A step-by-step guide to an often daunting process

This story first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Columbus Weddings, published June 2019.

Though choosing one’s wedding gown is an iconic moment, it can also fluster even the most savvy shopper. Bridalwear exists in its own ecosystem, with its own sizing, silhouettes—even its own unique undergarments. So many moving parts can feel overwhelming, even before well-meaning Aunt Judy invites herself and her strong opinions along for the ride.

Thankfully, with the right expectations and planning, brides can build a fun and memorable experience by breaking gown shopping into these five easy steps, from the first browse to the final buy. We asked three of Central Ohio’s top bridal boutique pros to share their tips on how brides can sidestep stress and find their dream dress.

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Pre-shopping: Find your inspiration

Not sure where to start? Pinterest, Instagram and bridal magazines are great places to begin browsing. You can save inspiration and begin to notice patterns in styles, shapes or details that draw your eye. “See what you’re gravitating toward, what your vision is. … Get a feel for your vibe,” advises Heather DiMasi, who owns White of Dublin.

However, she and other gown experts recommend locking down logistics like your venue, date and time of day before you begin shopping in earnest. “A winter versus a spring wedding might have a very different feel to it—the venue and those details kind of set the tone for the feel of the wedding,” says Laura Wingfield, owner of Twirl Bridal & Prom Boutique in Kenton. “That said, we’ve had beach weddings where a bride is like, ‘I just want a ballgown; it’s just everything that I want,’ so as long as you feel beautiful and confident in it, it will be the perfect dress for your venue.”

She adds that even if brides gravitate toward a certain dress or style, it’s best to keep an open mind. “Having a range of inspiration is really awesome. Doing homework and having photos is great, but brides will come in [saying], ‘I have to have this dress’—and they put it on and are disappointed that they didn’t love it,” she cautions. “Avoid putting all your eggs in one basket.”

A perfect plan: Decide where to shop

Most bridal boutiques strongly recommend—or even require—an appointment for gown shopping, so they can dedicate energy and resources to you without distraction. The pros recommend that before you make your first call, peruse online reviews to see what other brides had to say about their experiences.

“Reviews are the number one thing [to consider],” notes Henri’s Cloud Nine senior bridal stylist Rachael Murphy. “Also, look at the boutique or retailer’s website to see what kind of brands they carry. Then, call to ask what price ranges they have, appointment availability, and how many guests can be accommodated.”

Murphy also cautions that while purchasing a dress online or on consignment may seem like a tantalizingly affordable and convenient option, in-person shopping offers a number of key benefits. (You’ve seen the budget retailer “what I ordered vs. what I got” memes, right?) “Our stylists have years of experience. Here, you get to see the dresses in person, try them on, get some honest opinions,” Murphy explains. “We do in-house alterations, and our seamstresses are also experts at what they do, so you get the full shopping experience like you see in TV and movies.”

DiMasi agrees. “When you’re at a boutique, you’re working with an expert. You may be looking at ballgowns online, and you would never have known that you look stunning in a fit-and-flare. It broadens your perspective as a bride. Ninety percent of our brides will come in with a style they think they want, and walk out with something completely different.”

Determining your dress budget is the final, crucial piece of the pre-appointment puzzle, one that can help sidestep unneeded shopping strife. If any family members have intimated they may be contributing to your dress fund, have that conversation before shopping begins. “Be ready to say ‘yes’ when you go shopping,” says DiMasi. “We try to be so respectful of a bride’s budget; we’re not going to show you a dress you can’t afford. But if she was going to pay for half, and she didn’t know her fiancé was also going to put in, she has limited herself. Other times, you may not step into a boutique because you don’t know if you can afford it.”

