Too precious to put on? How to decide whether to wear an antique garment

While the pleasure in owning clothes is usually wearing them, conservators warn that with some vintage and heirloom pieces, using them may mean losing them

I have a navy blue woollen coat that belonged to my grandfather. He had it made while he was on a naval post in London in 1934. I know this because the date and manufacturer are printed on a tag inside one of the pockets.

The coat is double breasted, falls to the mid-calf and is lined with a thick, shiny viscose. It fits me almost perfectly. I’ve worn it to important meetings in London, around Paris during fashion week and at home in Melbourne. Every time I put it on, it never fails to amaze me that the fabric of this almost 90-year-old coat is in impeccable condition.

Some of the stitching has started to break, making me hyper aware of its age and extra careful about where and when I put it on. It’s a decision the fashion historian Eleanor Keene says must be made “with any vintage or antique garment”.

“Is this so precious that I will never wear it … or am I going to enjoy wearing it, in a careful respectable manner?”

For the next two weeks we’ll help you make this choice with your own treasured antique clothes. The second part of this guide will provide tips on how to wear, repair and store vintage garments.

Step one: assess value

Bella Lipson-Smith, a conservator of textiles at the National Gallery of Victoria, recommends considering the ways the clothing is significant. “If the item is of unique cultural or research value, it’s best to preserve it rather than wear it.

“No matter how many precautions you take, wearing clothing will cause a degree of damage, whether that is fragility or bleaching due to light exposure, rubbing leading to pilling or areas becoming threadbare, or more extreme changes such as tears and broken stitching.”

Given the risks involved with wear, Deborah Miller, an expert appraiser of clothing and fashion, says to consider whether or not it is so precious “you will be very upset if something happened to it”.

If you decide it is too valuable to damage – for sentimental or fiscal reasons – Miller recommends wearing it infrequently, and only on very special occasions when you have time to care for it afterwards. “Have pride in being about to pass it down to the next generation,” she says.

Step two: does it fit?

Kate Moss in a gold gown
Kate Moss wears vintage Christian Dior to the Golden Age of Couture party at London’s V&A in 2007. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

A good question to ask, given that people in the past were much smaller than people are now, is can you move freely in the garment?

“Men’s and women’s antique clothing can be very small in comparison to contemporary bodies,” Miller says. “We are used to wearing materials with a stretch to them and far looser, less constricting than what people 50 to 100 years ago were used to.”

“Are you prepared to perhaps be a little uncomfortable in order to wear it?” she asks. “Putting on an antique piece of clothing can make you pull your shoulders back, suck your stomach in.”

She also suggests you “watch how you sit down”: “If you cannot raise your arms, either suffer and don’t raise them or don’t wear the piece.”

Step three: consider durability

The next question is whether the fabric is strong enough to withstand wear. “We are pretty hard on our clothing these days,” Keene says. “In the past outfits may have changed multiple times a day, depending on events. Some garments were designed to do little more than parade around in.”

In some instances, the fabric is a good indication of the garment’s robustness. Lipson-Smith says: “Wool is generally durable, and careful use and appropriate storage can help it last for a long time.” On the other hand: “Silk tends to be the most fragile, and susceptible to damage from sweat and light.”

Zendaya in a long gown
Zendaya in a vintage silk and velvet Bob Mackie gown from 1998 at the 2022 Time100 Gala. Inspecting a garment’s fabric is crucial to assessing whether it is safe to wear. Photograph: Cindy Ord/WireImage

Keene says: “Fine silks from the 19th century, going into the early 20th century are likely to split and shatter with age.

“Some of this is simply down to age, some of it is to do with the chemical treatment silk received in its finishing process that is now speeding up its erosion.”

Step four: can it be washed?

“Many vintage and antique clothes may not withstand modern washing,” Keene says. “Some garments may not be colour fast. Most garments would not be designed for machine washing at all.”

Given this, it might be tempting to take your vintage pieces to a dry cleaner, but according to Miller, you really shouldn’t. “Contemporary dry cleaning has solvents which can be ruinous to an antique garment,” she cautions. “Never take an antique garment to a dry cleaner.”

Essentially, this means some vintage pieces aren’t easy to clean, unless you are willing to pay a professional clothing or textile conservator, and even this is complicated. “Finding someone who understands vintage clothes to repair and clean is difficult,” Keene says.

“For very special garments, there are contract textile conservators in Australia, who largely work on museum-quality garments. They can do magic but be prepared to pay a significant amount of money for this specialist service.”


Lucianne Tonti

The GuardianTramp

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