Here's Your Complete Wedding Dress Shopping Timeline, From Start to Finish

Use this guide to meet every important deadline.
Samantha Iacia - The Knot wedding style expert
Samantha Iacia
  • Samantha writes articles for The Knot Worldwide, with a speciality in wedding decor, trends, and fashion
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Samantha was a features and weddings contributor for The Baltimore Sun
  • She is based in Washington, D.C. and holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism
Updated Apr 12, 2022
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Can't stop imagining yourself in a gorgeous wedding dress? We don't blame you. Wedding dress shopping is one of the most exciting things you can look forward to after getting engaged, but it's not uncommon for to-be-weds to feel a little overwhelmed by the process. Knowing when to buy your wedding dress is the first step—and we're here to help you get started.

Once you've researched bridal salons, bookmarked your favorite wedding dress trends and have tried on a few gowns, keep in mind that the process doesn't end there. Our wedding dress timeline highlights all of the important fashion-related benchmarks to note while you're wedding planning. From the start of your engagement to the big day and beyond, here's everything you need to know about budgeting and shopping for your gown, including exactly when you should buy your wedding dress to ensure that it arrives on time.

In this article:

Wedding Dress Timing FAQs

When should you buy your wedding dress?

Exactly when to go wedding dress shopping depends on the length of your engagement and how quickly you're getting married, but ideally, you should start trying on dresses about one year before your wedding date. If you don't find your dream wedding dress during your first shopping appointment, don't panic—it's completely normal to take a few weeks (or even months) to find your gown. According to The Knot Real Weddings Study, the average engagement length is 14 months, but you don't want to wait until the last minute to start shopping. If you're on a similar timeline, we recommend purchasing your wedding dress between eight and 10 months before the wedding. This leaves enough time for your wedding dress to be made to your measurements (more on this in a minute), shipped to your bridal salon and sent to the tailor for alterations.

If your engagement is less than a year long, you should start shopping for a wedding dress as soon as possible, especially if you'd like to customize your gown in any way. The process of buying a wedding dress traditionally takes several months, so you may be working with limited options or rush order fees depending on how soon you're headed to the altar. Need a last-minute wedding dress? Sample sale gowns and off-the-rack styles from a local bridal boutique are great options, along with ready-to-wear elopement looks and wedding dress rentals.

How early is too early for wedding dress shopping?

In most cases, the sooner you start looking for a wedding dress, the better. That being said, there are a few key wedding details you'll need to finalize before you decide to buy your wedding dress. We recommend going shopping once you've chosen your wedding date and have booked a venue. These two details will influence the type of dress you should look for (including seasonality, style and level of formality), along with how much you can actually spend on your dress based on the rest of your wedding budget. If you start shopping for your wedding dress before you've finalized a date or venue, you run the risk of purchasing a design that doesn't ultimately reflect the aesthetic of your special day.

Are wedding dresses made to order?

The short answer: Yes, most wedding dresses are made to order. This is especially true if you purchase your gown from a professional bridal shop, where the process includes working with a stylist to try on sample dresses. Once you've found a dress you love, the stylist takes your measurements and shares them with the designer, who then creates a brand-new dress for you. The entire process can take up to six months, which is why it's important to get the ball rolling shortly after your engagement.

If you purchase an off-the-rack wedding dress, it won't be made to order, but the upside is that you can save time (and potentially money) by taking the dress home with you the same day instead of waiting months for it to be ready. In this situation, you might still need to have the dress professionally altered by a seamstress. Set aside a portion of your budget and leave a couple of weeks for alterations in your timeline just in case.

The Essential Wedding Dress Timeline

12+ Months Before Your Wedding

Set your wedding dress budget.

After setting your main wedding budget, decide how much of that will be spent on your dress. Our data shows that wedding attire typically accounts for 6% of the overall budget, and in 2021, the average cost of a wedding dress was $1,800. In addition to the cost of the dress, we recommend budgeting for taxes, alterations and shipping (or rush fees, in certain cases). Finally, don't forget to set aside part of of your budget for accessories, like your wedding shoes, veil and jewelry.

Research wedding dress styles.

Before you start wedding dress shopping, it's a good idea to figure out what you like (or what you want to completely avoid). And while you don't need to become a wedding dress expert overnight, knowing a few basics can help you describe your ideal dress when it's time to shop. Brush up on fundamentals like wedding dress necklines, popular fabrics and dress silhouettes ahead of time so you can easily share your ideal look with a stylist.

