The hunt for The Dress can be a lot of things: fun, exhilarating, exciting, exhausting, frustrating. Many girls' first wedding dress experience comes when they try on their mother's gown as a child. They picture their own wedding day and fantasize about feeling and looking like a princess. (Or not. If you never played dress-up or imagined what your wedding dress would look like, you're in good company!)
Here are the tips I give brides-to-be when they begin searching for what is likely to be the most expensive item of clothing they ever purchase.
1. Start early.
You almost can't start dress-shopping too soon.* There are generally three ways to buy a wedding gown: off-the-rack, made-to-order, and custom-made (aka couture). Unless you are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars, you are probably not going to have a custom-made gown. That approach is generally taken by celebrities and wealthy individuals. A designer/tailor cuts fabric to your exact measurements and sews it just for you.
Most bridal salons operate on a made-to-order basis. They keep one or two sizes of each dress they carry in the store. Everyone tries on the same dress, and the stylist uses clips to cinch it into place so you can get a better idea of what it would look like if it were properly fitted. Once you choose a dress, the stylist takes a variety of measurements of your body, and then decides which size dress you should order. The dress won't fit you perfectly, but the goal is to get close enough that minor alterations will make it perfect. (Keep in mind that bridal gown sizing bears no relation to either reality or regular dress sizing. If you normally wear a size 6 dress, it is not at all unusual for you to need a size 10 wedding dress.)
Off-the-rack is just what it sounds like. You try on a dress in the store, and you walk out with that exact dress. This is how David's Bridal and bridal outlets operate, as well as sample sales held by salons. David's Bridal keeps multiple sizes of every gown in stock. You try on and buy the size that fits you best. At sample sales, you're buying the salon's sample dress that has been tried on by potentially hundreds of women. You can save a lot of money on the dress itself, but alterations and cleaning will set you back.
If you're not buying off-the-rack, you will have to wait several months after placing your order for your dress to arrive. Gown manufacturers do not cut and sew dresses as each order comes in. They wait until they have a number of orders for a given size, and then they cut them all at once. This is why you should start your dress search at least six months before your wedding, if possible. Once the dress arrives, you also have to allow several weeks for alterations.
*That said, you shouldn't start dress-shopping until you have an idea of the overall style and formality of your event. You don't want your dress to look out-of-place in your venue. So wait until you have your venue booked and you've decided on a time of day for your wedding before you begin shopping for your gown.
2. Flip through at least one bridal magazine or search online before shopping.
It doesn't matter which bridal magazine or website you choose—Martha Stewart Weddings, Bride's, Grace Ormond Wedding Style, The Knot—they will all showcase a multitude of dresses, and often feature articles on how to choose the best dress for your body type. Try to ignore the wafer-thin models contorted into ridiculous poses and picture how the dress will look on YOU. If you're reading a magazine, tear out pages of dresses you like so you can take them with you when you go dress shopping. If you're browsing online, start a Pinterest board for dresses. Then you can pull up the app on your phone while shopping and give your bridal salon stylist some idea of what you like. (Check out our Wedding Gowns Pinterest board for some of our favorites!) Even after you've found styles you like, be sure to keep an open mind. If a bridal stylist thinks a certain type of dress would look good on you, but you hadn't previously considered that style, go ahead and try it on. You might be surprised!
3. Choose three local bridal salons and make appointments.
I recommend visiting no more than three shops because you will become overwhelmed with options otherwise. Studies show that humans have optimal decision-making skills when their choices are limited. It's important to have an appointment so that you know someone will be available to help you locate dresses and try them on. It can be very difficult to find a dress at a salon when they are all on hangers and crammed onto racks. If you tell your stylist you want a ball gown with a tulle skirt, she will know where in the store to find those dresses. Having stylist help is essential when trying on gowns.
4. Don't schedule all your appointments on the same day if you can avoid it.
Trying on wedding gowns is a surprising amount of work. The gowns are heavy and difficult to get into. If the weather is warm when you're trying them on, you will quickly become overwhelmed.
5. Take someone with you, but no more than two people.
The most obvious choices for a second opinion are your mother and your maid of honor. Lately, more brides are actually dress-shopping with their fiancés. I, personally, don't recommend this approach, because the moment when your future husband sees you for the first time in your wedding dress should be on your wedding day, when excitement levels are high and your hair and makeup look perfect. Not in a bridal salon with fluorescent lighting when you're likely to be cranky from getting into and out of heavy gowns over and over again.
