Wedding Dress Shopping 101 – What Not To do

Do's & Don'ts of Wedding Dress Shopping

You've got the ring on your finger, now you're ready to go dress shopping. Piece of cake, right? Here's what to know before you go.

If you're like many brides, you've been envisioning what you'd wear to your wedding since before you bought your first bra. Then again, maybe you've never thought about it at all.

Either way, a lot of pressure can accompany dress shopping. After all, the gown you put on for your walk down the aisle will be the real centerpiece of the day. This one article of clothing is probably going to be the most expensive and talked about thing you'll ever wear.

To assist you on the quest for your dream wedding dress, we've got answers to your most pressing questions. When should you start? Where should you go? And what can you expect once you get there? For the lowdown, read on!

When to Begin on Finding The Right Wedding Dress?

Two words: shop early.

Nine to 12 months before your wedding is ideal since you'll need about six months to spare for fittings.

Why? Unless you buy a ready-to-wear dress or a sample gown, wedding dresses are custom-made. And once your dress arrives, it's going to have to be altered -- usually several times -- until it fits you perfectly.

That said, many companies can turn a dress around more quickly if need be. But if you have less than six months, start shopping right away and try to be flexible about your dress choice.

Here's a tip: Avoid weekends and evenings if you can swing it. Bridal salons get insanely busy -- especially if you're marrying in a favorite wedding month. If you can take time off during the week to shop, you'll get more of the salesperson's time and attention.

Where to Go

The most popular place to shop is the bridal salon, known for its personal service, tranquil setting, and a wide selection of gowns from a variety of designers. You'll find boutiquey salons in upscale urban shopping districts, suburban downtown areas, strip malls, full-scale malls, and even inside some of the larger department stores.

Check online under "Bridal Shops" or "Wedding Services" to see what's available in your area. Word-of-mouth recommendations are also constructive. Find out which shops have given excellent service to past brides you may know, then call to make appointments.

Try to limit your shopping to three or four salons, and bring along a small notebook to jot down the details on the gowns you like.

Research which salons are most appropriate for your budget. While the average salon carries lines in the under-$1000 category, there are others in which the dresses start at $3000. Save yourself -- and the salons -- time by asking before you make an appointment.

Besides the day-to-day business of selling dresses, salons also hold special wedding-related events like trunk shows and sample sales. At a trunk show, a specific designer (or representative of a bridal manufacturer) brings his or her latest dress line for brides-to-be to try on during a special in-store gathering.

The advantage? You get to see every dress in the front, not just the styles selected by the store. And you may even get the small thrill of chatting with the designer in person -- or better yet, having he or she advise you on your look.

At a sample sale, the dresses used in the salon for brides to try on are put up for sale. Some stores have sample dresses in an array of sizes, though the typical sample sizes are 6, 8, and 10.

Keep in mind that wedding dresses run small, samples are likely to fit you if your regular dress size is a 2, 4 or 6. The dresses may not be super clean, but since they're sharply discounted, you can put some of your savings toward the cleaning bill.

If you're on a strict budget and find that the gowns in a bridal salon are out of your league, you might want to try your luck at a bridal outlet. These outlets generally stock older designs from past seasons or gowns designed by lesser-known companies whose names you may not recognize.

Shopping here can save you money, but keep in mind you may have to sort through many dud dresses as part of the process. You might not find what you're looking for, and prices aren't always that low.

Another money-saving option is to rent a gown, especially if you're not too sentimental and the logic of buying something to wear for just one night is lost on you. Some clothing rental shops have wedding dresses in stock, or you may be able to find a store near you that rents only wedding gowns (check online under "Clothing Rental"). On the downside, you won't find the selection you'd find at a bridal salon. And the styles may not be the most up to date.

What to Know About Wedding Dress Shopping

Wedding dress shopping comes with its own language, and the more you know about which dress styles flatter you, the easier shopping for your dress will be. Before you even set foot in a salon, read up on some of the lingo you'll encounter there. Familiarize yourself with the gown and all of its parts: neckline, waistline, sleeve style, skirt details, fabric, finishes, train. Learn the basic dress silhouettes, and figure out which one will best suit your body.

