Gowns Demystified: A Guide to Dress Shopping

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Stephanie Hanna married Aaron Granger on July 18.

Tips for helping to make the wedding dress search a success

Silk shantung. Horsehair detailing. Chantilly lace appliqués. Duchess satin. Bridal style elements can be overwhelming, and they're only the tip of the iceberg. When do you need to make a decision? Why did you step out of your size 8 jeans and into a size 12 gown? And do you really need alterations?

We talked to experts for answers to all those questions and more. Armed with this knowledge, you'll be saying "yes" to the dress of your dreams faster than you'd imagine.

You can start making bridal appointments after deciding on a wedding date, budget and venue, says Emilie Duncan of Emilie Duncan Event Planning. Most experts agree that brides should begin shopping eight to 12 months from their wedding date. Shops usually can accommodate shorter timelines if you're in a pinch, but you'll have to pay rush fees or buy off the rack.

If possible, plan to make your purchase no less than six months before the wedding to make sure you have enough time for the dress to arrive and alterations to be made. And yes, you absolutely need alterations.

"Very few people fit perfectly into a bridal gown," says Megan Williams, co-owner of Trousseau Bridal in Powell. Even custom-sized gowns often need a few tucks, she adds, because the dress wasn't sewn directly onto your body. You'll need a bustle if you have any type of train. And most gowns are made long, so you'll likely need to have it hemmed as well.

Research seamstresses while you're waiting for your dress to ship, then schedule your first fitting once you have it in hand. Aim for two or three months before the wedding, depending on the complexity of the alterations needed.

If you plan to lose weight, try to be at your goal when you arrive for your first alterations fitting, advises Lil Stalnaker, general manager at Wendy's Bridal. But schedule a final fitting a week or two before the big day to avoid any surprises.

Don't forget to leave room in your dress budget for the alterations. A basic bustle, hem and a few tucks might cost around $300, but that can go up if you have lots of lace, beading or hard-to-work-with fabric.

"I would rather have a bride start out on a lower price point and budget more for alterations," says Williams. "Alterations are what make the dress look best on your body."

Gown pricing can cause a bit of sticker shock to an unprepared bride. Where the gown was made-North America, Europe or China, for example-and how it was made are huge factors in determining price. The size of the label makes a difference, too-bigger bridal houses often have better access to materials and can pass the savings on to the consumer.

If your budget is around $1,000, you can expect to find a variety of mass-market gowns with minimal details. Think beading on the bust only or machine-made sheet lace, with shorter trains or no train at all. Many fabrics are polyester blends.

If you can spend around $2,000, you've hit the "sweet spot" at many stores. You'll start to see lower-end couture gowns or mass-market gowns with better fabric or more beading. You also might see minor customization options, like changing the neckline or sleeve style, before the gown is shipped.

If you're lucky enough to have a budget in the $5,000 range, your options are wide open. Gowns are typically atelier-style and handmade in the U.S., says Williams. Materials are almost exclusively natural fibers, or you might see head-to-toe Swarovski crystal beading, says Murphy. Customization is widely available to give you the dress of your dreams.

But that all means nothing if you're not sure what you want. In that case, first try on simple dresses in all the main silhouettes-mermaid, fit-and-flare, ballgown, A-line and sheath-to see which fit looks best.

"Fit is the No. 1 thing to love about your gown," says Stalnaker. "And figuring out not just a good fit, but the best fit that you can have is critical." Once you choose a silhouette, you can focus on details such as color, lace or beading, straps and neckline.

Stuck between several dresses? Talk things over with your bridal consultant, even if your top contenders are from different shops. Consultants often can provide an impartial voice to help you sort through an emotional decision.

As you're trying on gowns, you might encounter another type of sticker shock: the sizing, which can be two or more sizes larger than your street size.

"It's just a number; it doesn't matter," says Frankie Murphy, store director at Elegant Bride. "These gowns have been designed for perfection...whatever the designer sees as the ideal body shape." Focus instead on the fit and how you feel in the gown.

And if you're a plus size, don't think you'll be limited to certain silhouettes. The best dress for you depends on your body's shape, not its size. If your favorite salon doesn't carry samples in your size, Murphy suggests trying on different silhouettes at another store, then using that information to inform your decision at the store of your choice.

Remember, shopping for your wedding gown should be fun. And with the right knowledge and a willingness to ask lots of questions, it certainly will be.

Tips from the Pros

There are a few things you can do before your actual appointment to ensure everything goes smoothly. Here's what experts say will help:

Make sure you're well-rested, hydrated and not hungry, says Lil Stalnaker at Wendy's Bridal. Not taking care of the basics practically guarantees that you'll feel stressed or cranky.

Don't overbook; gowns are often heavy and getting in and out of them can be tiring. Aim for two appointments per day, with something fun like lunch or drinks in between to break things up, advises Emilie Duncan of Emilie Duncan Event Planning.

Only bring the friends and family whose opinions matter most, and who can read you well enough to know when they should keep their mouths shut. Most experts agree that too many opinions can ruin the shopping experience.