How (and Where) to Shop for a Last-Minute Wedding Dress

Need to nail down your look ASAP? Here are your options.
chapelle johnson the knot assistant editor
Chapelle Johnson
chapelle johnson the knot assistant editor
Chapelle Johnson
Assistant Editor
  • Chapelle writes articles for The Knot Worldwide. She covers all things wedding-related and has a personal interest in covering celebrity engagements and fashion.
  • Before joining The Knot Worldwide, Chapelle was an editorial intern for Subvrt Magazine.
  • Chapelle has a degree in English writing from Loyola University New Orleans.
Updated Mar 04, 2022

The usual rule of thumb for wedding dress shopping is to start about a year before the wedding day, but let's be realistic, sometimes life doesn't allow that to happen. You might need a last-minute wedding dress because you're eloping or having a short engagement, you're dealing with alteration mishaps, or you changed your mind about a different gown you originally purchased. But don't worry! If you're working with a short timeline (for example, less than three months before the wedding), or if you need a dress in just a few days, the good news is that you still have options. Starting now, you can take a deep breath and feel confident about your purchase after reading these tips for how and where to find a last-minute wedding dress.

8 Tips to Keep in Mind When Buying a Last-Minute Wedding Dress

1. Be willing to compromise.

Finding a last-minute wedding dress is easy. The hard part is accepting that it might not be the dress you originally had in mind—but by keeping your options open, you could end up with a dream dress that's even better than you imagined. Since you have limited time to find your wedding dress, you will have to be flexible to different styles, designers and details, because not every dress will be available as a rush order or off-the-rack purchase (more on that in a minute). Instead of looking for a dress that already has everything you want, focus on the structural elements of the design, like the dress silhouette or the type of fabric. Then, you can customize it with easy alterations, such as adding straps or removing layers of an underskirt.

2. Set a budget.

Before you start shopping, look over your wedding budget and make sure you know how much you want to spend on your wedding dress. Having a set budget (and sticking to it) allows you to immediately rule out everything else, which is one way you can find your last-minute wedding dress faster. Knowing your budget will also help you make quick decisions when you find a dress you love, versus debating how much to spend and possibly missing out on a sample sale style or ready-to-ship dress, since discounted gowns can go pretty quickly. Finally, leave room in your budget to account for alterations, accessories or possible rush delivery fees to avoid overspending.

3. Know the difference between an off-the-rack and a sample wedding dress.

Browsing through off-the-rack and sample wedding dresses at your local bridal salon is a great option if you're looking for an inexpensive dress or are on a tight schedule. An off-the-rack wedding dress is made especially to be purchased as-is and taken out of the store the same day–unlike made-to-order wedding dresses that take four to twelve months to arrive and are customized to your measurements. Off-the-rack dresses can sometimes include sample dresses, which are gowns that have been previously tried on by other brides to get their dress made based on the sample.

Since sample dresses can vary greatly in quality, check for signs of wear and tear like missing beads, broken zippers or snags. If there's any damage to the dress, it's up to you to get it fixed. So before committing to a sample dress, decide if getting the damage mended by a professional seamstress or dry cleaner is worth it. Usually, stains or tears on sample dresses are found in these areas: the train, the hem, the zipper, the neckline, under the armpit and the side seams. Note: Off-the-rack and sample dresses typically come in limited bridal sizes, which are different from ready-to-wear sizes, so finding plus-size or extended options could be more challenging. Depending on your timeframe and the type of dress you purchase, you can work with a seamstress to add or remove panels at the waist, alter the hem and make other adjustments for a perfect fit.

4. Bring the right undergarments and shoes to fittings.

Wear nude-colored (and seamless) underwear while trying on wedding dresses and during your big day–now you don't have to worry about anything underneath distracting from the dress. Also, use different types of lighting to make sure your underwear isn't visible. Bring the exact shoes or ones similar to the style you think you will wear on your wedding day to get an idea of the height or color you would like to go with your chosen dress. Note: Salons often have heels in store, but they might not be your size or the correct height for the dress you want.

