Wedding Dress Shopping 101

You've got the ring on your finger, now you're ready to go dress shopping. Piece of cake, right? Here's what to know before you go.
Bride getting ready before wedding
Photo by Jen and Jonah

If you're like many brides, you've been envisioning what you'd wear to your wedding since before you bought your first bra. Then again, maybe you've never thought about it at all. Either way, a lot of pressure can accompany dress shopping. After all, the gown you put on for your walk down the aisle will be the true centerpiece of the day. This one article of clothing is probably going to be the most expensive and talked about thing you'll ever wear.

To assist you on the quest for your dream dress, we've got answers to your most pressing questions. When should you start? Where should you go? And what can you expect once you get there? For the lowdown, read on!

When to Begin

Two words: shop early. Nine to 12 months before your wedding is ideal since you'll need about six months to spare for fittings. Why? Unless you buy a ready-to-wear dress or a sample gown, wedding dresses are custom-made. And once your dress arrives, it's going to have to be altered -- usually several times -- until it fits you perfectly. That said, many companies can turn a dress around more quickly if need be. But if you have less than six months, start shopping right away and try to be flexible about your dress choice. Here's a tip: Avoid weekends and evenings if you can swing it. Bridal salons get insanely busy -- especially if you're marrying in a popular wedding month. If you can take time off during the week to shop, you'll get more of the salesperson's time and attention.

Where to Go

The most popular place to shop is the bridal salon, known for its personal service, tranquil setting, and wide selection of gowns from a variety of designers. You'll find boutiquey salons in upscale urban shopping districts, suburban downtown areas, strip malls, full-scale malls, and even inside some of the larger department stores. Check online under "Bridal Shops" or "Wedding Services" to see what's available in your area. Word-of-mouth recommendations are also very helpful. Find out which shops have given excellent service to past brides you may know, then call to make appointments. Try to limit your shopping to three or four salons, and bring along a small notebook to jot down the details on the gowns you like.

Research which salons are most appropriate for your budget. While the average salon carries lines in the under-$1000 category, there are others in which the dresses start at $3000. Save yourself -- and the salons -- time by asking before you make an appointment.

Besides the day-to-day business of selling dresses, salons also hold special wedding-related events like trunk shows and sample sales. At a trunk show, a specific designer (or representative of a bridal manufacturer) brings his or her latest dress line for brides-to-be to try on during a special in-store gathering. The advantage? You get to see every dress in the line, not just the styles selected by the store. And you may even get the small thrill of chatting with the designer in person -- or better yet, having he or she advise you on your look.

At a sample sale, the dresses used in the salon for brides to try on are put up for sale. Some stores have sample dresses in an array of sizes, though the typical sample sizes are 6, 8, and 10. Keep in mind that wedding dresses run small, samples are likely to fit you if your regular dress size is a 2, 4 or 6. The dresses may not be super clean, but since they're sharply discounted, you can put some of your savings toward the cleaning bill.

If you're on a strict budget and find that the gowns in a bridal salon are out of your league, you might want to try your luck at a bridal outlet. These outlets generally stock older designs from past seasons, or gowns designed by lesser-known companies whose names you may not recognize. Shopping here can save you money, but keep in mind you may have to sort through many dud dresses as part of the process. You might not find what you're looking for, and prices aren't always that low.

Another money-saving option is to rent a gown, especially if you're not too sentimental and the logic of buying something to wear for just one night is lost on you. Some clothing rental shops have wedding dresses in stock or you may be able to find a store near you that rents only wedding gowns (check online under "Clothing Rental"). On the downside, you won�t find the selection you'd find at a bridal salon. And the styles may not be the most up to date.

What to Know

Wedding dress shopping comes with its own language, and the more you know about which dress styles flatter you, the easier shopping for your dress will be. Before you even set foot in a salon, read up on some of the lingo you'll encounter there. Familiarize yourself with the gown and all of its parts: neckline, waistline, sleeve style, skirt details, fabric, finishes, train. Learn the basic dress silhouettes, and figure out which one will best suit your body.

Now is also the time to consider the formality of your ceremony and the features of the site. Your gown should also reflect the time and place of your nuptials. A formal candlelit ceremony is not the time to be sporting a short sundress, nor is an afternoon garden party the place to break out the cathedral-length train and veil.

Take a minute to close your eyes and envision yourself as a bride. What do you see? Are you wearing a full ballgown with your hair in romantic ringlets? Or are you outfitted in an ethereal, flowing dress and loose hair sprinkled with flowers? Write down six adjectives that best describe how you want to look and feel on your wedding day. Some examples: princess, sexy, sophisticated, over-the-top, classic, boho.

What to Expect

When you get to the bridal salon, a specific salesperson will be assigned to you. You will work with this person every time you return to the store. A good salesperson will ask you what type of wedding you're having, how you envision yourself looking on your wedding day, and what kinds of dresses you're drawn to. She will also probably check you out and decide for herself what style will look good on you based on your body type, then she'll bring you dresses to try on. If you're uncomfortable with this, try to find a shop where you�ll be free to look through everything for yourself.

From the moment you enter the salon, be mindful of the way you're being treated and of the way the salespeople are making you feel. Are they treating you respectfully? Or are they acting haughty? If it's the latter you may want to take your business elsewhere. This is where all the knowledge you've armed yourself with will come in handy. If you can talk expertly about dress silhouettes and styles, the salesperson will know she's dealing with an informed consumer. Take advantage of a salesperson's expertise. She works with brides every day -- if anyone knows about dresses, she does. Bounce ideas off of her, and consider her advice. If anyone tries to talk you out of or into something, or makes you feel uncomfortable about your decisions, remember that a good salesperson will never push you to buy something you're unsure about.

How to Shop

When you finally step into the dressing room, try to keep an open mind. If the salesperson brings you something she says you must try, try it -- even if you detest the way it looks on the hanger. Many a bride has ended up waltzing down the aisle in a gown the salesperson had to persuade her to try on. And while certain styles work best on certain body types, it helps to try on all different kinds of dresses, then decide what shape and style you look and feel best in.

One of the biggest misconceptions about bridal gowns is that they only come as is. The truth is, most gowns can be ordered in alternative forms. So if you like the bodice of one and the skirt of another, ask to have them put together to form your dream dress (provided, of course, that both gowns come from the same designer). And don't be afraid to ask to have embellishments like bows and beads added or removed. Keep in mind, though, that the more you stray from the original design, the more it will cost you in the end.

Something else to remember: Give yourself options and lots of time to think before you buy. Even after you think you've found your gown, take a a bit to be absolutely sure it's the one for you. Since bridal gowns are custom-made, most salons put a no-return policy in their contracts.

And lastly, always trust your instincts. Ask yourself, can I really see myself walking down the aisle swathed in this gown? Is this how I pictured myself looking as a bride? If not, take it off and move on. But if the gown passes muster, take a deep breath, smile at your reflection, and breathe a huge sigh of relief -- your search is over!

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