Appointment day: How to browse, who to bring

With your pre-shopping checklist accomplished, it’s time to shop! Murphy explains that even those brides who come in on the hunt for a specific dress or style should always try to keep an open mind. “The dress that you don’t think you would like on the hanger can look completely different on your body,” she says. “Samples will not fit absolutely perfectly, but it’s part of your consultant’s job to help you visualize that, so trust them. It’s best to just relax and have fun … don’t put too much pressure on yourself to find The One. It will be a process to get it there.”

Wingfield also emphasizes that the family and friends you bring along can greatly enhance—or detract from—your overall shopping experience, making it important to both carefully select guests and to communicate with the boutiques in advance about party size. As far as how many people to bring along for the ride? “Every bride and group is different, but anything more than five is a lot,” Wingfield says. “Having six or more opinions is really difficult when trying to find the perfect dress. Now, I have had brides in with a crazy entourage where they’re all super supportive, and everyone genuinely loved each other. We’ve had awesome experiences with both big and small groups.”

DiMasi echoes that support level outweighs the specific number in your entourage—though be warned that some boutiques do limit the amount of guests allowed per appointment.

“They need to protect your heart and your vision,” she says. “Sometimes people forget that it’s the bride’s day. It needs to be the people she trusts the most that have her heart and vision in mind. A lot of times with big groups, the bride will oftentimes be more confused in the end.” However, like Wingfield, DiMasi recalls that her boutique’s largest group to date, a party of 14, was an exception. “That group was so supportive of the bride, it was unreal. I’ve never seen anything else like it. They all wanted her to look and feel her best; they deferred to her before they would say anything.”

The big moment: Saying “yes” to the dress

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, it’s time to choose The One. As Wingfield explains, sometimes this decision defies logic or careful planning and just comes down to a gut feeling.

“If you’re down to favorites, clearly you love something about [them] and they look beautiful on you. The dress you choose may just have that little something different; it can just be a feeling or liking the sparkle of this one more. Just the right hem length,” she says, adding that this is when leaning on your stylist to weigh pros and cons and respond to your verbal and nonverbal cues can help clarify the picture.

Brides often ask Murphy how to know when a dress is the dress. Her measuring stick? The desire to stop shopping. “When it’s the one, you don’t want to take it off. You feel most beautiful and most confident in it,” she says. “If you truly love it, you should want to stop looking. It’s like the [person they’ve chosen to marry]—it just feels right.”

Final touches: From accessories to alterations

DiMasi reminds prospective brides to set a piece of the dress budget aside for the necessary adjustments and accoutrements. “A bride is not going to look for her veil and accessories until she says ‘yes’ to the dress,” she notes, advising brides to set a specific amount aside for alterations and accessories when building their overall budget. Bridesmaids or relatives who may not be present at the initial dress appointment may enjoy helping you try on accessories (such as headpieces) or attend fittings, Wingfield adds, though accessories that are part of the fitting process, like belts, generally should be purchased the same day as the gown.

It’s important to ask the boutique about their alterations and fittings process, to make sure you can properly plan for scheduling and costs. A seamstress is a bride’s best friend, in Murphy’s opinion. “Trust your seamstress. You’re going to get very close with her,” she says. “If your seamstress recommends something, remember that she has been doing this for years and generally knows what’s best.” The seamstress can also help a bride determine the best option for her strap placement, belt placement, hem length, bustle style and other important details.

Final fittings are usually scheduled approximately one month before the wedding, so most bridal pros recommend that if you plan to lose or gain a significant amount of weight after fittings begin, you communicate that in advance to avoid potential issues. Bring the shoes and undergarments you plan to wear on your wedding day to each fitting, to help ensure a perfect fit and suss out any potential adjustments that need to be made.

Finally, remember that even the most beautiful dress in the world won’t work if it doesn’t arrive on time. Wingfield stresses that it’s crucial to work with your bridal boutique to make sure the selected dress can be shipped, altered and fitted in plenty of time for the wedding. “Gowns can take up to four to six months to come in, and we don’t want to cause any extra stress,” she says. “Planning a wedding is stressful enough.”