It's a wonderfully disarming moment, the first time you see yourself in a wedding dress. But shopping for your dress can also be intimidating and overwhelming. After all, it is probably the most expensive -- and most photographed -- garment you'll ever own. It helps to know how to begin and what to expect.
Before You Shop Don't start trying on gowns until you've confirmed a few logistics: What time of year will the wedding take place? Where will the reception be? This will keep you from buying a dress that won't feel right on the day (velvet for a garden wedding, a billowing skirt for a reception in a tiny restaurant). But don't wait too long to begin shopping. It takes four to six months to have a dress made and fitted, sometimes longer for one with intricate handwork. If you start shopping eight to twelve months in advance, you won't feel rushed -- or encounter rush charges.
Setting a Budget With the price of traditional wedding gowns starting around $500, it is also important to establish your budget before setting foot in a store. "People should not be afraid to talk about price," says Nancy Williams, sales manager at Vera Wang in New York City. "Everyone has a budget. Even if it's $20,000, it's a budget." Without a price range in mind, you risk overspending or falling in love with something you can't afford. Williams also reminds brides to make a distinction between the cost of the dress and the cost of the entire ensemble -- if you're going the traditional route, you'll probably want a headpiece, shoes, lingerie, and jewelry; alterations add hundreds of dollars to the price. "So if you are willing to spend $4,000," says Williams, "maybe you should have a $3,000 dress."
Most brides buy their dresses at a bridal boutique, whether an intimate shop or a bridal emporium, part of a department store, or a store owned by and featuring one designer. But if you envision something other than a traditional gown or if your budget is restricted, take a creative approach to shopping. Peruse vintage-clothing stores, consignment shops, and discount or outlet stores. Ask bridal boutiques if their samples ever go on sale. Consider bridesmaids' dresses and evening gowns, which are less expensive and formal but can still be appropriate. You can also have something made by a local dressmaker or even rent a gown (check the Yellow Pages).
Shopping For Your Dress Most bridal boutiques require appointments, which will ensure that you'll get the personal attention that is part of what makes buying a wedding dress so special. Treat the appointment as the important event it is. Don't try to squeeze it in on a lunch hour; don't go straight from the gym. Bring someone who will enjoy sharing this experience with you, such as your mother or a bridesmaid, but don't show up with an entourage; too many opinions only detract from the one that counts -- yours. Better stores provide you with a bustier or a strapless bra as well as a pair of pumps, but some people prefer to bring their own; if you're already planning on wearing an heirloom veil or another accessory, definitely bring that, too.
At the boutique, you will be ushered into a large dressing room, where the first step is usually discussing your wedding plans with your saleswoman. "We ask about location, what they envision," says Williams. "That helps us a lot, and it should help them, too, just saying it aloud." Bring pictures from books and magazines of dresses and details you admire, since these visual cues are easier to interpret than words such as "simple," "elegant," or "sophisticated." Don't worry if you don't have a dream dress in mind -- a good saleswoman will help you find it anyway, homing in quickly on your likes and dislikes and advising you on the styles that flatter your figure.
Your saleswoman will probably bring dresses to you one at a time. They will be sample sizes (sizes eight or ten). Don't worry if you're larger or smaller: After the saleswoman helps you into the dress, she'll either clip it or hold it closed in back to approximate a fit, giving you an idea of how it will look in your size. Even if you've always imagined yourself in a puff of tulle or a slinky satin number, try on different silhouettes, such as a sheath, an Empire-style dress, an A-line dress, and a ball gown; many women are surprised to discover what really suits them best. But resist the urge to try on every dress in the store, which inevitably becomes confusing.
The One The right dress will satisfy both your head and your heart -- as well as your budget. Consider practical matters: You may wear this dress only once, but it will be for a long, important day, and you'll feel more beautiful if you're comfortable. So lift your arms, as you will when you're dancing, and try sitting down and standing up, as you will probably do many times during the reception. Is the dress unbearably heavy or cumbersome? Does a corsetlike bodice feel too confining; is a charmeuse slip dress too revealing? Does the fabric seem inclined to wrinkle at your waistline or gape at the neck? Remember that some of these problems will disappear when the dress in the right size is fitted to you. If there's a specific feature you don't like, talk to your saleswoman. The manufacturer or the boutique's seamstress can work wonders: Puffy sleeves can be deflated; plunging necklines can be raised.
Finishing Touches After you've made your decision, your measurements will be taken. Even if you're planning on losing some weight, the dress should be ordered to the size you are on that day, since it's much easier to take a dress in than let it out. Brides have certainly been known to insist upon a smaller size, which may mean signing a waiver so the store isn't responsible if you can't squeeze into it. At many stores, you will leave a deposit of 50 percent at this point, with the remainder due after your first or last fitting. After the store orders your gown from the designer, it takes a few months to be made. The store will call you when it comes in, and at that time you'll make an appointment for your first fitting, six to eight weeks before your wedding (if you need your gown in advance, for a formal portrait or another similar occasion, tell the boutique ahead of time).
Accessories Accessories can be purchased from most bridal boutiques when you choose your gown. But it may be a good idea to make a separate appointment, still well before the first fitting, so you can give your full attention to selecting them. On that day, consider visiting your hairdresser first for a wedding-day trial run; this will make choosing a veil and headpiece easier. Some people prefer to shop around for accessories, buying shoes at a shoe store and stockings at a department store.
Regardless of where or when you buy your accessories, it is important to have them in time for your first fitting; at this appointment, you'll try on your entire ensemble. After having dreamed about this dress for months, you may have misgivings on seeing it for the first time -- it still may not fit or look like you've envisioned it. Relax -- this feeling is common. Trust your judgment, and let the seamstress do her work, pinning it for a perfect fit. This is the time to make sure you feel comfortable in the dress, to anticipate problems and find solutions; if your bra straps keep sneaking into view, for example, the seamstress can put in lingerie loops to keep them in place.
Alterations and the Final Fitting The alterations will be made before you go back for your second fitting. When you try on the dress this time, it may be just right, or it may need further tweaking. Tiny changes may be made while you wait, or you may need to go back again for one or more additional fittings. Make sure you try on the dress after the very last stitch is in -- you don't want any surprises on your wedding day. At your final fitting, bring the person who will bustle it for you, so she can be shown how to operate the ties, hooks, loops, or buttons.
The finished gown will be pressed and packed with lots of paper and often a body form to help it keep its shape; you can take it with you or have it shipped. At home, carefully remove it from the garment bag or box, and hang it from a high spot where it won't be disturbed -- or spied by your fiance. You, on the other hand, will be peeking at it several times a day. How can you help it? The cake, the flowers, and the band are still just images in your mind, but here, at last, is something you can touch, something that makes it all feel real.