You're newly engaged, and you're excited...to go gown shopping. While your wedding date (if you've even set one yet) may seem like it's ages away, an important planning point to ponder is when to buy your wedding dress before you walk down the aisle. Because made-to-order wedding dresses typically take about 6-9 months to create, it's actually a good idea to head to the bridal salon sooner rather than later.
Aside from the fact that it may take you some time to find the one, you'll need to perfectly time your three (yes, three) fittings, allowing for custom alterations, and then some more custom alterations (your well-tailored dream dress isn't made overnight, mind you). However, thanks to the modern, evolving wedding industry and quicker engagements, this dress shopping itinerary is hardly set in stone (breathe a sigh of relief, time-pressed to-be-weds).
According to Vatana Watters and Sydney Dunbar, the mother-daughter duo behind the romantic bridal line Watters, wedding dress designers and retailers can now go beyond the standard shopping experience and speed up the process to accommodate new generations of brides in search of gowns. "The piece of the pie that's grown is the option of when to buy your dress—there are so many options to get your dress much faster," Vatana says. "We realize there are different avenues and different quickness to getting a dress."
Meet the Expert
Vatana Watters and Sydney Dunbar are the mother-daughter duo behind the bridal line, Watters.
Whichever time frame you're working within, these industry experts mapped out a traditional gown timeline for brides with 12+ months left until the wedding, as well as shopping methods for those with a more spontaneous wedding date.
After You Get Engaged
It's safe to assume you've had a rotation of dream wedding dresses saved to your wedding Pinterest board long before your partner popped the question (zero shame). If you don't already have a vision of your ideal gown, though, now's the time to do your homework. Start by ripping pages out of bridal magazines, scoping out top trends, pinpointing your favorite designers, or gaining inspiration from real brides. Then, make note of commonalities within your favorite finds: Do open backs continue to catch your eye? Embellishments? Lace? Fitted silhouettes? Whatever the theme, hold onto it and bring visuals for your first bridal salon appointment. Ultimately, though, maintain an open mind—you may fall in love with something that was never even on your radar.
After You Pick Your Venue
Sydney advises going gown shopping only after you've pegged your wedding venue, which makes sense considering you want to wear something that stays true to the locale's vibe (a beach ceremony and elaborate ball gown may not bode well). "It’s important to set a venue that’s the whole tone of the wedding, but after that, it’s important to really start thinking about your dress and nailing it down 6-9 months before the wedding," she adds. "This allows for a good amount of relaxation for the shopping experience." You should also have your wedding dress budget finalized by this point (including alteration fees), as well as selected the lucky ladies (or gents) you'd like to accompany you on such a high-stakes shopping trip.
Try to cap your wedding dress shopping crew to three close, supportive (major emphasis) friends or relatives whose opinions you value most.
Stay on track by booking appointments well in advance, since spots at bridal boutiques fill up unbelievably quickly. Do your research, too—look into each salon's designer selection, price point, and which sample sizes they carry to make sure it's the right fit for your gown allowance and vision. And, as far as bridal sizing goes, don't let the number on the tag get to your head. Because most bridal designers use a scale that runs on the small side (a size 10 wedding dress translates to a true size 6/8), you'll end up purchasing a garment that's about two sizes larger than your usual. With this in mind, feel comfortable shopping for picks in your actual bridal size, no matter how massive and panic-inducing it may seem.
At each salon appointment, you'll be working with a consultant and trying on sample gowns. From there, once you've said "yes" to the dress that makes you feel the most beautiful and bridal, the frock will then be made-to-order just for you.
9 Months Before the Wedding
Narrow down your final dress of choice at a bridal salon, pinpoint any desired customizations, pay a deposit of 50 to 60 percent, and allot 6-9 months for the bespoke creation to come in. Why, exactly, does the process take so long, you may ask? Your perfect dress will be produced to your measurements, and some components may be sourced from across the globe. "We have laces from France, we have fabrics from Spain, we have beading from India or Asia or Japan," Vatana explains. She adds that some gowns even "take two weeks for three people to embroider and bead, and that’s just one step in the process of making a dress."