Taking your wedding venue into consideration can also be super-helpful when narrowing down your dress options. If you're having a beach wedding, you'll probably want a comfortable, unfussy gown. Getting married at an upscale hotel or grand estate? A formal ball gown could be your dress.

You can also think about the types of dress silhouettes you like to wear in your everyday life—are you more of a flowy skirt person or into curve-hugging bodycon styles? Pull inspiration from your daily closet and use that as a starting point when you buy your wedding dress.

Lastly, it's important to keep an open mind. Doing your research can help narrow down your options at the start, but an experienced bridal consultant can also help you find the right dress for your budget, body type and personal style. The wedding dress you end up buying might even surprise you.

Book your first wedding dress shopping appointment.

Once you've spent time familiarizing yourself with various wedding dress styles, it's time to find a bridal salon that speaks to your personal taste and offers gowns in your price range. Read reviews for boutiques in your area, then browse their website or social media accounts to get an idea of the types of dresses and wedding dress designers they carry in their store.

Make appointments at a few shops (we recommend sticking to just one or two locations in the beginning so you don't overwhelm yourself), and start prepping for your first time trying on wedding dresses. If you know you want to try a dress from a specific designer, see if they're having a trunk show (a traveling show of their entire collection) at a salon near you.

Finalize your wedding dress shopping crew.

After you make your appointment(s), it's time to decide who will be with you while you're trying on dresses. Bring a small entourage of close friends and loved ones, like your mom, sister, maid of honor or bridesmaids. We recommend limiting your group to three or four people max—too many opinions can make your dress shopping experience unnecessarily confusing, and the salon may have limits on the number of people allowed.

8–10 Months Before Your Wedding

Buy your wedding dress.

You're about eight months out from the big day—consider this the sweet spot for when to buy your wedding dress. Now's the time to make a final decision and place the order. You'll know that your wedding dress is "the one" when you don't want to take it off. When you purchase your gown, you'll be asked to sign a contract and put down a deposit. The deposit will vary by retailer, but it's usually about 50% of the price of the dress.

Before you sign the contract, take a final opportunity to ask questions and make sure all the information is correct. Ask the salon when they expect your gown to arrive (on average, it's 16 to 20 weeks from the day you place your order), and confirm that they'll call you when it comes in or if any issues arise.

5–6 Months Before Your Wedding

Shop for wedding dress undergarments.

You can start shopping for wedding undergarments, bridal shapewear and other essentials once you've purchased your dress. (Don't put this step off—you'll want to have everything on hand for your first alterations fitting.) Whether you're planning to wear a strapless bra, need to invest in nude undies or want to try a new version of shapewear, having the proper undergarments on hand can make all the difference in how your dress looks and feels on the wedding day.

Choose your wedding accessories.

Ahead of your alterations, it's also time to finalize the accessories you're planning to wear (if any) on your wedding day, such as a veil, jewelry and shoes. We recommend finalizing your accessories in time to bring them to your first fitting, especially your shoes. The seamstress will need to know how to adjust the hem of your gown based on the height of your heels, or take the hem up even more if you're planning to wear flats or sneakers.

You don't need to wear a veil on your wedding day if it's not your vibe, but if you are planning to wear one, aim to have it picked out by your first alterations appointment. This will give you (and your seamstress) a better idea of your entire look, from head to toe. For casual gowns, you can opt for a short blusher or birdcage veil. If you're wearing a ball gown, you might want to amp up the drama with something more grand, like a chapel- or cathedral-length veil.

Schedule your wedding hair and makeup trial.

Now that you know what you're wearing on the wedding day, you can start thinking about the rest of your look. Your hair and makeup trial should take place about five months before your wedding. Use your wedding dress to influence your hair and makeup—for example, if your gown has a show-stopping illusion lace back, you might want to show it off with an updo.

bridesmaid buttons up the back of bride's dress
C. Hope Photography
David's Bridal

3–4 Months Before Your Wedding

Your wedding dress arrives.

After months of waiting, your dress is finally here (insert excited squeal!). Depending on the salon's policies, you'll likely be expected to pay the remaining balance on your dress when you pick it up from the store. If you haven't already reached out to a professional seamstress for alterations, now is the time to do so. Be sure to choose someone who has experience working on wedding dresses and formal wear.

