Cleaning Vintage Corsets & Clothes

Hi all,

I found this text on an old no longer active messageboard and I thought it could be helpful for some here also. This is not about corset making but cleaning vintage/antique clothes which I though would be useful for vintage corsets also.

Heads Up: It also mentions lemon. I have also heard many many times use lemon on white fabric and put them in the sun to bleach. This was posted about the use of lemon and why you should not use it –

“for instance, lemon is acidic, which is an anathema to textiles, as acid breaks down the fibers. so no lemon!  you’d have better luck with soduim perborate or orvus paste. in general, do +not+ use modern detergents, as they are too harsh for older fabrics, and you risk the piece disintergrating.”

Cleaning Vintage Corsets & Clothes


So you’re faced with the eternal question that vintage collectors/lovers face: How do i clean my treasure?

Or your item is newer/modern, but there’s no guarantee that something terrible won’t happen at the drycleaners (it might be fine, but there’s a risk).

Drycleaning isn’t actually dry (in many cases) and the chemicals can be quite harsh, especially on silk, which is prone to shattering and splitting.

Does the gown need a light freshening, or does it need a complete cleaning? if it just needs an airing out to remove musty odors, i’d air it outside (under a roof so there’s no chance of bird droppings, which CAN happen).

If you contact a textile or fashion museum, the curator might be able to direct you to a dry cleaner that is sensitive to vintage items. ie. the cincinnati art museum, which has a good textile collection or the museum of science and industry in chicago.


Here’s what kent state has to say about cleaning vintage clothes (from its web site):

We have become so accustomed to frequent washing of clothing that, for many, the act itself has become automatic. Few understand the stress washing causes to fabrics and the damage that can follow. Garments with no or few visible stain should be left as they are and not be washed.

Wisdom recommends that if it is not broken one should not fix it. There are a few exceptions. For instance, a garment stored with moth balls should never be worn by a child without removal of the chemical residue. Paradichlorobenzene,
the active ingredient in moth crystals, has been known to be fatal when in contact with an infant’s skin. Thus, infant’s and children’s clothes need to be examined carefully to make sure they can be washed if they are intended to be worn.

In the case of museum corsets and period garments and all other garments that are being saved for posterity, cleaning often means irreversible damage. If the garments have a musty smell, simply air them inside the house away from direct sunlight. To remove dust, vaccum at low speed, holding the wand of the machine at an angle just above the textile. Protect the surface with a piece of nylon mesh or window screen. Bind the edges of the screen with tape to keep it from snagging the garment. If the garments have noticeable stains, the best thing to do is to consult a textile conservator. Horror stories abound about people who, unaware of the fugitive nature of certain dyes, attempted to wash printed cotton dresses in water and detergent and ruined them as a result. Dry cleaning also is dangerous for it applies considerable strain to the fabric and seams and can dissolve some fabrics and trims such as early cellulose-based sequins.

Keep steaming and ironing to a minimum or refrain from doing it altogether. Heat accelerates the deterioration of textiles. Ironing also applies physical pressure to the structure and thus is harmful to the item.

Inspect costume items and antique corsets for insects and mildew. If anything is discovered, isolate the items in a sealed container immediately. Examine nearby items for possible infestation. If mildew is found, consult a conservator for the best cleaning advise. If insects are found, remove them and examine the garment for other insects and their eggs.


Cleaning Antique Costumes, Clothes & Vintage Corsets

A new gown should be cleaned as soon as possible after it is worn. Vintage corsets should be kept for study only, if wearing a vintage corset on a single occasion it is probably best not to wash it unless absolutely needed. Soils and stains become more difficult to remove as they age. Choosing the best method of cleaning may be difficult if no fiber content label or care instructions are on the gown. The following suggestions may help you select the best method for your gown.

Washing with water and detergent:

If fabric, trims, interfacings and linings can be successfully wet cleaned (virtually no care labels on wedding gowns say “machine wash” so this is seldom an option). If a care label allows water and detergent on all parts of the gown, avoid using chlorine bleaches which may be retained in the fabric and continue to oxidize, causing the fibers to weaken over time.

Note: Corset fabric is usually cotton which is safe to wash but the steel bones in a vintage corset are not!


Commercial dry cleaning:
  • If care label allows dry cleaning – obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re corset making or have had a corset made for you.
  • If fabric is silk, acetate or rayon.
  • If trims should not be washed with water and detergent.
  • To best remove candle wax, greasy food stains, make-up or body oils.
  • Discuss and inspect the dress with the dry cleaner. He/she can identify problems that you may not have foreseen. For example, check to be sure trims are not glued on with adhesive that may be soluble in or softened by the dry cleaning solvent. If you know of any such problems, call this to the attention of the dry cleaner; otherwise, he/she may not be responsible for possible damage.
  • Be sure to identify areas of any known soils to the dry cleaner. They can apply the prespotting chemicals needed to remove the stains.