As for your gown's final completion date (cue cheers), alternations and all, factor any pre-wedding photo sessions and travel time into the overall shopping schedule. "If you’re having a destination wedding or doing bridal portraits, that effectively becomes your wedding date because you need your dress for that time," says Sydney. "A lot of brides also prefer to have their dress completely done a month before their wedding just so the fit is perfect and there’s no changes in the body."
5 Months Before the Wedding
While you wait (and wait...and wait) for your lovely gown to come to fruition, cross a few things off your wedding checklist in the meantime. For starters, have a tailor lined up, which your bridal salon will likely either provide in-house or point you in the direction of a reputable couturier. Some seamstresses may charge per service (i.e. hemming, taking in the bust, etc.), while others may request a flat fee for the overall alterations, so budget accordingly.
Next, let's talk accessories—it's a good rule of thumb to have your veil, jewelry, and other adornments picked out before your first fitting to get an early glimpse of the full look. Wedding shoes are a must, as well, to determine your gown's hem length. For footwear, find kicks that complement your dress and stay on par with the wedding vibe. "If you’re getting married outside in the mud or grass, you want to pick the appropriate type of shoe, so again venue plays an important part," Vatana advises.
3 Months Before the Wedding
Ta-da! Your patience has finally been rewarded. The dress should be finished and at the salon. Just in case it's not, you have a bit of wiggle room before the first fitting.
6 to 8 Weeks Before the Wedding
First-fitting time. Make minor tweaks (change neckline, trim train, etc.), and consider bringing a bridesmaid or two along to demonstrate how to bustle the gown. Hold off on buying your bridal undergarments until after this point to gauge the best foundation for your specific situation. Also, keep your weight stable from here on out, but don't panic if yours fluctuates. You still have 1-2 more fittings to either take in or let out the gown for the perfect fit.
4 Weeks Before the Wedding
Undergo the second fitting. By now, most of the heavy lifting should be out of the way, so you'll have a much better visual of how the dress will look. If you haven't already, choose the final headpiece, veil, and accessories. Come armed with your lingerie, as well.
2 Weeks Before the Wedding
Some dresses only require two fittings, but a third, final round of alterations may be necessary. The gown should be almost flawless. Try on your entire wedding ensemble—veil, shoes, and all—and prepare for a sappy (even tearful) first full look.
1 Week Before the Wedding
It's officially crunch time: By this point, you'll pick up your finished gown and pay the remaining balance, including alteration fees. The salon or tailor will send you home with a protective garment bag, to keep the precious cargo safely stored until the big day (and out of view from nosy fiancés). And, fear not if you're flying.
"Gowns are constructed so much differently now—many are so light and airy and they’re easy to take care of yourself," says Vatana. "But, usually, the alteration people will have it very [travel ready]." Simply carry the dress, bag and all, on the airplane with you (never check it with your luggage), and safely stash it in an overhead bin, front closet, or on its own seat (yes, some brides buy plane tickets for their gowns).
The Big Day
Showtime. Before walking down the aisle, unpack the gown, hang it up to air out, then steam away any wrinkles for the finishing, picture-perfect touch. Hesitant to lay hands on your own dress? (Lots of pressure at stake here.) Vatana says that some bridal salons actually provide consultants to service the wedding. "It just depends on your budget and how much help you want from the salons for these extra services," she explains.
Working With a Time Crunch? No Problem
Not all brides have this much leeway—in fact, given the circumstances, some may need their gowns in as quickly as a week. If you're wondering when to buy your wedding dress but the above timeline doesn't apply to you, know that you're not SOL. "Maybe a bride’s laid-back, other things were top of mind, it’s a destination wedding, an elopement’s in order—there are other alternatives to doing the traditional experience," Sydney confirms.
To that note, Sydney explains that leading bridal designers actually have the technology to pre-cut top gowns, meaning they can get a head start on the creation process before the dress is even ordered (way less waiting on your end). Brides-on-a-deadline can also turn to expedited shipping options.
Or, for to-be-weds with substantially shrunken timelines, meet your saving grace: the online route. Especially on par for brides seeking a relaxed and modern look, retailers like BHLDN, H&M, ASOS, Modcloth (hello, size-inclusive), and Reformation all offer diverse collections of high-quality, on-trend, ready-to-wear gowns available for immediate purchase. Happy gown hunting.