There are two reasons why I recommend taking no more than two people with you. First, bridal salons do not have the space to accommodate a large entourage, and some even place limits on how many guests can accompany you. Second, there is such a thing as too many opinions. If you have too many people with you, you are unlikely to ever find a dress that everyone thinks is perfect for you. That said, take at least one objective person with you. Bridal salon stylists will be honest with you up to a point, but let's face it, they want to make a sale. And no one will be more honest with you than your mother or your best friend. (Okay, your mother might be a little too honest.)
6. Set a dress budget ahead of time and don't try on anything that is way above your budget.
Weddings can be very expensive, and your wedding dress will almost certainly be the most expensive garment you ever buy. It's important to have a budget in mind BEFORE you start shopping, and stick to it. If your budget is $1000, and you try on a dress that's $1200, that's okay. If you decide you simply must have that gown, you'll be able to offset the extra $200 elsewhere in your overall wedding budget. But don't try on a dress that's $3000. You might fall in love with it, and then you'll either be heartbroken that you can't afford it, or you'll blow your budget and have to completely re-imagine your entire wedding. There is a bountiful selection of bridal gowns in the $1500-or-less category. Yes, there are gowns that cost $10,000 or more. Yes, they are stunning. But you can find a stunning gown no matter what your price point is.
Also, when setting your budget, don't forget that the cost of the dress is not the only factor in the overall "attire" category. You will need shoes, possibly undergarments, alterations, and accessories. The dress is certainly the largest portion of your "attire" budget line item, but you should pad the total budgeted amount to accommodate the extras.
7. Wear appropriate undergarments and bring shoes.
Even if you don't plan to try on strapless gowns, it's wise to wear a strapless or long-line bra when you visit the bridal salons. That way you won't have to worry about straps interfering with how the gown really looks on you. Also, modesty kind of goes out the window when trying on a dress that requires assistance to get in to and out of. Skip the thong and wear full-coverage underwear. Lastly, bring heels that are approximately the same height as you want to wear on your wedding day. This is essential when you're having your dress fittings, but is also a good idea when trying on.
8. Have someone take a photo of you wearing the dresses you like best, but ask the stylist's permission first.
Trying on wedding gowns is like apartment-hunting—everything starts to blend together in your mind after looking at just a couple. Having photos of what the dresses look like on you is the best way to remember details and compare later. Even if you think you've found The One, I recommend taking a night to "sleep on it" to be certain. Going back to photos can be helpful. Most bridal salons allow photography, but a few don't, and it's always polite to ask.
9. Don't be disappointed if you don't break down and cry when you find The One, or even if you never really feel like you've found The One.
Bridal magazines and television shows like Say Yes to the Dress do prospective brides a disservice by pushing a false narrative about dress-shopping. Yes, it's a more special shopping occasion than most, but it's not a magical experience full of fairy dust and unicorns. The gown isn't what makes your wedding day memorable. Choose the gown that (1) you are comfortable in, (2) flatters you, (3) fits within your budget, and (4) your fiancé will like.
10. Don't let yourself be talked into unnecessary extras or in-store alterations.
If you've decided you don't want to wear a veil, don't let someone talk you into buying a veil. You can wear a fascinator, or a tiara, or a birdcage veil, or flowers, or jeweled clips, or nothing at all in your hair. And if you do want to wear a veil, you don't have to buy it at the same place you buy your dress. As for for slips, underskirts, and tulle layers, don't purchase anything until you have a chance to try it on with your gown. Even if the designer or the stylist recommends a particular underskirt, you may find that you like the dress better without it.
As for alterations, bridal salons all have an in-house alterations department, but that doesn't mean you have to use it. You are free to take your gown to anyone you want for alterations (and don't let the salon tell you different). In fact, if you want to make significant alterations—not just sizing, but style, such as adding or removing sleeves—you may have to go elsewhere. Some salons are bound by contracts with the designers as to the level of alteration they are allowed to make. Those contracts are not binding on you, as the purchaser, or on any other third party. Something to keep in mind if an in-house seamstress tells you she "can't" do something you want.
11. Bonus tip: Don't forget to have fun!
Shopping for your wedding gown is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Have fun with it and enjoy yourself. Try to schedule your appointments on a day when you can take your time, and maybe even schedule a fun lunch (with Champagne!) for yourself and your companion(s). Don't get discouraged if you've tried on several dresses and still haven't found one you love. The right dress is out there!
Personal anecdote—I tried on almost 30 gowns (too many!) before I found The One. It was the very last one I tried. If I found mine, you can find yours!