I have been a bridesmaid five times, and been a bride once myself, so I am no stranger to wedding dress shopping. My own wedding was two years ago, but I think given the same budget and the same bod, I'd pick the same dress today that I did in August 2008. You know why? Because after years of going wedding dress shopping with friends--and watching countless episodes of Say Yes to the Dress--I've learned a thing or two about how to shop for a wedding dress. Now you can benefit from my experience with these ten tips for wedding dress shopping. Use 'em. Thank me later.
1. Know your budget: I've seen articles that say 10-15% of your total wedding budget should be your wedding dress budget. When I went shopping I didn't bother with percentages; I was determined not to spend more than $500 before alterations. I ended up spending $650, plus alterations, plus shipping because I bought the dress in Anchorage, AK and got married in Rochester, NY and it was still under $1000. If you want to preserve your gown, don't forget to factor that into your wedding expenses along with shoes, undergarments and alteration fees.
2. Shop early: Once you order your dress it can take months to be delivered. When it's ready, you will still likely need at least one round of alterations (see #9) which will probably a few weeks. Don't leave yourself short on time--start wedding dress shopping 9-12 months out from the wedding.
3. Keep an open mind: Browsing through bridal magazines is fine, and falling in love with a few dresses is fine, too, but don't pick your dress out of the pages of a magazine and insist it's "the one" until you've tried it on--along with a few others. With mirrors. And a critical eye.
4. Know your body: Don't buy the dress that will look great on you once you lose 20 pounds, buy the dress that looks good on your body when you try it on. It will still look great if you lose those 20 pounds. You have to dress the body you have, not the body you want and that's especially true for a garment that could be unflattering on many levels: white silk, satin, and organza tend to be unforgiving.
5. Don't bring your whole damn family with you when you shop: Seriously, the #1 mistake I see when I watch Say Yes to the Dress is when these poor girls drag in their entire families and start trying on dresses. When is the last time four or more people in your family agreed on anything? What makes you think they will start with your wedding dress? You're the one wearing it, you're the only one who matters. Bring an extra pair of eyes or two, but leave your family (or your gaggle of bridesmaids) home.
6. Try on several silhouettes and let the salesperson make recommendations: This harkens back to #2 and #3, but it bears specificity. There are some basic wedding dress shapes: A-line, ball gown, mermaid, column/sheath, empire, and princess. There are variations--my WTOO by Watters gown had a trumpet skirt, which is a sort of modified mermaid--but most dresses fall generally within these shapes. You might be surprised at what looks good on you. I was dead-set against certain features (strapless, sweetheart neckline) and I was adamant about wanting an A-line skirt, but guess what I ended up with? A strapless, sweetheart neckline with a fitted tulip skirt, which the saleswoman recommended for me. They are professionals, and do this every day, so it can't hurt to let your salesperson pull a few dresses she thinks you might like.
7. Ask about photographs: Some salons let you take photos of yourself in dresses, others do not. Ask the salesperson if it's okay before you start snapping away. I recommend taking photos if it is permissible; I found I had a more honest eye when I viewed a still photograph of myself in a dress versus seeing myself in the mirror.
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8. Consider the location: If you're having a beach wedding it might be a good idea to skip the ball gown with the 10 foot train, unless you enjoy wrestling with yards of fabric while standing on sand and in the sun. If you are getting married in a church or other house of worship, there may be rules about modesty that dictate neckline or sleeve length. You don't have to stick hard-and-fast to tradition, but you should keep an eye on what is appropriate. A white cocktail dress with a mini-skirt might not be perfect for your church wedding with 500 guests.
9. For the love of God, FIND A GOOD TAILOR! If you are old enough to get married, you should already have a tailor that you love. When I move to a new city I do three things before anything else: find the best pizza in town, find the best wine shop in town, and find myself a great tailor. Maybe the third thing is important because of the first and second things, but the fact remains that a well-dressed person has a tailor that they trust. I could have had my dress altered in Anchorage or Fairbanks, but I waited until I got to New York and used the best tailor I've ever worked with--my dress fit perfectly.
If you need to find a tailor before your wedding, take a few pieces (skirts, pants, a dress) to the person first and see how they do before trusting them with your gown.
10. Stay true to yourself. Buy the dress that makes you feel amazing! Buying a wedding dress is one of the weirdest experiences ever. It can be overwhelming and scary, and the choices are endless. There is something brides get called "white out"--when you've looked at so many dresses that you just can't see straight any more. If that happens take a step back from the process and remember your own personal style. Are you frilly and feminine? Are you tailored and preppy? Your wedding dress should be an extension, albeit a fabulous one, of your own personal style. You want to feel like your absolute most beautiful self in your wedding dress, but you must feel like yourself; if you don't, it's on to the next dress.