Surprise -- your grandmother's wedding dress came out of the box with fuzzy mold all down the back, and that vintage gown you scored at an estate sale showed powdery freckles along the inside hem when you went to put it on. Chalk this one up to poor storage planning, as weak ventilation and a humid environment will make mold and mildew grow on just about anything, and get down to undoing the sartorial mistakes of the past in time for your own show-stopping walk down the aisle.
Step 1: Gear Up
Protect yourself from mold-related illnesses by wearing safety goggles, a particle filtration mask and gloves. Leave all windows in the workroom open and all doors closed to prevent mold from entering the rest of the home.
Step 2: Dry Out the Mold
If the dress is still damp, carefully remove it from any wrappings and spread it out on a clean, dry and absorbent surface, such as a table or ironing board covered with white towels. Let it air-dry completely.
Step 3: Loosen Stains
Dust over mold and mildew spots with a small, soft brush such as a paintbrush, once the dress has dried, to loosen the debris. If the fabric tears or disintegrates with even light brushing, do not continue -- it may be too fragile to clean yourself.
Step 4: Dust Off Debris
Run a handheld attachment on a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter over the mold spots to remove the debris completely.
For delicate fabrics such as silk, vacuum through a piece of fiberglass-coated window screening to prevent damage.
Step 5: Spot Cleaning
Check the fabric content of the dress to see if it is washable. If the dress is dry-clean only, do not spot treat it. Also check the age of the dress before deciding whether to clean it -- a vintage dress from the '80s will stand up to spot treatments much better than one from the '30s, for example, especially if the fabric is already in poor condition.
For a cotton, linen or polyester wedding dress: Leave a paste of lemon juice and salt on each mold or mildew spot for 15 to 30 minutes, and then rinse the spot with water.
For a washable silk or wool dress: Drip a 1:1 mixture of white vinegar and water on each mold spot with an eyedropper and leave it for 10 minutes. Rinse the spot with water.
For non-washable silk or wool such as silk taffeta or any silk that rustles or feels crisp: Do not attempt to spot clean, because you will remove the fabric sizing, create a water spot and possibly cause dyes on nonwhite wedding gowns to run. Consult a professional textile cleaner for assessment.
For rayon, crepe or acetate: Do not spot clean, because the fabric might shred or wilt in water. Dry clean instead.
For a lace dress: Consult a professional. Lace can shrink or wilt in water.
Step 6: Professional Time
If any mold color remains after aggressive spot cleaning, take your dress to a dry cleaner that is experienced in both dry and wet cleaning of vintage garments and uses virgin or unrecycled solvent.
Experienced cleaners may treat dresses with perchloroethylene if it has no beading, or Stoddard solvent, Greenearth or Exxon DF-2000 if it does have beading. Wet cleaning is typically for polyester dresses with no beading.
Step 7: Eliminate Odor
Set the dress outdoors in the sunlight for a few hours if there is still a noticeable mildew smell.
Wash any clothes you wore while cleaning the dress, using hot water, to get rid of any mold you might have picked up.