Southern Weddings

Hello, belles! Our practical advice posts are some of the most popular in our archives, so I’m back to shed some light on another aspect of wedding planning: shopping for a gown. This is the advice I would have wanted to read before I began dress shopping for my own wedding; it turns out I had more to share than I thought, so hold tight! And if you think I missed something, be sure to chime in in the comments!

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

Pull inspiration. Start by gathering images of dresses that appeal to you (Pinterest, of course, is a great place to collect them!). Don’t worry if they vary widely or don’t seem to fit the type of wedding you’re having — at this point, you’re just trying to pull together a visual representation of your style. Take note of recurring features or designers.

Decide on your budget. To determine your gown budget, you’re going to need to have a firm handle on your entire wedding budget (we covered wedding budgets here). The industry rule of thumb is that the wedding gown generally makes up 10% of the overall budget, but that doesn’t resonate with me — I spent about 4% of our budget on my gown. However, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else is doing as long as it works for you!

Nail down the basics. The location, venue, and time of year of your wedding will likely have a big impact on the type of gown that feels appropriate for it. Make sure you’ve determined these basics before you begin dress shopping!

Two of the dresses I tried on in my search — see more here!

PREPARING FOR YOUR APPOINTMENT(S):

Start the process well in advance. Unless you’re planning to buy off the rack (think J. Crew or BHLDN), know that it can take 6-8 months for a custom gown to be made, ordered, and, if necessary, altered. If you have it, the 15-to-10-month-out time range gives you plenty of breathing room to avoid making a panicked decision (but only if you’ve established your basics!).

Choose your shop(s) carefully. There are nearly as many bridal shops as there are brides, so there’s certainly one out there that will be a perfect match for your personality. Do you want an intimate boutique experience? Or do you want to see as many gowns as possible? Are you in love with a particular designer? (It seems obvious, but make sure the boutique you’re headed to carries her line!) Does the shop offer a range of gowns/lines in your budget? Have your friends had a wonderful experience there?

Do your hair and makeup. On the day of your appointment, take a little extra time to do your makeup and hair — just the fancy version of your usual look! If you’re anything like me, this will help keep you from nixing gowns just because you’re not feeling super confident that day. In addition, if you are SURE you’re going to want to wear your hair up, put it in a bun or a ponytail. Same goes for wearing it down.

Ask the RIGHT people to come with you. Dress shopping tips often focus on the number of people to bring to an appointment, but I think the TYPE of people is much more important. You want folks who will be supportive, kind, and generally hesitant to share their thoughts unless you ask (ha!). Now is not the time for the opinionated or the attention-hungry. If only your best friend falls into the first category? She’s the one who’s coming. If mama, mama-in-law, grandmama, sister, and best friend fit the bill? I think that sounds like a fabulous bonding experience.

More dresses I tried on!

AT YOUR APPOINTMENT:

Bring inspiration… Again, a lot of advice pieces tell you not to do this, but I think that’s absurd — I certainly did! I brought four printed pages of my favorite gowns to communicate my aesthetic to my consultant.

…but be open to anything. The point of bringing inspiration is to share the look you love, NOT to box yourself into a specific gown or designer you’re committed to. Dresses often look and feel VERY different on you than they do in photos, so be open to trying on anything! Even if you are absolutely SURE you would NEVER wear that gown the consultant is holding up, try the dang thing on. What’s the worst that could happen? You’re there to try on dresses, so have fun! Respect your stylist’s expertise (they do do this for a living, after all), but respect yourself, too — it goes without saying that you should never feel pressured into actually buying a gown you don’t love. As a final note, I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve read on this site from brides who ended up picking a gown 180 degrees different from what they originally envisioned :)

Only try on dresses in your price range. There’s no point falling in love with something you can’t afford, so be honest with your consultant about your budget. The only exception I’d make here is if you are committed to the idea of selling your dress post-wedding, like I did — then, I think it’s okay to wiggle the budget up a bit to compensate for the fact that you’ll recoup part of the cost later.

Be gentle with yourself. I expected dress shopping to be an easy experience — until I found myself in tears after my second appointment, convinced I’d never find a gown I loved. While I was pretty shocked and more than a little embarrassed to feel that way, it is what it is — don’t beat yourself up about it if you something similar happens to you, and don’t feel pressure to feel a certain way! That goes for “the moment,” too. Neither I nor my Mom cried at any of my dress appointments — I just felt calm and happy.