Schedule your first alterations fitting.

Remember when we said that the process doesn't end when you order your wedding dress? Once the dress arrives from the designer, alterations are the next phase of your wedding dress timeline. You'll probably have three alterations fittings to make sure that the dress fits you perfectly, and it's important to get the timing of each appointment right. If your fittings are too far in advance, you may end up with a dress that doesn't fit properly—your body weight and shape could fluctuate after the gown is altered. On the other hand, waiting too long to schedule your alterations will leave you in a time crunch.

Your first alterations appointment should take place at least three months before your wedding. The first appointment is where the heavy lifting happens: adding sleeves, switching up the neckline, adjusting the hem or requesting customizations, like beading. By the time you're done, you might slightly resemble a pincushion, but the finished product will be worth it.

Most bridal gowns will need at least some form of alterations, and while some seamstresses charge a flat fee, others charge per service. The cost can range from $200 for a basic hem to more than $1,000 for major adjustments. When it's time for your first fitting, remember to bring all of the undergarments and accessories you're planning to wear on the actual wedding day.

6–8 Weeks Before Your Wedding

Decide on your something old, new, borrowed and blue.

If you want to include these sweet traditions in your ensemble, it's a good idea to have them ready to go before your final fitting. For example, if you're planning to sew a blue ribbon or other keepsake to the inside of your dress, you can ask your seamstress to do it while they're making the rest of the alterations.

Schedule your second alterations fitting.

The second fitting is your chance to make smaller tweaks to your wedding dress, like taking in the bodice or perfecting the hem length. During this fitting, you'll also want to make sure there's no obvious bunching or pulling anywhere on the dress. Move around the salon in your gown—sit down, stand up and practice some dance moves while you're at it. This will help you test that the fit is right and comfortable so you can easily get around (and breathe without feeling like you may split a seam). You'll be wearing your dress for 10 or 12 hours on your wedding day, so if something feels wrong, now is the time to speak up.

2–3 Weeks Before Your Wedding

Practice walking in your wedding shoes.

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Strut around in your wedding shoes at home to make sure they aren't too high or too stiff. If you're sporting a new pair of shoes, this gives you the chance to break them in or snag a more comfortable pair if needed.

Schedule your final alterations fitting.

You may want to have a box of tissues on hand for your final trip to the seamstress. This is where you'll get to see your gown exactly the way it will look on your wedding day—cue the chills! Bring at least one family member or friend to share this special moment with (and so they can learn how to bustle the train or lace up the corset).

Pick up your wedding dress.

When your gown is ready, you'll need to find a place to store it where your partner can't sneak a peek. A spare closet where the dress won't get squished is ideal, but if you're working with limited space, some salons will store gowns until just days before the wedding.

After the dress is in your possession, inspect it to make sure everything looks right. Check for snags, discolorations or other damage. Keep it in a breathable, opaque garment bag (just in case your S.O. stumbles across it in the closet). If your veil is in the same bag, make sure it's stored in a protective pouch so it doesn't snag on any of the gown's embellishments.

1 Week Before Your Wedding

Pack your wedding day bag.

Buy a handheld steamer (or if you already have one, make sure it's clean and works well) for your wedding day emergency kit. Pack it with other essentials, like safety pins, fashion tape and a sewing kit to have on hand just in case. Make sure you have all the parts of your ensemble together. Your gown, veil, jewelry and shoes should all be ready to go in one place, especially if you're having someone help you transport everything to your venue on the wedding day.

After Your Wedding

Store or sell your wedding dress.

Your wedding day may be over, but the wedding dress decisions aren't. Now it's time to decide what you want to do with the gown. If you're holding onto the dress as a memento, you'll want to take care of it as best you can. Storing your beloved gown isn't as simple as hanging it up in the closet with the rest of your clothes, but luckily, there are plenty of services that will take care of it for you. One option is Wedding Dress Preservation by The Knot, our very own service that cleans and stores your gown safely in a keepsake box. A few other trusted options include this Wedding Dress Cleaning and Preservation Kit from David's Bridal and Unbox the Dress, a service that re-designs your gown into a new style you can wear every day.

If you'd rather see your beautiful wedding dress make someone else's wedding dreams come true, you can opt to sell or donate it instead. For the former, we recommend Nearly Newlywed—they do most of the legwork for you.

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