All The Insider Secrets Of Wedding Dress Shopping

Everything you never knew about wedding dress shopping

A Practical Wedding | Grab Wedding Dress Shopping by the Horns

How To Shop For A Wedding Dress | A Practical Wedding

This month, we were lucky enough to be asked to support the Ford Fiesta Movement’s October Style month by going on a fact-finding style mission. We asked you to share all of your burning questions about wedding dress shopping, tallied them up (you had a cool 288 questions), and then packed our bags to go to The Wedding Party dress store in Berkeley. Why that particular dress store? Well, the ladies of The Wedding Party are not only longtime APW readers, but they’ve also run their store for twelve years. They are the best-ever blend of down-to-earth and knowledgeable.

What we learned in our hour-long interview was both simple and totally game changing for me. I’d sum it up this way:

  • Be your own advocate. It’s easy to get wrapped up in this idea that the world of wedding dresses is a confusing world where you are powerless, but of course that’s totally not true. If you want to know why one dress costs significantly more than another? Ask. If someone is body shaming you, point it out, and ask them to stop. If they don’t, politely decline to continue working with them. If you don’t want people to up-sell you on veils, and gloves, and other things you don’t want, tell them “no thanks” calmly but firmly. Anyone who doesn’t respect your wishes is not someone you should be working with.
  • We’ve all heard our fair share of horror stories about the wedding dress industry. This interview completely reframed things for me. We shouldn’t view the wedding industry as the problem. Instead, we should view it as an industry that happens to be plagued with customer service problems, stemming from old-school ideas of limited consumer information, rigid tradition, and particular ideals of femininity. Instead of being scared of the industry as a whole, we should be grateful that we live in a (brave new world) of the internet, where we can educate ourselves on our options. And then? We should watch out for customer service problems, and politely decline to put up with that noise.
  • Use your salesperson as your resource. One of the things you’re paying for is your salesperson’s time. If you’ve picked a wedding dress store wisely (more on that in a second), you should have a salesperson who is knowledgeable and respectful, and knows more about wedding dresses than you or I ever will. Use them. While it’s great to walk in with a clear idea of what you like and be firm about what feels like your style and what doesn’t, let the salespeople do their jobs. Let them suggest a few dresses for you to try on (the worst that happens is that you don’t like them and don’t buy them). Let them walk you through alterations that can be made (apparently long sleeves can be added to all sorts of short-sleeved wedding dresses). Ask them questions, and make them work for you.
  • But mostly? Have some fun.

After our interview Maddie and I trooped upstairs to try on wedding dresses, and we had a blast. Maddie’s talked a bit about what a body positive experience it was for her. But mostly, we both just had tons of fun and found dresses we probably would have worn to our own weddings.

How To Shop For A Wedding Dress | A Practical Wedding 5
Finding The Right Place To Shop

APW: How do you find the dress store that’s right for you? That’s a little tricky because you’re limited by where you are. So perhaps the better question is, what are red the flags?

Wedding Party: My best advice is to call the store. If you get someone on the phone, see what that person is like. If the person is nice, polite, educated, and can answer your questions, that’s a really good sign.

APW: Would you recommend bringing up budget and taste on the phone?

WP: Absolutely. Mention your budget and mention if you’re looking for something specific, be it simpler or more formal and more embellished. Things that are also important to mention beyond budget: size. Bring it up. Ask, “I’m a double-zero petite, I’m a size sixteen. Do you have sizes I can try on?”

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What To Expect At Various Price Points

APW: Let’s take some really common price points for our readers: $500, $1,000, and $2,000. What can you expect in those price points?

WP: The industry has evolved so far that today is a fabulous time to be shopping for a $500 wedding dress. Price points have actually come down. You can get a super cute dress, that totally looks like a wedding dress in that traditional sense, that has some embellishment for under $500. You will be buying poly. You may or may not be buying domestically produced. So you have to pay attention if it matters to you. The only thing you typically won’t get is an underskirt. It’s the weight of the dress that translates into a really stunning fit that you won’t get until you hit probably $800.