Now is also the time to consider the formality of your ceremony and the features of the site. Your gown should also reflect the time and place of your nuptials. A formal candlelit ceremony is not the time to be sporting a short sundress, nor is an afternoon garden party the place to break out the cathedral-length train and veil.

Take a minute to close your eyes and envision yourself as a bride. What do you see? Are you wearing a full ballgown with your hair in romantic ringlets? Or are you outfitted in an ethereal, flowing dress and loose hair sprinkled with flowers? Write down six adjectives that best describe how you want to look and feel on your wedding day. Some examples: princess, sexy, sophisticated, over-the-top, classic, boho.

What to Expect

When you get to the bridal salon, a specific salesperson will be assigned to you. You will work with this person every time you return to the store. A good salesperson will ask you what type of wedding you're having, how you envision yourself looking on your wedding day, and what kinds of dresses you're drawn to.

She will also probably check you out and decide for herself what style will look good on you based on your body type, then she'll bring you dresses to try on. If you're uncomfortable with this, try to find a shop where you'll be free to look through everything for yourself.

From the moment you enter the salon, be mindful of the way you're being treated and of the way the salespeople are making you feel. Are they treating you respectfully? Or are they acting haughty? If it's the latter, you may want to take your business elsewhere.

This is where all the knowledge you've armed yourself with will come in handy. If you can talk expertly about dress silhouettes and styles, the salesperson will know she's dealing with an informed consumer.

Take advantage of a salesperson's expertise. She works with brides every day -- if anyone knows about dresses, she does. Bounce ideas off of her, and consider her advice. If anyone tries to talk you out of or into something or makes you feel uncomfortable about your decisions, remember that a good salesperson will never push you to buy something you're unsure about.

Here’s a tip.

DON'T schedule your wedding dress appointment late in the day.

The early bird gets the worm—er, in this case, the early bride gets an energetic, fresh bridal store staff that hasn't dealt with the concerns of a million clients already.

"If you get the first appointment of the morning, the store will likely be less crowded, and you'll get the full attention of your consultant," says Camille McLamb, owner of Chicago-based wedding planning service Camille Victoria Weddings.

How to Shop

When you finally step into the dressing room, try to keep an open mind. If the salesperson brings you something, she says you must try, try it -- even if you detest the way it looks on the hanger. Many a bride has ended up waltzing down the aisle in a gown the salesperson had to persuade her to try on. And while certain styles work best on certain body types, it helps to try on all different kinds of dresses, then decides what shape and form you look and feel best in.

Focus first on finding the best wedding dress silhouette for you.

Details are important—a long row of teensy pearl buttons and a well-placed ruffle or two can mean the difference between a right wedding dress and a great one.

But before you start nitpicking the details, "first figure out the silhouette that works best for you," says gown designer Amsale Aberra. "Try not to get caught up in the trend of the moment, but instead focus on your personal style and what flatters you most."

One of the biggest misconceptions about bridal gowns is that they only come as is. The truth is, most dresses can be ordered in alternative forms. So if you like the bodice of one and the skirt of another, ask to have them put together to form your dream dress (provided, of course, that both gowns come from the same designer). And don't be afraid to ask to have embellishments like bows and beads added or removed. Keep in mind, though, that the more you stray from the original design, the more it will cost you in the end.

DON'T freak out about wedding dress sizing.

"I'm a bridal consultant, but even I was alarmed by how big the dresses were when I was trying them on," says Gail Johnson, of Gail Johnson Weddings. "Bridal gowns run two to three sizes larger than your regular size. Once you get your head around that, be realistic; pay attention to how it looks, not what the label reads. It took me some time to deal with that myself—I actually cried because of the size!"

DON'T forget about the top of your wedding dress.

A long, gorgeous wedding dress with a fancy hem is to die for. Just remember that the top of your dress is what people will notice most—and what will show up in most wedding pictures. "The majority of wedding photos that guests take of you are from the waist up," says Margee Higgins, 30. Higgins picked a Lazaro gown with straps and a high belt, both of which you could see in all her photos.

