Whether you've been dreaming of your wedding dress since you were five and know the exact specifications you want for it down to the last sequin, or you've never thought about it until your future spouse's mother nagged, "You still haven't gotten your gown," we've got you covered on how to choose a wedding dress.
Finding your dream gown can be stressful. After all, you've likely never tried one on before, and it's the most expensive garment many women will ever own, so it can feel like the pressure is definitely on while wedding dress shopping. It may also feel like there's a whole new language to decode—tulle, A-line, fit-and-flare, organza, sheath, etc. Not to mention, more brides are doing multiple dresses—a more formal one for the ceremony and a party-centric one for the reception—which can make shopping even more stressful.
No matter your budget, personal style, or timeline, these wedding dress shopping tips are guaranteed to help you find the gown of your dreams.
Do Research to Find What You Like
Rip pages out of magazines, click through bridal boutiques online, explore on Pinterest, and check out what celebrity brides are wearing to compile a visual file of your favorite dresses. Then look for a connecting theme—are they all very embellished, lacy, or voluminous? Do they all have open backs? Find a couple commonalities of styles you like and bring your ideas to your first appointment.
Bridal consultants will tell you that they constantly see women come in with a set idea of what they want for a gown, then try it on and don't actually love it—and instead, fall for something completely different they'd never considered. Keep an open mind while wedding dress shopping. You may find your dream dress that you didn't know would be your dream dress.
Shop True to Your Size
Even if you plan on losing weight before the big day, shop for dresses in your current size rather than going smaller. It’s much easier to take a dress in than trying to work with one that’s way too snug.
Figure Out Your Budget
Yes, it's uncomfortable to talk numbers, but it will save you from heartache later on. Before your first appointment, figure out who is paying for the gown (your family, your partner, you?).
If someone else is paying, get the hard numbers on your limit, so you can stay within that budget or pay the difference yourself to get the dress you want.
Know Your Wedding Theme Beforehand
Before you start dress shopping, decide whether you want a casual garden-party-themed wedding or a formal, romantic affair. Always keep the venue and theme in mind as you browse gowns, because the last thing you want is for your dress to clash with your overall wedding style.
Plan Non-Obvious Costs Into the Budget
Say you plan to cap your fashion spending at $2,000—you actually shouldn't buy a $2,000 gown. That's because you need to factor in tailoring, accessories (your veil, jewelry, and shoes), and cleaning and preserving the gown after the wedding if you want it as a keepsake.
Find a Great Bridal Salon
Do your homework before you start making appointments, since you don't want to waste time at a shop that doesn't carry dresses you like or has terrible customer service. Get referrals from married friends and check online reviews to find shops with solid reputations.
Don’t waste your time shopping at a store that doesn’t have the style, designer, or price range you had in mind. Call the boutique or salon ahead of time to get the lowdown on its inventory before you make a visit.
Start Inexpensive and Work Your Way Up
Make your first appointment with the least-expensive bridal shop and keep scaling up if you don't find anything. Same goes for trying on dresses during your appointments—try on the most affordable one first, and work your way up to the bank-breaker. You may fall in love before then.
Pick Three Adjectives to Describe Your Dream Dress
Whether you want to feel classic, vintage, and comfortable, or romantic, glamorous, and beautiful, go into wedding dress shopping with a clear vision of how you want to look on the big day. Choosing three specific words to describe your vibe can help narrow down your dress selections.
Make Shopping a Whole-Day Affair
It's surprisingly time-consuming to put one wedding gown on and off, let alone three or four, and you definitely don't want to feel rushed to make a decision. Instead of making plans for brunch after your appointment or trying to fit it in between other errands, leave a few hours so you can take your time browsing and trying on dresses.
Choose Your Shopping Crew Wisely
Yes, you love your mom, sister, sister-in-law, maid of honor, and six bridesmaids—but if you've ever tried to get a crowd to agree on where to go for dinner, you can only imagine how hard it will be to find consensus on a gown. Narrow the group down to the two or three people whose opinions matter most to you.
Bring the Right Undergarments
It can be hard to take in how a strapless dress really looks when your leopard bra straps are sticking out, or how a curve-hugging gown would fit once your hips are smoothed. For your appointments, wear a nude thong and strapless bra, and bring Spanx.
Pick Your Silhouette
Your ideal gown's shape is partly based on the style you like, the venue, and mood of your wedding, and also what flatters your body most. A fit-and-flare is both contemporary and traditional and works on many body types, whereas a simple sheath is best on tall, willowy brides. A voluminous ball gown adds drama, but can overwhelm a petite frame. Mermaid styles show off curves like your favorite pencil skirt.