Photos from one of my dress fittings — more here!

MAKING THE DECISION:

Consider your husband. Yes, you’re the one wearing the dress, and yes, you should absolutely choose something that’s your style and that you feel beautiful in! But just as the wedding day is about the two of you, I think it’s worth a passing thought to consider your fiance’s style as you make your final decision. Know he hates anything too frilly or fussy? Save the rows of ruffles for your next black tie event.

Wait for a trunk show. Finally, if you’ve zeroed in on THE dress and have a bit of time before you need to order it, see if the designer will be having a trunk show nearby anytime soon. Most offer 10% off to those who order during the show, which can be a great way to save!

What do y’all think? Did I miss anything? How was your dress shopping experience? Painful, amazing, stressful, fun? How many shops did you visit or dresses did you try on? I’d love to hear!

emily Written with love by Emily
13 Comments
  1. avatar Aimee McMurtrey reply

    Never disregard a style you might not think you like. My dress is a style and design I never thought I would look good in. I ended with a dress that is like a mermaid with very little too it. I knew that I want as simple as could be and I could not be more in love with my dress.

  2. avatar Lisa reply

    As always, Emily, so grateful for your wisdom! Even though I’d love to share the experience with my whole 8-person bridal party, I will either be shopping with just my mom or my mom and my sisters due to travel. I’m actually very happy that it’s going to end up being a small and supportive group!

  3. avatar Liza reply

    Thanks for the ideas! Did you sell your dress online after your wedding? I found the dress I want on one of the used dress sites for 50% of the price but I am hesitant to buy it online. Just curious if you had experience with this and if it was positive or negative.

    • avatar Emily reply

      Hi Liza! Yes, I did! I actually did a private sale (not through a dress site – payment went through PayPal) because a gal approached me post-wedding before I even had a chance to list it. I’ve heard from LOTS of people who have had great experiences through dress sites, though, so I’d say go for it if it’s the dress you want!

  4. avatar Tiffany reply

    There were two things that were so obvious, yet I missed because I was not really ‘into’ wedding planning before. 1. You have to make an appointment at a bridal salon to look at dresses, so make sure you’ve secured enough time and don’t feel rushed. 2. Ask the salon you’ve made an appointment at what undergarments you should bring (if any) to try on the dresses. 3. If you have any heirloom jewelry you can’t see yourself walking down the aisle without, make sure you try the dress on with those pieces so they mesh well.

  5. avatar Katherine reply

    I completely agree with all of these! We found a Carrafina gown that was a bit more than what we initially had planned for, I kindly asked the store owner (who was also my consultant) if there was anything she could skim off the top. She took 10% off no problem and we walked out of there that day with the dress of my dreams!

  6. avatar Hannah reply

    As someone in the process of searching for the perfect dress these tips are wonderful! So far I have gone to one shop, found a dress I loved, then later that night after thinking about it questioned if I loved it after all as I felt I had found it so quickly. I definitely agree with bringing the right person. I am going back to the shop with my mom who I feel will help the decision process. Also, the famous it’s “the one” reaction. I too, was very calm and felt relaxed trying on dresses. (I think that has a lot to do with how I questioned it later) feeling like I need to have this dramatic “feeling”. Love all of your advice :)

  7. avatar Lauren reply

    Don’t be afraid to shop by yourself! I really liked looking on my own and then bringing back my mom and aunt.

    Also, like said, when you find the dress you dont have to buy right away. In addition to trunk shows, many boutiques have sales and take up to 20% off. Some boutiques promise to give the lowest price and will price match. You buy your dress so early that it’s easy to splurge but when you are scrambling for pennies the week before your wedding you will be happy you saved!!!

  8. avatar Amanda reply

    Could you tell me who makes the dress on the left in the second row of pictures? I think it’s an Amsale–I love it!

    • avatar Emily reply

      Hi Amanda! Yes, that is the Amsale Melina, from her spring 2011 collection! Good eye :)

  9. avatar For the Perfect Day – Tip #6 | Michael & Laura Photography reply

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