DON'T pick a wedding dress just because it's trendy now.

Trendy wedding dresses won't necessarily stand the test of time—flip through your parents' wedding album for evidence of that. "A gown should be timeless," says Erika Unbehaun, owner of Flutterfly Events, a wedding planning company in London. "When you feel sexy and glamorous in a gown that has both modern and traditional elements, and you feel like a better version of yourself when you're wearing it, you've found your timeless gown. It's something that will never go out of style."

Something else to remember: Give yourself options and lots of time to think before you buy. Even after you think you've found your gown, take a bit to be entirely sure it's the one for you. Since bridal gowns are custom-made, most salons put a no-return policy in their contracts.

Bring your camera wedding dress shopping (if the boutique allows it).

Embrace your inner Cher Horowitz (we all have some of the Clueless characters in us) and photograph your dress possibilities instead of putting all your trust in the mirror. "Mirrors are used to sell dresses—cameras don't lie," says Richard O'Malley, owner of the O'Malley Project, a company that offers consulting services for event planners.

"Because you'll be looking at the photos of this dress for years to come, know how it photographs from all angles. One potential hiccup: Some boutiques don't allow dress photography. Call ahead to see if you can take a few snaps for decision-making purposes only.

Try on as many wedding dresses as you need to…

According to Nicole Janowicz, celebrity wedding stylist, almost any dress can look gorgeous on a hanger (or it can seem terrible). Resist snap judgment. "Once a dress is on a woman's body, it takes on a different shape and looks," she says. "This means that a bride will try on many dresses, and she should. I had a celebrity bride try on 27 dresses at fitting to find the perfect reception dress. Just as it takes time to find a husband or wife, it takes time to find the perfect gown."

…but DON'T try on too many wedding dresses.

We're not trying to confuse you here—we just mean that you shouldn't feel forced to try on more or fewer gowns than you want. According to Lacy Pool, a bridal stylist and blogger for Serendipity Bridal, you can suffer wedding dress overload (and total panic) if you feel like you must try on 20 different dresses at each salon you visit.

"Too many choices and too many places can add stress and confusion," Pool says. Nine times out of 10, you will go back to your first salon and order your favorite gown anyway, so go with your gut." Pool's tip: Find a bridal salon that carries your top three designers and "gets" your style.

DON'T feel like you must bring an audience when you try on wedding dresses.

Wedding TV shows make it look like you need to bring every one of your female relatives, your neighbor and your kindergarten teacher with you to help with the dress search. "I felt pressure to bring a group of girlfriends with me," says Breen Halle, 28, from Miami Beach, Fla., who was married in February.

"The result was negative. Too many opinions, thoughts, and coordination. I found success going to the salon myself and selecting my gown. And I learned it's perfectly normal to go alone—not to mention stress-free."

DON'T forget that all wedding dress and accessory sales are usually final.

Gulp—no pressure, right? But it's a realistic reminder that you should stay serious in your search for your wedding dress and accessories. "I had an impulse buy of a fun fascinator," says Lori Lenz, 40,."Now I realize it doesn't really work with the rest of the wedding and I should just get a simple veil. Only now, I have a hundred-dollar clip-on hat that I didn't realize was nonreturnable. "

DO ask lots of questions while trying on wedding dresses.

You should ask questions of the boutique owner and staff—but also of yourself. "You should always ask yourself a few questions to make sure the dress you love not only makes you feel spectacular but also works for the activities of the day," says Nicole Brewer, David's Bridal style council member, and celebrity stylist. "Make sure you have the answers to these: Do I feel beautiful, confident and comfortable? Can I dance in it?

Can I sit down? Am I self-conscious about any part of my body in my dress?" Although a gown may be gorgeous, if you can't move in it all night and feel trapped, mum

And lastly, always trust your instincts. Ask yourself, can I really see myself walking down the aisle swathed in this gown? Is this how I pictured myself looking like a bride? If not, take it off and move on. But if the dress passes muster, take a deep breath, smile at your reflection, and breathe a huge sigh of relief -- your search is over! y-style, it's not the right one for you.

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