Consider Less Traditional Lengths
While they most likely won't work for a formal wedding, for a more casual, rustic, or beachy wedding, untraditional lengths can be a fun way to bring your personality to your big day dress. Tea length is fun for a quirky bride, whereas a white minidress has a rocker-chic party vibe.
Pay Attention to Fabric
In addition to silhouette, color, and embellishments, fabric makes a big difference on how a gown will look on you. A heavier, more structured material (think silk shantung, taffeta, or guipure lace) will hold its shape and smooth your figure. Unstructured silk and filmy chiffon are less flattering for those brides with curves.
Wear Heels to the Appointment
Some bridal salons have communal high heels you can borrow, but that's a little icky, and a dress will look a lot different with flip-flops than stilettos. Be prepared by bringing heels of the same height you think you'll likely wear for your big day, so you'll have a better idea of how the dress will look.
Bring Dress Photos for Inspiration
Whether it’s printouts of dream dresses from your secret wedding Pinterest board you’ve had since college or a page from a magazine, come armed with a photo collage of the wedding dress styles you like best while shopping.
Believe Your Consultant That a Gown Looks Better "On"
Wedding dresses often have heavy details that can make it sag on a hanger. "Unlike shopping for a shirt, you won't really know what a wedding dress will look like until you actually try it on, so be open if your consultant promises the dress will look better on you than it does on the hanger," says Anne Chertoff, bridal expert at You & Me TV.
Shop Trunk Shows for Savings
You can often take 10 percent off a gown that way and get to meet the designer, who may also "waive or discount certain changes, like raising or lowering a neckline, extending the length, changing the color, or adding straps," says Terry Hall, fashion director at Kleinfeld Bridal in New York City.
Hit Sample Sales
"Salons frequently have sales to move older inventory, so you'll find designer gowns for 25 to 50 percent off. The only downside is most sales are stocked with sample sizes—that's bridal 8 and 10, comparable to ready to wear size 6 and 8," says Mark Ingram, president of Mark Ingram Atelier in New York City.
Consider Shopping Online
Is online shopping the only retail therapy you know? It's okay to buy your dress online if you're an avid online shopper; 18 percent of brides in the U.S. do just that. If you can try the dress on in person that's great. If not, check the return policy—especially if you're ordering a few to try on and consider—to make sure you're entitled to a full refund if it doesn't look as dreamy in person.
If You're Plus Size, Call Ahead
Nothing is worse than getting to a bridal salon and finding they only stock samples to size 10 and you have nothing to actually try on. (Unfortunately, that's the case for many, even though they sell sizes up to 26.) Call ahead to make sure your shop has plus-size samples for the style and designer you want to try on, or if not, whether they can get some in before your appointment.
Be Prepared to Try on a Lot of Gowns
Unfortunately, unless you're really lucky, the first wedding gown you try on probably isn’t going to be "the one." But don’t get frustrated if you’ve tried on dress after dress to no avail. Stay patient and keep an open mind until you’re sure you’ve tried on the perfect dress. It might even take multiple shopping trips until you're fully 100 percent sure.
Take Inspiration From Celebrity Styles
Even though you may not have a star's unlimited wedding budget, you can still draw inspiration and help create a vision of what styles you want to replicate in your dress. That could mean Serena Williams's trendy cape or the classic lace silhouette of Pippa Middleton's gown.
Bring Family Heirlooms Shopping With You
If you want to incorporate a family heirloom, like a relative's veil or a piece of jewelry, into your wedding day look, bring it to all your shopping appointments to find the perfect matching gown.
Pose for Photos in Various Angles
For a true testament to how you’ll look in your wedding dress on the big day, have a friend or family member take pictures and videos of you while trying dresses on. Make sure that they capture all angles of each dress you're considering, from the back and sides to shots of you sitting down in the gown from the top up.
Think About Your Current Favorite Pieces of Clothing
Reflect on your favorite top or dress you already own that makes you feel your most confident or beautiful. What is it you like about it so much? Is it the fit, the fabric, the neckline, or the silhouette? Whatever it may be, envision the best components of your current wardrobe and your everyday style and translate those elements as shop for wedding dresses.
Have a Professional Take Your Measurements
Even if you're ordering online, have a seamstress takes your measurements— this is not the time for DIY, since putting the measuring tape even an inch up or down from the industry standard can throw off your results.
Test to Make Sure You Can Move
No wedding gown is going to be as comfortable as your pajamas, but you don't want to be pulling it up or constricted by it all night, so bust out some moves in the dressing room. If you're planning a church wedding where you may need to kneel or sit during the ceremony, practice doing that in the gown. If you're planning to drop it like it's hot on the dance floor, try it out to make sure you can move how you want.
