photo of Sally Conant

Something old, new

When Sally Conant received her PhD in 1987, wedding gowns were the furthest thing from her mind. Now, gowns line the walls and occupy most of the floor space in her garage, living room, furnace room, TV room, back bedroom and even bathrooms. Conant's other "office," an 800-square foot mezzanine above the laundromat and dry-cleaning business she owns with her husband, is similarly packed with wedding gowns.

Conant operates and oversees Orange Restoration Labs, the largest processor of wedding gowns in New England. Based in Orange CT, it cleans, presses, preserves and restores gowns. And despite the legions of gowns that surround her, Conant treats each one individually. That's why she keeps part of the business in her home, greeting clients in the living room.

As it turns out, the gown restoration business is not a far cry from Conant's academic specialty, art history, and her earlier work at the Lehigh Valley Art Museum and various museums in Connecticut. "Many principles of conservation cross over," she explains. "Wedding gowns are works of art in their own way, and you need to treat them the same way you would treat an object in a museum." That means storing a wedding gown in an acid-free box, stuffing any bows and folds with nondyed tissue paper, and hand-treating latent stains from sugar, which don't dissolve during ordinary dry cleaning and caramelize over time, leaving brown spots. Conant also restores vintage gowns-about one for every 30 new gowns she preserves-and heirloom fabrics such as veils, baby clothes and table linens. Her oldest commission dated from the 1830s.

Taught to be frugal by her mother who grew up during the Depression on a Nebraska farm, Conant made her own clothes as a high schooler and as a Wellesley undergrad in the late '50s. But despite her talent as a seamstress she never dreamed of making it big in the fashion industry; she instead dreamed of curating at art museums. After more than 15 years volunteering in museums she returned to school, earning a master's in art history in '82, then the PhD. "Coming to Bryn Mawr as an adult," she says, "I was so happy to be back in class in a place that celebrates the joy of learning. I gained so much at Bryn Mawr, received so much training. I just wish I could have given back more in terms of academic achievements that benefit the community." During a divorce, Conant relocated to Connecticut to take an NEA internship at Yale University Art Gallery, and eventually became a cataloguer in Yale's art history department. Then, during the recession of the early '90s and within the same week, she and her second husband Rogers, a banker, both lost their jobs. The pair purchased a local dry-cleaning business. "At 50, we both decided to try a career outside our chosen fields," says Conant. "We realized immediately that it was a whole lot more profitable to clean wedding gowns than it was to clean sweaters and pants. In fact, we even figured we would have had to clean about 400 shirts to make the same profit we could make on one wedding gown."

So, leaving Rogers to supervise the laundry and dry-cleaning business, Conant founded Orange Restoration Labs, where she now alternates as administrator and "hands-on operations person. I have so many different hats to wear all day long. I go from ironing a dress that's 50 years old to creating a website to reassuring a nervous bride that nothing bad will happen if she leaves her dress with us." For the most part, delegating responsibilities comes naturally: Rogers's banking background informs the business decisions, and Sally enjoys being in charge of marketing, particularly to other women. Problems arise, of course, over how to spend money. "Sometimes," she says, "it's hard to isolate work conflicts from the personal relationship. On the positive side, it's also hard to pout and refuse to talk to your spouse when the business demands an immediate decision that can only be made together. It's the ultimate economic rationale for you to kiss and make up."

Conant has plenty of wedding gown horror stories. "I got an early morning call one Saturday from the father of the bride. The family cat urinated on the gown. From the father's description I was pretty sure the gown was made from an artificial fiber. I told him to wash the cat deposit off with water, and I didn't hear from him again so it must have worked." Another emergency fix-it job concerned a dress that was nearly ruined when a leaky roof dripped tar and wood residue on the front of the gown the day before the wedding. "I stayed up all night to make the dress presentable."

Conant says her true ambition is to find her way back into a museum some day. But for now she is content cleaning and preserving gowns. "I like helping people solve problems. It's so much fun making it happen for the little girl who played dress-up in mom's or grandma's gown and always knew she would wear it for her own wedding."

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