By Leah Binkovitz
Polly Nemec has seen some pretty nasty stuff, the sort of thing you see in the opening scene of a Law & Order episode: a single once-white wedding dress covered in sand and dirt, wrapped in a plastic trash bag and still damp from being in the river weeks earlier. But instead of Ice T coming to the rescue, it’s Nemec, a certified wedding gown specialist.
“A girl brought in a gorgeous dress,” Nemec said of the trash bag tragedy turned cleaning triumph. “Very satiny, long sleeves, long flowing skirt, but it was just a mess.” Nemec said the bride had used her grandmother’s dress for a trash the dress photo session after her wedding. “She pulled it out of her trunk in a garbage bag and it was soaking wet. The buttons were all rusted down the back of it,” said Nemec. It even had magic marker all over it.
The bride, who had forgotten stashing the dress in the back of her car while it sat there for weeks in the summer, had also failed to tell her grandmother. She told Nemec, “I don’t want my grandma to know I did this.”
Nemec, owner of Treasured Garment Restoration in Stillwater, knew it was bad, but since opening the store in 2008, she’s had plenty of experience. Nemec specializes in both preservation and restoration. She’s worked on dresses from the 1800s and said the older the dress, the more likely it is that it’s made from an entirely organic fabric, making the gown much more delicate.
Unlike regular dry cleaners, Nemec has a variety of ways to clean gowns depending on their material and level of damage. For newer fabrics, more able to stand up to gentle machine handling, they use a process called wet cleaning that times the infusion of detergents and softeners to avoid distorting the fabric.
The key to preserving a gown, said Nemec, is acid-free everything, from the paper to the box. Many services simply use PH-neutral and not acid-free, but the results will not be the same. Nemec said you can tell the difference by checking the corrugated insides of the box–if it’s brown, that’s PH-neutral and if it’s white, that’s acid-free.
Nemec said most of her business is in preserving new gowns but a growing percentage involves restoration. “Many people have just been shocked that it can look so good, they think, ‘Oh, it’s old. It’s hopeless.’” But Nemec said, even with the amazing results, because fashion changes so much, many brides still go with a new dress, choosing to incorporate pieces of a family gown into the new design.
When Nemec finally cleaned up the trash the dress gown, she said the bride cried when she saw the beautiful, restored gown. Nemec said, “She said, ‘I should’ve worn this dress for my wedding!’” Nemec was able to clean the fabric up but had to replace the rusted buttons. The dresses from the 40s and 50s tend to use an acetate fabric that gives the gown a satiny sheen and makes it easier to clean than completely organic materials like silks and cottons.
So go ahead, trash that dress. No one has to know.