UPDATE DECEMBER 2012: Unfortunately, we have made the difficult decision to stop dry cleaning our garments. We now use in-house cleaning methods for most items sold at Couture Allure. Please read this important update to our dry cleaning policy.
I was speaking with a fellow vintage dealer recently and she asked me, "Why do you dry clean everything before you sell it?". My unspoken response was, "Why don't you?"
In the interest of full disclosure, back when I sold on eBay, I didn't dry clean vintage garments before selling them. But knowing what I do now, I wish I had. When I started my website, I began sending just about everything to my dry cleaner before selling. I am lucky enough to have a professional cleaner who knows how to work with vintage, and who takes great care with the garments I entrust to him. Even so, it amazes me how much hidden damage dry cleaning will bring to light, which is why I think you should only spend your hard earned dollars on a garment that has already been cleaned before you purchase it. Personally, I feel that if there is going to be a problem that gets exposed with dry cleaning, I want it to be my problem, not yours.
This 1950s silk dress is a great example. Early deodorants were not as effective as today's products, and antiperspirants did not come into common use until the 1960s. As a result, unless the original owner used dress shields or had her garment dry cleaned before storing, the fabric at the underarms of a vintage garment is sometimes fragile. The silk of this dress looked fine when I gave it to the dry cleaner, but it didn't stand up to gentle cleaning and came back looking like this. Damage from fabric that is weakened at the shoulders will also show up during dry cleaning.
Be wary of a wool garment that hasn't been cleaned. When moths chew on wool, they leave behind a residue that will often hold the fabric together until it is cleaned away. This dress had one tiny moth nip at the shoulder when I sent it off to be cleaned. It came back with a lot more holes, including this cluster at the front waist that was invisible when I purchased the dress.
This 1960s cotton dress was vivid black and white when I sent it to the cleaners. Unfortunately, the fabric was not colorfast and the black faded to gray with lots of white specks when cleaned.
None of these issues was readily apparent before the garments were cleaned. And can you imagine how disappointed you, as a customer, would be if your dress had come back from your dry cleaner damaged like that, before you even had a chance to wear it?
Dry cleaning will expose weakened thread, which means the seams will need to be resewn. There are some odors, from moth balls, cedar closets, or cigarette smoke, that are so deeply embedded into the fibers, dry cleaning will not help. These odors may need an ozone treatment before a garment is suitable to sell. And if you have allergies, you should be wary of an uncleaned garment which harbors decades of dust, as well as other nasty stuff you don't want to know about.
Many sellers claim that they have "dry cleaned" a garment at home before selling it to you. This probably means they have sprayed the garment with Febreze, which just puts a layer of scent on top of the dirt, or they have put the garment through a Dryel cycle in their clothes dryer, which has just baked the years of dust and dirt into the fabric. Neither of these methods brings you a clean garment. Learn to read between the lines before buying. And don't trust that old standby, "Has spots that will come out with cleaning." Really? I can tell you with certainty that yellowed underarm stains, lipstick smears, and scattered brown spots called "foxing" will not come out of fine fabrics that need to be dry cleaned. Also be wary of a seller who claims they wash everything before selling. Hand or machine washing will ruin fabrics like taffeta, satin, and rayon crepe that must be professionally cleaned.
If you're shopping at a vintage website, and the seller does not state that their garments have been dry cleaned before being offered for sale, email the site owner and ask if that dress you love has been cleaned, and if so, how. If the site owner tells you it has not, consider whether you want to take a chance. And ask if the site owner will stand behind their product if the garment comes back from your dry cleaner damaged.
Think about it. Why would anyone spend $300 on a dress that still has traces of someone else's white deodorant at the underarms? Ewwwwwww.