4. Also Nicole, do any of the TAFEs, Universities or neighbourhood centres etc do courses on fabric preservation and restoration? Or are they embedded within the costume and fashion courses?

  5. Leonie, I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve heard that vodka sprayed onto the underarms can also help – not the good vodka, mind!

    Emily, thank you for your kind words – I don’t know of anywhere you can learn these things but perhaps I should do a talk on it?

  6. I use On The Spot in Bridge Road Richmond – speak to George – I was put onto them by some of my clients who take their very exclusive and designer gowns there – I have this very fine silk/pashima wrap that needed cleaning and was paranoid as to where to take it so was very grateful for the recommendation. Now they do all my work. Not the cheapest but very good and 24 hour service. I have a card I swipe and my clothes are in a bag with my name and I drop them in the chute, they SMS me when done, I swipe my card and clothes delivered on hangers through a door……very cool…..although I still walk in my ‘special’ clothes and have a chat…

  7. Thanks for the tips. I’ve tried the napisan and line dry, but no luck (but didn’t damage the black dye either).

    I’ve never heard of the vodka remedy, but I’m willing to give it a go! I’ve also heard that steam + lemon juice/vinegar will work, but I’m more concerned about bleaching there. As the blouse isn’t particularly valuable, it has occured to me that if I can get rid of the sweat smell, but the black dye fades, I could always unpick the white applique and remove the buttons, then re-dye the blouse. If it wasn’t so cute and such a good fit I think I’d have given up by now!

    Actually the comment on fabric restoration has reminded me that I have a friend who recently completed a masters in conservation and I know she’s done work with a variety of textiles, so I will flick her an email to see if she has any advice.

  8. Leonie, are you able to bring it into the shop for me to see? It will make it easier to work out the best treatment. Cotton is usually an easy fabric to remove smells from – perhaps if you hang it up outside (under cover) for a week and see if that helps? Fresh air does wonders for smells.

  9. Hi Nicole,
    There’s an idea 🙂 I should be able to bring it in sometime and it would be great if you’re willing to have a look at it. I’ll see what I’m up to this Saturday and try to pop in.

  10. Hi Nicole
    Thanks for the great posts about cleaning caring etc.
    I know my Mum always swore by Sunlight soap and a good warm water hand scrub for perspiration smells and stains, then hanging hanging outside all day to dry and air–I don’t even know if you can still buy it. Back then they didn’t wear deodorant so had to know all those tips and tricks. It may not work on old stains though.

    We have a great dry cleaner here in Camden on the outskirts of Sydney that does vintage and antique clothing. They do all the local museum and historical re-enactment costumes & collections–it’s big out this way. I have used them on the odd occasion although nothing too precious and all has been well. They communicate well and offer advice freely which is always nice. Called “Tails-the Dry Cleaner” if anyone is out this way.

    Shannon Lush might be good on all this too –may be worth contacting. I think she has a wesbite and of course her books are great.

  11. I got some advice from my friend who does conservation work. She says you need to get rid of the source of the smell, which is usually bacteria. Bacteria likes warmth, which is why it smells when warmed by body heat or an iron. She recommends using Dettol on the affected area to kill the bacteria. She’s used it on her boyfriend’s shirts and says it rarely causes any problems with modern dyes, but to do a patch test somewhere discreet just to be safe.

    She reckoned the vodka remedy is probably based on using the ethanol to attempt to kill the bacteria. She said it may kill some bacteria, but would also leave behind sugars in the fibres, which more bacteria or mould could then grow on. She said pure ethanol is a good option for mould on fabrics (kills the mould), but would be wary of it removing dye so always patch test first.

    I’m going to go get myself some Dettol and I’ll let you know how I go 🙂

  12. That makes sense Leonie…but please do spot test first! I imagine that Dettol has some chemicals in that may damage your vintage item. Please let us know how it goes though!

  13. Hi Nicole. I ran across your very informative site, by chance thru FB via Vintage Fashion Guild. I was wondering if you can clarify for me about using bran in cleaning your furs? I own several, what a wonderful, frugal way to clean my fur babies. What exactly kind of bran is that you used? Thank you.

  14. Hello Nicole! Though you’ve written this post way back in 2011, every bit of information in it is still relevant today. Don’t you think wet cleaning is as effective as dry cleaning these days, excluding certain types of fabric? It’s a proud moment for me to post a comment on a post written by an eminent fashion designer and author like you. Thanks!

  15. Hi Helen,

    Lovely to hear from you! Wet cleaning is always my preference, but it depends very much on the fabric – some will be changed if they’re immersed in water, others will be likely damaged and for others, dry cleaning simply offers a simpler and safer solution.

  16. Hi Nicole
    I’m dealing with serious mould and foxing issues in my lovely vintage at the moment – washing some, steaming others, airing all – and looking around for a dry cleaner in Sydney, which is how I got to this page. Did you end up doing another post on oxydization/foxing? You mention that it is possible to remove it from some fabrics. I’d love to know how. Any mould tips you have would be much appreciated. I had my entire vintage collection dry cleaned years ago in Sydney when mould went through once before but the cost would be huge – and frankly the last time I had much of my vintage dry cleaned they destroyed it with overheating and the gowns came back with iron shine (if you have any tips for redressing that crime against fabric will fall at your feet!). Many thanks

  17. Hi Kathryn, sorry to hear about your iron shine and damage: it’s true that bad things can happen and it’s a great pity. Mould is a great problem in warm, humid locations like Sydney. I am yet to write about foxing but your comment has given me extra impetus so I shall do so soon, and let you know when it’s up. All the best – Nicole

  18. Hello Nicole,
    I recently met a lady from USA who was happy to sell me her clothes from the 60s and 70s, included was a beautiful 70s silk chiffon blouse, but it has perspiration stains. I usually hand wash all my vintage apart from the tailored items. This blouse has me a little nervous if it shrinks it will no longer fit me, the stains are noticeable and a dry cleaner may set them. What should I do ? Love your site, shop and books. Thanks Annie

  19. Thanks Annie – I recommend dry cleaning, although you’re right, the stains probably won’t come out. It’s risk to wash but if you have nothing to lose you could give it ago. Getting perspiration out of silk chiffon isn’t something I’ve had success with though. Good luck!

  20. I recently inherited a lot of my mother’s clothes from the 50s and 60s. I would love to wear some of them to themed parties, but they do look like they need some TLC. I hope that I can find a dry cleaners that can give me some more life into them.

  21. Hi Nicole,
    Thank you once again for your invaluable advice. I have been baffled by the brown marks on vintage for a while and suspected oxidisation so I was pleased to hear you confirm this. Unfortunately, I have many items stored in plastic bags, which I will be removing today. However, I have a big problem with bugs. What do you use to keep the moths out of your collection? It sounds as though airing the gowns is a good idea too. I will be giving the girls who’ve been in storage a while a swing in the fresh air very soon.

  22. Please tell me how to rid foxing on my recently dry cleaned vintage cream brocade evening gown. I left it in the plastic bag and now it has quite a large area which brown stains. kind regards Nell

  23. Hi Janelle, how well you can get out the foxing will depend on the fabric and how well it’s set in. Do you know what material the dress is, whether it’s silk, rayon or polyester? You’re welcome to bring it to me, and I can advise.

  24. I have a white fur jacket with black patch design which is approximately 35 years old. It is a cat fur. It is not dirty as it was not worn much when I first got it, but it has yellowed a bit with age. Can something be done to remove the yellowing? Can you recommend cleaners in Sydney please?

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