Once you hit $1,000, you’re typically going to get a train. You’re going to have more structure. The dress will have more layers of lining. You might get into lace. Very likely at $1,000 you’ll have a head to toe lace dress as an option. It’s just going to be a little more substantial. For some women it’s going to feel more like a “traditional” wedding dress.

Then when we hit $2,000 and up you’re going to see a more intricate sewing. You’re going to look at that dress and think, “Wow, that was hard to make.” You’re gonna have design work; maybe chevrons, seaming, finish work that’s really fine or hand done. Often simpler, lightweight.

That brings up a point that I think is nice to share. Why is a wedding dress more expensive than the exact same bridesmaids version? It sounds like you’re getting ripped off. It’s because the dress is white, so it needs to be lined.

How To Shop For A Wedding Dress | A Practical Wedding

Silk vs. Poly

APW: What is the deal with fabrics?

WP: Essentially wedding dresses are divided into two categories; the non-silk, i.e. polyester, and the silk. The cost of silk and cotton, natural fibers, have gone up so dramatically on the wholesale end. Designers of silk dresses have had to raise their prices significantly. There’s always been a disparity in pricing, but it’s more so today than in the past. Often times you’ll have the exact same dress, but one is poly at $850 and one is silk at $2,200. That is what typically should define the difference in price. If it’s the same dress and they’re both poly, and one’s $850 and one’s $2,000, then you really have to ask yourself if you’re paying for label.

How To Shop For A Wedding Dress | A Practical Wedding

What Is UP With Wedding Dress Sizes?

APW: Explain wedding dress sizes. Are they street sizes? What’s up?

WP: It depends on the designer. Typically, the more high-end and the more couture, the smaller the wedding dress size and the less it correlates with your street size. They’re basically running off vintage sizes. Women who like vintage are familiar with the fact that back in the day, a size six was as big as your pinky. That’s the reason. The bottom line is the more contemporary designers who are better priced run much truer to twenty-first century women’s sizes.

APW: So is your best advice that you should ignore the size, don’t let it influence how you feel about the dress?

WP: Absolutely. Because you are going to have lots of preconceived notions, which might keep you from finding the perfect dress.

APW: For me, I’m sorting out what is bad business practice, and what is just “the wedding industry works in weird ways sometimes.” Why does it often happen that you order a dress, they tell you it’s going to be the right size, and it comes in, it’s four sizes too big, and they tell you they can solve it through expensive alterations? What’s going on with that?

WP: What most stores are doing is that they are protecting themselves. You might have been standing there in a size eight dress that fit you perfectly, but they look at the measurements, they look at the chart, and they say, “Oh, you’re a size twelve.”  Measurements are misleading, and most women will be told they need a larger size than what they’re standing there wearing.

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What Should Alterations Really Cost?

APW: With alterations, what is your best advice? What’s a reasonable price point? I feel like this is such a black box for people. They don’t know, if you just ordered me a dress that was too big, and are now saying, “Oh, we need to fix it.”

WP: In our arena of simpler, less embellished gowns, we’re looking at between $200 and $450. Very seldom do we have a bride spend more than $350. So the $700–$1000 alterations are perhaps understandable with a couture gown, but for the vast majority of dresses, you shouldn’t have to spend that kind of money.

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How Long Does It Take To Make A Wedding Dress?

APW: Okay, timeline. In maybe the most unfortunate conversation of my engaged life, I went into a salon and was told by a rep, “Honey, you better pick a dress today, or you won’t have it in time for the wedding.” And I was like, “Really? It’s twenty-four months from now? Are you hand sewing it? What is happening?”

WP: It depends on the designer. Domestically produced gowns like Nicole Miller, those dresses are made in size runs, just like regular clothing, and they’re purchased out of stock. When I order a Nicole Miller dress, if it’s in New York, it can be here in a week. If they’re waiting on the next cut, it might take six to eight weeks. The idea behind your wedding dress taking nine months is that someone is sewing it by hand and it’s a $20,000 dress. But most women are buying a dress between $700 and $2000, so what you’re basically doing is getting in line. The general turnaround is three to four months.