All dry cleaners are not the same. It is always better to use a reputable, trusted and tested individual. Some dry cleaners may clean pieces individually (not putting them in the tumbler). This is preferable because it reduces the tensions on the cloth and seams but it can also be extremely costly. Ask for recommendations of dry cleaners from bridal shops and friends. Visit the dry cleaner to talk about your specific needs before you give them the gown.

Specify that the dry cleaning solvent be clean before cleaning a white or off-white gown. Soils and oils from dirty solvent will dull a fabric initially and then discolor it further as they age and oxidize.

Observe and note every detail prior to dry cleaning. Arrange to check the gown / antique corset after it has been cleaned and pressed. Look at it in sufficient light to see that all stains and soils have been removed. Be sure the entire gown has been pressed. If wrinkles are unpressed, they will be more difficult to remove later.

Discuss packaging to make sure the gown or antique corset will not be encased in plastic and that any cardboard or plastic bodice-shaper is well covered with acid-free tissue paper. You may want to request that such a form be omitted entirely. Plastic bag covers will cause the fabric to yellow.

For the safety of the gown fabric, avoid treatments to kill fungi and bacteria.

These dry cleaning suggestions apply only to sturdy fabrics and trims like training corsets. Fragile gowns requiring extra care should be cleaned only after consulting with a conservator trained in cleaning fragile textiles. Many public museums have textile conservators on staff. These individuals might also refer you to conservators in your area who would be willing to clean your garments and repair them for a fee.


If You Do Go To A Dry Cleaner With Your Antique Corset:

If you go to a dry cleaner for a handmade corset, even one that is recommended by a textile museum, ask if it does the cleaning on-site or if it ships the garments out off site to be cleaned by a third party. Also ask about “french dry cleaning” which is less invasive (so i’ve heard, but i really know nothing about it). Also ask them to switch to a new batch of cleaner when they clean your garment, or it is likely that they’ll use cleaner from a previous batch of clothing. also ask that your garment be cleaning individually and be sure to identify items on the clothing (vegetable sequins, etc.) that might dissolve when they come in contact with the dry cleaning solution.


DO NOT USE OXI-CLEAN! oxi clean can/will destroy silk corsets.

Hope this is a good place for you to start. many dealers and collectors will be able to tell you that they often send items to the dry cleaners with no problem. but remember, the problems might not begin right away, but the “seed may be sown” so to speak. also remember that many dealers are not into conservation, but buying and selling, and their goal is to sell the item quickly and not think as much about preservation.

On the other hand, many dealers and collectors can tell you drycleaning horror stories. items that looked quite strong and were modern came back in tatters from the drycleaners.

I don’t mean to scare you, just to let you know what ‘can’ happen. I think your best bet is to connect with a textile museum about vintage corset cleaning.


Cleaning Your Corset & Oder Removal Sprays – A Discussion

“General cleaning of your handmade corset can be done by spraying your corset lightly with a product such as “Febreze”, and then hanging it by the laces over a chair railing, or a plastic hanger in front of a flat fan. Be careful to not spray specialty fabrics directly (such as velvet or silk brocades), but spray the inside lining of the corset. The less you dry clean your handmade corset, the longer it will last.
A corset liner is also a terrific way to keep your corset clean longer, and make it even more comfortable to wear.”


“As a corset maker I do not recommend the use of Febreze it will shortens the life of your corset they say, this I have also heard before from others. I do not know if this is correct or not I do not use it. I have handwashed my wasp creations corsets with success but only when it has been absolutely neccassary. When you remove your corset do not roll it up or stuff it away in a closet directly let it hang from the laces over a chair or outside. No direct sun on it and let it air out before you put it away. A corset you use as dailywear can hang like this over the night and it will feel much fresher for a longer time. And of course always protect your corset by wearing something under it.”


“I have heard that Febreze does weaken some fabrics, so I don’t use it on anything. I hand wash the corsets I make and I put them in a location where they will dry the quickest. With summer approaching I will set up a place in my storage shed as it will be warmer in there and this will dry them faster. I am almost afraid to wash my vollers corset as I know when I do the bones will rust (that is my fear). I do no worry about the corsets I make since I know my bones are covered to prevent rust.”


“To me Febreze smells very strange. It could give a rash to some people,aswell. I bring mine to the dry cleaners and never had any problems.”


“I agree as this is a chemical and many are allergic to these chemicals. Febreze on a long term also damages the bones :S “