5. Don't forget to include time for alterations.

When you're searching for a last-minute wedding dress, try not to buy one less than a month away, especially if you're anticipating the need for alterations. Even if you're able to find a seamstress who can do the rush alterations, it could still take two to three weeks, so we recommend at least a month in advance to allow enough time to complete your gown, no matter how minor the changes may be. Since you may be buying off-the-rack, secondhand or online, you're more likely to need design or tailoring adjustments to create your perfect wedding dress.

6. Ask if the dress can be rushed.

If you're shopping locally, you may have found your dream dress but missed the store's recommended purchase window. In that case, the store will confirm with the designer if they're able to rush order the dress—but keep in mind that this isn't always available for every style. If they can complete the rush order, there will be an additional fee, but it's worth it if you've found a dress you love and you have room in your budget.

7. Buy everything in one place.

Most wedding dress shops also sell shoes, sashes, veils and other necessities, and they love for their customers to buy all their wedding essentials through them. This is also a great way to find accessories that were specifically made to match your wedding dress. To save yourself time and money, ask your local bridal salon if they can bundle your wedding dress, veil and accessories to score a possible discount.

8. Customize your dress with accessories.

If you're looking for a last-minute wedding dress, it might be hard to find a glamorous dress adorned with beads or sequins, especially since those types of sample gowns are easily damaged and often time-consuming to alter. As a workaround, you can buy a simple bridal gown and add accessories like a rhinestone-studded hair piece, a sparkly belt or a stylish cover-up to personalize your final look. Get creative and make a once basic wedding dress into something stunning!

Where to Buy a Last-Minute Wedding Dress

Try your local salon.

A bridal salon is where we recommend starting if you need a wedding dress ASAP because they have the biggest inventory of dresses to choose from—not to mention professional stylists on-site who can help you. Even better: You can see potential gowns in person before you buy. Make calls to a couple of salons and ask if they sell sample or off-the-rack dresses, if they work with designers who do rush orders, or how quickly a dress can be ordered and picked up. If you're lucky, a bridal salon could be your first and only stop.

Shop using legitimate online retailers.

If you can't shop in person, shopping online for a last-minute wedding dress is an easy option as long as you take the time to do your research. It doesn't matter if you're short on time—make sure the sites are trusted wedding dress retailers and read plenty of reviews. You don't want to mistakenly buy a counterfeit or low-quality wedding dress with no time to spare. Need some ideas? Check out these elopement looks for a list of retailers with fast and ready-to-ship options so you can get your wedding dress as quickly as possible.

Consider renting your wedding dress.

If you would rather save money or put money toward other aspects of your wedding, renting your wedding dress is the perfect choice for you. Based on what rental company and dress you choose, you can save thousands of dollars on a wedding dress.

When renting a dress, there are two important things to remember. First, since you're renting a dress, keep in mind that you can't alter it like you can with other last-minute alternatives. Look over choices closely before ordering to determine the style you like. Usually, rental companies allow you to order a couple of different sizes so you can figure out what fits best–always call to confirm this with the company. Second, account for extra fees tagged onto dress rentals, which include shipping, insurance (for minor damage) and rental return late fees. If you don't want to worry about accidentally spilling wine on your dress at the reception or rushing to return the dress before your honeymoon, consider finding another affordable way to purchase your dress.

Try shopping secondhand.

Lots of engaged couples are embracing the eco-friendly wedding mindset, so why not shop sustainably for your wedding dress too? It's not a difficult task to find secondhand options, since numerous brides resell their gently worn or unworn wedding dresses online. With all online shopping, make sure the seller or website is reputable, and familiarize yourself with the fine print to avoid tricky return policies, surprise fees or scams. If you would like to shop in-store, you can find secondhand wedding dresses at vintage shops, consignment stores or wedding boutiques that sell preloved gowns.

Don't forget to check department stores.

Some department stores, including Nordstrom, Dillards and Saks Fifth Avenue, carry a limited number of bridal styles, making them another excellent off-the-rack option. By shopping at a department store, you have the option of buying an off-the-rack style, but you don't have to stick to a traditional wedding dress either. Consider a white evening gown or another type of dress to do the job. Department stores can also act as a one-stop shop for your wedding dress needs, since they often have tailors in-house to help make minor alterations.

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