Preserving Family Ties

Rylan Lee
LEFT: Laura Bales's wedding gowns; she wore a newly purchased dress (far left) for her reception, her grandmother's dress (center) for the ceremony and her great-grandmother's dress (right) for her shower and rehearsal dinner.; RIGHT: Laura wears her grandmother's gown and veil and her great-grandmother's Juliet cap.

The story of Laura Bales' wedding attire was more than a century in the making.

Bales—a self-described “old soul” and antique-lover—had given up on her search for a vintage gown and bought a new one when she accidentally found exactly what she had been looking for: Forgotten in the basement of her grandmother's house, tucked in old paper Macy's bags, were both her grandmother's wedding dress from 1946 and her great-grandmother's wedding dress from 1913.

Neither of the heirloom dresses, though, was initially in any condition to be worn—a common occurrence with true vintage pieces.

“Most of these [heirloom] gowns were never cleaned after wearing, or they were cleaned and stored improperly,” says Margaret Butler, bridal specialist for Dublin Cleaners.

But having your gown professionally cleaned can “take the age out of the fabric,” as her husband and gown restoration expert Greg Butler puts it; he specializes in removing aged-in stains and general yellowing.

“The main thing is these brides, or moms of brides, have to come in and make an appointment for a consultation,” says Margaret. These consultations help establish the goals for the gown and their feasibility.

Along with a professional cleaning, most heirloom gowns will need alterations, even if the bride wants to keep the original shape and structure. “There's ways to modify [an heirloom dress] but keep the integrity of the design,” says Joan Madison, owner of and designer for Joan's Bridal Couture. All of Madison's restorations take place over a three-month period, from the initial consultation to the final pickup.

For Bales, the goal was maintaining the integrity of both gowns. Madison left Bales' great-grandmother's dress almost unaltered, replacing only an eyelet hook and some buttons. Because Bales didn't intend to wear it for her wedding, the alterations simply preserved the gown for posterity. Madison also left Bales' grandmother's dress intact and made a new skirt to go over the old one, which had rotted netting.

“It fit me like a glove,” says Bales of her grandmother's dress, which needed no alterations to the bodice. “It was meant to be that I should wear her dress.”

Bales and her 94-year-old grandmother have always had a very close bond. When Bales moved home for a year after college, they spent a lot of time together, from Bales helping around the house to the pair going out to lunch.

Bales says she “felt like a Disney princess” on her wedding day, but the feeling was bittersweet, too. “I loved [the newly purchased] dress that I wore for the reception, but it was sad to take [the restored dress] off because I knew I wouldn't be wearing it again.”

Although that may have been the last time she got to wear the gowns, Bales is hoping it won't be the last time they are worn. After the wedding, Bales had all three dresses professionally preserved.

Professional preservation includes packaging the attire—which may include a veil and other fabric accessories—in an acid-free environment. But the boxed gown still requires some safeguarding, Greg warns. He advises keeping it in a dry, climate-controlled space—that means under your bed or in a closet, not in your basement or attic.

And while Laura's grandmother—who only had two sons—had to wait an extra generation to see her wedding dress worn again, Laura and her husband, Brad, are already expecting a little girl.

Laura hopes her daughter or one of her nieces will wear at least one of the dresses. “I think it would be amazing,” she says. “I've read stories about that.”