Re-Printed from “Die Nationale Volksarmee –
Journal for the Society of East German Militaria Collectors, # 5, Fall 1994
CARING FOR YOUR UNIFORM COLLECTION
By Lou Brown
This article is in response to a request by Lee Stewart to produce some tips on the care of "antique uniforms” As I (the Author) began to write, it occurred to me that, for the most part, we're not really dealing with "antiques"—indeed, most of the uniforms I wear daily are significantly older than the majority of my NVA collection. Nevertheless, a certain amount of common sense care and caution will keep your collection in good shape and preserve NVA items well into the phase where they legitimately become "antique uniforms." What follows are some tips I've learned after over 30 years of military collecting, none of them are sacrosanct, but in generally following them, you'll avoid unnecessary wear and risk of damage.
If you want your uniforms to last indefinitely, store them as museums do in flat drawers in a climate-controlled environment, touching them only while wearing sanitary white gloves. In my view, such a collection, even if I could afford it, wouldn't be much fun; indeed, part of the fun of having a collection is "working with it" (a mature euphemism for "playing"). Like good clothes, most folks will store their collection in a closet, which is just fine. The most important consideration is choosing a closet that is relatively dry—you don't want your uniforms stored in moist conditions which promote the growth of mold or mildew. Hang jackets on shaped wooden or plastic hangars; simple wire hangars will leave indentations in the shoulders which will eventually cause the garment to become misshapen in addition to the risk of the hangar rusting and damaging the lining. Trousers are best hung on trouser hangars, which will keep them in the best shape, but will eat up a lot of room. If you don't want to use the extra space, you can hang the trousers over the bar of the coat hangar, but be sure they are absolutely wrinkle free or you will have a mess on your hands when you go back to check them a few months later Items like field uniforms, coveralls, shirts and other garments made of HBT (herringbone twill) or other blends like "polyester cotton" can be neatly folded and stored flat in drawers or on shelves; it won't hurt them, and it saves closet space. I recommend keeping the doors to closets open (unless by doing so you expose the closet to direct sunlight—not a good idea) so your collection can "breathe," and don't over-stuff a closet; you need some space between individual items.
Some folks automatically send new items in their collections to the dry cleaners as soon as they acquire them. This is generally not a great idea, nor is it really necessary. Most items are clean enough. Dry cleaning is generally harmless, but why risk losing or damaging the item unless it is truly dirty enough to warrant cleaning? (The corollary to this is, given the availability of NVA items, you can afford to be choosy; unless it is something really special, don't buy nasty items which require dry cleaning as the price of ownership. A special note here concerns uniforms which came from troops who— to put it politely—needed some additional instruction in personal hygiene. Generally, if a uniform has body odor, it won't go away no matter how many times you dry clean it, and, when you put it with the rest of your collection, the odor will "migrate" to other items. Again, unless it's unique, it's likely not worth it.) Additionally, I've met collectors who store their uniforms in plastic bags; this is a really bad idea. Plastic traps moisture and promotes lots of nasty stuff like mold, mildew, and rust on metal hangar parts over the long haul— these are things you don't want near your uniforms. Additionally, storing your uniforms "set up" with awards is asking for trouble. Most of the NVA's badges have brass or copper alloy pins, prongs, and screw backs—great breeding grounds for verdigris. In the mildest case, you'll get a nasty green stain on the uniform, in the advanced stage, the uniform and the badge will be destroyed since the verdegris will "eat" both the cloth and the metal.
The key to maintaining your collection is common sense and attention to detail. Generally, if you treat your uniforms as you do your "Sunday best" clothes, you will be able to maintain them as well as enjoy them for a long time to come as you transition them into true "military antiques."