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You Can Use Vodka to Clean Your Bedazzled Costumes

This is the most glamorous cleaning advice you’ll ever read.

Photo: Wakaba Higuchi/Getty Images

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!

As an adult figure skater, I am forever mystified about how to clean my competition costumes. I guess I could take them to Madame Paulette, but surely there are ways to clean delicate fabrics that are beaded and rhinestoned within an inch of their lives at home?

I have heard through the grapevine that theatrical costumers swear by spraying vodka on these items to keep them disinfected. This advice seems questionable, to say the least. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you! —Maria

There are for sure ways to clean those costumes at home, and they're not even that complicated at all. Before we get into all of that good stuff, let's talk about that vodka trick you heard about, because it is indeed the real deal!

The idea behind using vodka — or white vinegar, or isopropyl alcohol — to spritz the smells out of a skating costume is that the alcohol content (or, in the case of white vinegar, the acidic pH level) will nuke odor-causing bacteria. This is true, and it will work, but it shouldn't be the end point of your laundering endeavors. For one, because the vodka itself should eventually be washed away, and also because it's only a stopgap measure; the vodka may temporarily kill the bacteria hanging around in your skating costume, but the dead skin, natural oils, and sweat your body leaves on your togs will still build up and will need to be properly washed away at some point. Think of the vodka spritz as the dry shampoo of the laundry world: It'll buy you some extra time between washings, but it won't entirely take the place of washing.

The reason why the vodka trick is popular among costume designers specifically is that washing will shorten the lifespan of clothing. When dealing with period pieces or specialty garments like skating costumes with elaborate embellishments, decreasing the amount of agitation to which beading and sequins are exposed is crucial to ensuring that they remain in good condition. Oftentimes, in the case of costumes, a wardrobe supervisor will not allow any laundering at all to take place during the days, weeks, or months (months!) in which the costume needs to be worn, lest it become damaged. That's a lot of bacterial buildup, hence the use of the vodka trick to keep smells at bay.

But at some point a washing should take place, and it's actually best to do the job at home, by hand. The issue with dry cleaning or machine washing is that both methods involve putting these delicate garments into a metal drum that spins, creating agitation that, in concert with the metal, can damage beads and sequins. Some people do opt to launder skating outfits in their washing machine, so if you'd like to go that route, take a page from Figure Skating Advice's book and be sure to use a slow spin cycle.

However, I would not recommend machine washing at all. Why risk it? Hand washing is pretty easy, and during periods when you don't have time to wash and air dry a costume, you can always fall back on the old vodka trick.

While you can certainly perform a standard hand-washing operation, one issue with skating costumes and other beaded, sequined, or bejeweled garments is that their drying time can be quite long. Given that, saturating these outfits by submerging them in water and detergent may not be ideal if you need the outfit to be completely dry by the next day. If it's the case that you have, say, less than 12 hours in which to wash and dry an embellished item of clothing, try this method:

Create a solution by diluting a tablespoon of mild detergent in four cups of lukewarm water. Dip a soft, light-colored rag (an old washcloth is perfect for this job) into the solution and gently swab at the beading. Turn the garment inside out and gently scrub at the interior, paying special attention to the underarms, neck, wrists, and hem, where grime tends to accumulate. As you dip the rag into the detergent solution, wring it out quite well so that it's only damp and not dripping. Next, dump the detergent solution, rinse the rag very well, and go over the interior and exterior several times, rinsing the rag as you go, to wipe away the detergent residue.

When you finish, your beaded outfit will be damp from the cleaning but not soaked through, which means that it will air dry much faster than an item that's been fully submerged in water. If your outfit has sturdy shoulders or straps, it can be hung to air dry, while more delicate costumes should be laid flat on a towel to dry.

While this question, and the resulting answer, was specifically about skating costumes, the advice applies to many other beaded or embellished garments. I don't know if people are still wearing those bejeweled J.Crew cardigans, but they were the first mass-produced item I thought of when this question came along for which these tips might come in handy.