It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for since you were a little girl (or at least the third date): wedding dress shopping. Whether you know exactly what style you want or you have no clue where to begin, the experience doesn't have to be daunting. Follow these steps to easily find “the one”—and have fun along the way:
STEP 1: Let the Games Begin
As you begin wedding dress shopping, there are seemingly endless styles: billowy ball gowns, strapless mermaids, long-sleeved illusion dresses, spaghetti-strap sheaths. The list goes on and on. To find inspiration, browse wedding dresses by cut, see what real brides wore, and view the latest looks from Bridal Fashion Week (which happens every April and October). Start trying things on 10 to 12 months before your big day so you can order by the six- to eight-month deadline most salons require. If you don’t have that much lead time, you may still be able to get a made-to-order gown; some can be produced in as few as four weeks. Just be ready to pay for the convenience: It’s usually an additional 10 to 15 percent, not including rush alteration fees.
STEP 2: Decide How to Shop
The traditional salon has a curated selection from different labels (or a single one if you go to a designer’s store, like Carolina Herrera’s New York City boutique). The best shops pair each bride with a dedicated stylist for an hour-long appointment, with no more than two brides in the store at a time. At larger salons, like David’s Bridal or New York City’s Kleinfeld, many gowns are held in the back, so it’s important to share your vision and budget with the sales consultant so she can pull the right styles for you.
Also, be sure to ask:
The range of prices. If the majority of the dresses aren’t in your budget, save yourself the heartache and go elsewhere.
What sizes the samples are. Most salons have a bridal 10 or 12, which is equivalent to a 6 or 8. If you need a bigger size, ask if it can be called in ahead of time.
If a particular dress you’re looking for is at the store. If not, see if it can be requested.
Most salons usually carry only a handful of gowns from each designer, so these special events are an ideal way to check out the entire collection and catch promotions like 10 percent off gowns and accessories. Find schedules and book an appointment on your salon's Web site.
Buying a secondhand gown will often save you big bucks. Try Once Wed or a consignment boutique that operates like a traditional salon. Our Story Bridal in New York, for example, sells once-worn dresses by top designers at up to 60 percent off retail. It even has a tailor who can help with basic alterations or special additions, like an illusion sleeve, says cofounder Ana Perez.
Everyone from Lovely Bride to Monique Lhuillier hosts twice-annual sales in major cities (typically in early summer and early winter). Sign up for newsletters from sites like Racked and 260 Sample Sale to get alerts. You could save up to 90 percent off retail, but expect only sample sizes, final sales, and a no-frills experience (e.g., no dressing rooms or sales staff). Bring a few friends to grab from the racks, and arrive first thing or during the last hour, when merchandise is restocked. You can also ask your local salon if you can buy a floor sample at the end of the season to get a 50 percent discount on average, says Gabriella Risatti of Gabriella New York.
Getting married within a month? Prefer to try on gowns in your own home? Want a more casual, nontraditional look? Order from BHLDN, Self-Portrait, Needle & Thread, Asos, or even Topshop, which launched bridal in April. You'll gain convenience but miss out on high-end constructions (and tailoring).
STEP 3: Make Your Salon Visits Count
Always book appointments in advance, but never more than two per day, and take a break in between. To help guide the sales associate, bring photos of your venue, your color palette, and any dresses you like.
Keep an Open Mind.
Even if you have a very clear vision of what you want, try different styles, including at least one wild card. You may be surprised and fall in love with a silhouette you never imagined you’d wear.
Take Your Time.
Spend a few minutes in each dress, even if it’s not the One. Identify which elements you like and dislike, then use that info to narrow the search.
Pick a dress you’ll feel comfortable spending an entire day in. Practice sitting, dancing, and walking (and kneeling, if you’ll be doing that in a religious ceremony).
Document Your Faves.
Snap pics from the front, back, and side so you can accurately compare gowns later. "Even better, take video!" says Christy Baird of LOHO Bride in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "It will help you remember how the gown moves." If the salon doesn’t allow photos, take notes on the pros and cons of each dress.
STEP 4: Buy “the One”
Bridal gowns are made to order, so once you’ve picked yours, the sales consultant will take your measurements and request the closest fit from the designer. You’ll put down a deposit (typically 50 percent), then pay the rest when it ships to the salon or your home, with no returns. Some salons offer payment plans, while others might cut you a deal on your veil, accessories, or in-house alterations. Just ask! Expect two to five fittings, scheduled at least three months before the big day, which can cost up to 15 percent of the price of the gown. If the salon doesn’t have a seamstress on staff, ask for recommendations in your area. But not everyone can handle a couture-like gown, so don’t cut corners.
Always get two quotes; someone may up-charge you just because you’re a bride, says LOHO’s Baird.
STEP 5: Nail the Final Touches
Bring any jewelry and hair-accessory contenders to your first fitting to get a sense of the overall look. Strapless and plunging necklines pair well with a statement necklace or earrings; for higher necklines and super-embellished gowns, stick with studs. Also bring your shoes so the tailor can get the hem just right.
Most structured gowns have a built-in bra, but if you need extra support, ask your tailor to sew your favorite strapless bra into the dress, says lingerie expert Jenny Altman of I Love a Good. Don’t have one? “Va Bien is the only brand you need to know,” she says. “They make seamless bras, bustiers, bodysuits, and shapewear for all sizes and in low-back, plunging, and full-coverage styles.”
Bring the girl or guy who will be tasked with tacking up your train to the final fitting and shoot a how-to video. (We also recommend practicing again the week of the wedding so you don’t struggle on the big day.)
Step 6: The Veil
If you plan on wearing a veil, first consider the venue: “A long cathedral veil is beautiful for a traditional religious ceremony, but it could be distracting on a windy beach,” Risatti says. Depending on your preference and budget, you can buy off the rack, order from a bridal designer, or have one made by a veil specialist. (A high-end salon can give you names.) Wait until you’ve chosen the gown to start shopping so that you pick the right length and shade of white; get a swatch from your dress to match it exactly. Custom can take up to six months. In all other cases, just buy it in time for hair and makeup trials.