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Explain The Sample Sizes, Please

APW: Why do salons only have one sample size? I know it can be emotionally and logistically hard for people to go wedding dress shopping knowing they’re not going to fit into stuff.

WP: If you’re a small salon and have limited buying dollars, ultimately you’re really looking to hit the median mark. You don’t want to have a bunch of size four dresses. You want to have tens, twelves. As much as we know we can do justice to clipping, we’ll get a ten or twelve. It is mainly just a matter of dollars and cents. You have to be mindful of your inventory, how many women you can accommodate.

How To Shop For A Wedding Dress | A Practical Wedding

EFF Body Shaming

APW: How do you deal with a body shaming salesperson?

WP: The best way to deal with it is to just be your confident self. Be the woman that you are, and say, this is what I’d like to see, can you help me with that? If they ask if you’re going to lose weight for the wedding, just look them in the eye and say no, and it’s none of their business.

APW: If you’re at a bigger salon, if you’re getting someone who’s body shaming would it be appropriate to ask for someone else?

WP: Absolutely. This whole concept that the salesperson gets to control your shopping experience is crazy. It’s your shopping experience; it’s your show. We are here to assist you. You get to take control of your experience and by all means if someone’s nasty to you, put it right back at them.

How To Shop For A Wedding Dress | A Practical Wedding

Your Taste vs. Their Experience

APW: People ask about what sort of research you should do before you go shopping. We’re in this sort of new era of finding this stuff online. How helpful is it to do a lot of research, and when is it not helpful?

WP: I think it’s always good to start with a vision. Usually you start with a picture in a magazine, a picture online. “I like the overall look of this dress, more specifically, the silhouette.” You may love the way it looks on that size double-zero model, and then you go put it on yourself, and you’re like, “I don’t like the way it looks on me.” It can be really deflating and un-fun. So, better to really have a two-part program. “Here’s some things I really like the look and feel of, and also I’m going to try on some other stuff.”

APW: How do you balance letting a knowledgeable sales person put you in something they think you might look good in vs. what you know you look good in?

WP: The best way to do it is to assert your taste. At boutiques, merchandise is limited enough that there’s no time constraint. But it is good once you’ve made your picks, which will typically reflect your taste, to let the salesperson grab a couple.

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Buying A Dress Online

APW: What advice do you have for buying a dress that you haven’t been able to try on first?

WP: I think online can work. For women who know their style, who know their general size and can be realistic about it, and who are willing to invest a bit in alterations, it can totally work. Go big not small. Check return policy. A lot of companies actually have an exchange policy. They’re not going to give you your money back, but they will let you rotate that money into a different dress. However, if you have special questions, thoughts, concerns, or want some help and service, buying online might not be for you.

APW: If you’re in a situation where you’ve done your research online and you find a dress you’re really interested in, and you call a place and they say they can order it for you, should you make an appointment and go in?

WP: Absolutely, because that’s what they’re ready to do. Your salesperson is free, use her. Go in, pick her brain. Ask to see it in person. Don’t do any unnecessary online purchasing. If you can actually see it, then see it.

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Style…Yours

APW: What’s a way to find wedding dresses with sleeves?

WP: The fact of the matter is that it’s hard to find a wedding dress with a sleeve as it stands because most of that work is postproduction. Meaning you order a dress that’s sleeveless (not strapless) and then you add a sleeve.

APW: How do you feel authentic in something that you don’t normally wear?

WP: Just because it looks great on you, it doesn’t mean it’s you. You can try on three wedding dresses that look gorgeous to all the women in the room, but it’s not you. And if it’s not you, you don’t necessarily want to wear it because you really want to feel like your best, most beautiful self on your wedding day.

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APW: I’ve said this for years, better that you wear a cute cocktail dress that you feel like yourself in than you wear the world’s most beautiful wedding dress that makes you feel like you’re dressing up like someone else.

WP: Absolutely, you have to be yourself. This really speaks to my deepest, most personal feelings on the subject.

**A huge thank you to Ford, and The Ford Fiesta Movement, for partnering with us on this post, which allowed us to go on location for research.**

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