Come Prepared with a Similar Beauty Look
If you go dress shopping with messy locks and no makeup, you're obviously not going to feel your most beautiful as you try on wedding frocks. To get the full effect, try to mimic your ideal wedding beauty look as closely as possible. You don't have to go all out, but dab on some makeup and wear your hair up or down, depending on how you plan to sport it on the big day.
Book Early if You Prefer a Destination Bridal Shop
If you've seen a bridal shop on TV (say, Kleinfeld or Bridals by Lori), so have lots of other brides, which means you'll need to book far in advance—especially for a weekend appointment.
The major benefit of these stores is that they have some of the most knowledgeable consultants and a wide variety of dresses from hundreds of designers.
Try a Local Bridal Boutique
These offer an intimate setting, which is great for personal service but can mean fewer dresses to try on than massive stores. The upsides are they know the area, so they can be helpful about what other local brides are wearing, and will also likely know your venue, so they can have a better sense of your wedding style.
Or Try a Bridal Superstore
Chains like David's Bridal have a wide price range, meaning you may be able to snag a dress for as little as $300. Plus, you can usually try on dresses in your size, not a sample size, which is good news for brides who fall above or below a size 8 or 10, the usual sample sizes.
Pre-owned vintage gowns can get a bad rep because they’ve been worn previously, but you can slash costs and find a totally unique, timeless style for your wedding dress. Shopping at vintage boutiques is a win-win.
Be Open With Your Bridal Consultant
If you're shopping with a consultant at a bridal boutique or salon, don't hold back when letting him or her know exactly what you're looking for. Be as honest and open as possible. The more information you give about your likes and dislikes, the easier it will be for the consultant to pick out your dream gown.
Keep the Season in Mind
If your wedding is in the Caribbean in August, go for lightweight fabrics in breezy styles. But if you're getting hitched in the winter in Boston, it's all about snow-like sparkle and heavier, lush fabrics like satin or taffeta.
Throw Out the "Rules"
Despite all the advice that's available about choosing the most appropriate silhouette, style, and fabric, you don't have to listen to us, your consultant, or your mother. If you want to wear a taffeta ball gown on the beach or a trendy pantsuit to City Hall, do it—it's your wedding.
Pay Attention to the Top of the Dress
You should love every aspect of your wedding dress, but keep in mind that the top of the gown will appear most in wedding photographs, especially while you're seated at dinner or dancing with your nearest and dearest. Make sure the gown fits comfortably when you're sitting down and that the neckline won't require adjusting throughout the day.
Tweak a Gown in Tailoring, But Don't Re-design It
"It's fine for a good seamstress to do small updates like adding straps or changing the hemline," says gown designer Monique Lhuillier. "But any customization that requires the inner support and structure of the gown to be changed is risky, costly, and, many times, irreversible. If it's not done with precision, it can potentially ruin a gown."
If You Don't Love It, Don't Panic—You Can Salvage It
If the dress arrives and you're iffy on it, you don't need to scrap it. Gather your trusted style advisers and "try it on with totally different accessories, like a new belt, or add a bolero," says Molly Guy, creative director at Stone Fox Bride. "If that doesn't help, a seamstress can really change the look by shortening it, changing the neckline, taking off sleeves, or adding sleeves."
If You Must Start Over, Save Some Cash
Say you really can't fall back in love with the dress, but you can't afford to scrap it and start from scratch buying a second one. Re-sell it online, emphasizing that the dress is brand new and unworn. "That way you can recoup more than the average 50 percent resale and get back 60 to 80 percent of the retail price," says Julie Jones, founder of Encore Bridal, a gown resale website.
Think About Adding a Bustle
If the dress of your dreams has a long train or hem, decide whether you want to get a bustle sewn into the gown. This will help you pick up your train during the reception, but keep in mind that it will alter how the back of the dress looks. Research the different bustle styles to see if one is right for your dress before you undergo fittings and alterations.
Decide Your Dress Preview Policy in Advance
Of course you don't want your partner to see your pick, but what about friends? Make a rule before you start sending pics of the gown of how widely you'll share it—just with the people at the appointment? Just with the bridal party? If you don't set the rule in advance, you could feel trapped later into showing everyone, and lose some of the magic of the reveal on the big day.
Keep the Dress Away From Home
Especially if you live with your partner, you don't want him or her to stumble upon your gown and ruin the surprise. Ask a relative or very trusted friend (perhaps someone you'd want to bring with you when you take the gown for tailoring appointments) if they'll let you keep the dress at their place until the big day. Plus, if it's not in your closet, you won't be tempted to wear it every day until the wedding.