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“Lessons From Restoring Grace’s Wedding Veil” ~ The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Winter 1997

The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine
Lifestyle & Entertainment
Thursday, December 11, 1997

“Lessons from restoring Grace’s wedding veil” by Denise Cowie

A little more than 40 years after the wedding, Princess Grace’s wedding veil was all but disintegrating. Its condition was indicative of what time and the environment can do to the fabric of cherished garments.

So perhaps it was appropriate that the veil came into Janice Martin’s hands to be reconstructed for Best Dressed: 250 Years of Style, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s grand costume exhibit that opened in October.

Because Martin, a couturier who makes one-of-a-kind bridal and evening gowns at her design studio in Manayunk, had long been interested in the conservation and storage of wedding gowns, she is often called upon to work on heirloom fabrics in gowns that have been handed down from mothers or grandmothers to this generation of brides. And she feels that some of the standard storage options available aren’t stringent enough.

Her work on the veil put her in touch with Sara Reiter, assistant conservator of costume and textile at the museum –who knows all about such things.

The museum initially wanted Martin to create a copy of the princess’ veil, because the tulle on which the original was built was discolored and crumbling so badly.

But Martin thought she would be better off rebuilding the original. “And that’s what we ended up doing,” she says.

The veil was actually a piece of silk tulle 100 inches in diameter, with about 30 appliques of antique handmade lace. Each appliqué was maybe 9inches by 4 inches, and featured a leafy vine pattern and flowers outlined with pearls, with more pearls beading the edges of the appliqué.

“It is a fairly traditional pattern for old lace,” says Martin. “There are two lovebirds at the bottom of the veil, which would sit over the end of the train when it’s on. And the front of the veil is a blusher almost down to the front waist. Ant that’s where most of the appliqué and beadwork is concentrated.”

Martin, who admits she was ”a little bit nervous” when the historic garment was delivered to her studio, laid new silk tulle on her cutting board, put the cracked and disintegrating veil on top of it, and stitched through the old tulle to attaché the appliqués and the pearl beading to the new tulle.

“That way, we maintained the original pattern of the lace without having to guess at anything,” she explains.

It sounds simple, but like all such reconstruction, it required excruciating attention to detail. Reiter provided Martin with thread so fine it’s called hair silk, and hair-like entomological pins normally used for mounting insects.

All told, the reconstruction took at least 80 hours. Did she enjoy it?

“Well, it’s beautiful, so yes,” says Martin, who has been to see her handiwork on exhibit at Best Dressed. “I love working on old things. But it’s sad to see something deteriorating.”

Which is why she’d like to see people take more care in conserving wedding gowns, christening robes and such for their children and grandchildren.

“So many of my brides buy expensive gowns” that they want to keep for future generations, Martin says, “and the [storage] boxes that are sold by some cleaners are not necessarily acid-free, museum quality boxes.”

What makes a storage box “museum quality”?

First, says Martin, it should be made of acid-free material, not regular cardboard, and it should be lined with acid-free paper. Size is a big factor. Boxes that are 60 inches long require that a gown be folded only at the waist, for instance, which reduces stress on the fabric. Some are extra wide –as much as 28 inches – to accommodate voluminous gowns or trains. And tissue used in the folds should be unbuffered and not blue (or any other color), since dyes may be unstable and bleed into the fabric.

“They are expensive boxes,” says Martin, who has decided to stock some herself now that, with Reiter’s help, she has tracked down the manufacturers, “but brides who are spending all this money on their wedding dresses want to make sure they are storing them properly.” She estimates the boxes will retail for $60 to $160 depending on the size.

Although garments should be dry-cleaned by a reputable cleaner before they are stored –stains and soil and even body oil on fabric can cause permanent damage –never store them in plastic bags, says Reiter. Over time, plastic can give off damaging fumes, trap moisture, or provide an environment for mildew to grow. Instead, use well-washed pure cotton muslin.

Most fabrics are better stored flat, she says. And don’t store anything in bright light, against exterior walls, or where it’s too hot or cold. The rule of thumb, she adds, is “if you’re comfortable [in a particular environment], your textiles are comfortable.”

An article in the Collections Care Network newsletter, published by the Upper Midwest Conservation Association, offers these tips:

–Choose reputable dry cleaners, and discuss cleaning options with them.

–Be sure to specify you want a fresh or filtered solvent. Tell cleaners about water and sugar-based stains (which need special solvents). And be aware that some glues –and some beads or other trim –dissolve in solvents.

–Remove fabric-covered metal buttons, rubberized dress shields or foam padding before storage, if possible.

–Use crumpled tissue at folds and in bodice and sleeves, for shaping.

–Never seal storage boxes. In fact, slits to allow air circulation could be added.

–Check the condition of heirloom garments each year, and wash cotton sheeting.

But the article also points out that no special storage procedures guarantee against textile deterioration.

Princess Grace’s wedding gown and veil are part of the Best Dressed exhibit at the art museum through Jan 4.



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