Military uniforms and medals of our servicemen and women deserve respect. Preservation can be done at home or by a professional restorer. If you have vintage uniforms, especially those that have already suffered lots of wear and tear, advice from a consultant is always a good first step. Local history and art museums will be able to help or recommend experts.
Preserving uniforms at home for future generations can be done with just a bit of care. The key is to protect the fabric from the elements, especially light and moisture. With proper handling, the uniforms and medals should last for generations.
If you choose not to keep the uniforms, contact local museums or theater companies who may be delighted to accept them as a donation.
What You'll Need
- Archival storage boxes
- Archival tissue paper
- Cotton gloves (optional)
Select the Best Storage Materials
As much as possible, military uniforms should be stored flat in an appropriately-sized container. Garments that are left hanging can become misshapen from the stress on seams. The best choice for flat storage are boxes sold for archival storage. These are made of acid-free paper and are perfectly safe for fabric storage. Buy the largest size you can because the fewer folds in the uniform, the longer it will last.
However, if you cannot find the storage boxes or if you are concerned about the box getting crushed, purchase a plastic storage box. The box must be made of cast polypropylene to be safe for your fabric keepsakes. Look for the #5 within the recycling triangle or the letters "PP" to be sure that you have the correct type of box. Other types of plastic can cause yellowing. Never store a uniform in the plastic bag furnished by a dry cleaner.
You will also need to purchase archival tissue paper. It must be both acid and lignin—a chemical compound derived from wood—free. You will need the tissue to soften folds, wrap individual pieces, and stuff hats so they will not be crushed.
How to Store a Military Uniform
Begin With a Clean Uniform
The first step is to be sure that the uniform and support pieces are as clean as possible. Wool dress uniforms should be professionally dry cleaned to remove stains. Modern utility uniforms can be professionally cleaned or washed at home. All metal and leather elements should be thoroughly cleaned and dried completely to their best state before you begin. Be sure every piece is completely dry before storing it. Moisture can cause mildew and deterioration of fabric.
Wash Your Hands
Before you begin, wash and dry your hands—no lotion or creams should be used that can stain clothing. For best results, wear clean white cotton gloves.
Remove Buttons and Metal Embellishments
Any metal items (buttons, medals, medal bars) should be removed from garments and stored separately. The metal could rust or corrode and cause staining to fabrics. Wool fabric contains sulfur which attacks the metal.
Preserve Key Shapes and Prevent Creases
Begin by lightly stuffing hats and uniform coat shoulders with the acid-free tissue paper to help them hold their shape. Then, lay the garment onto a layer of tissue. Place a layer of tissue between each garment within the box. Wrap each small item with tissue paper. Be sure that there is tissue cushioning each fold. This will prevent heavy creasing. Finally, place the item in the storage box. Repeat steps with each item.
Do not overstuff the storage box. You may want to store heavier items in smaller individual boxes.
Clean and Preserve Medals
Service medals should be cleaned with a dry, soft brush. Never wrap together with rubber bands which can react with the metal and cause stains that are impossible to remove. It is especially important to handle the medals with care. The acid in human perspiration can cause oxidation of the metal. Each medal should be wrapped separately in the acid-free tissue or stored in its original presentation case.
Select a Storage Location
Choose a dark, cool, dry space for storage. Avoid extreme temperatures areas like attics, basements, and garages. The ideal spot is an interior space away from exterior walls and pipes that might burst and off the floor away from pets.
Do an Annual Inspection
Inspect the military treasures at least once per year. Look for any stains that may appear and treat them promptly. You'll have better success the sooner the stains are caught. With clean hands, fold items slightly differently with the tissue to minimize creases and stress to the fabric.