The day after my partner Steve and I got engaged, my mom called with congratulations—and to offer us money from my dad and her toward the wedding. She also specified that she intended to contribute a separate amount for my dress—up to a thousand dollars. “You’re on your own after that,” she said.
While I knew that amount probably wouldn’t cover the dress, not if I bought it in NYC where I lived, I figured it would cover at least half. I didn’t have a set budget in mind but knew, and had always known, that I didn’t want to spend more than a couple of thousand—tops—on a dress.
With my mom’s impending visit in mind, I excitedly began setting up dress appointments. My plan was to do the legwork before she came and then seal the deal with her in tow.
Coworkers and friends offered shopping recommendations, and I did a lot of googling too. One boutique I researched had a section on the website titled “useful information.” Beneath it was information on shopping companions, the importance of having the date and venue, and price range. It stated, “Before scheduling an appointment, make sure you have determined a budget for your gown. Our consultants will work with you to stay within your budget. Prices for bridal gowns at the Atelier begin at $5,000.”
I laughed to myself. What absurdity! Five thousand dollars on a dress! That you wear once! Once! Ridiculous!
And yet, I booked an appointment at the Mark Ingram salon anyway. I thought it would be kind of fun to go to a place like that—visions of champagne, macaroons, and Oscar de la Renta swirling in my head. I also thought it might give me an idea of what I liked so I could then find it on consignment or on one of those wedding resale sights my friend Jane had told me about. I was absolutely all for renting my dress.
I made several weekends out of dress shopping, trying on all manner of dresses from A-lines, to halters, to sheaths. Everything but the big, poufy ball gown was fair game. I liked so many of the dresses I tried on, and was pleased to discover that many of the ones I liked in the early days of my shopping only (and I say that with complete irony) cost about $2,000. None of them felt like the right one though, so I kept on looking.
I eventually found myself at more upscale salons, where trying on dresses that cost upwards of $4,000 was the norm—and felt amazing. I fell in love with an Elizabeth Fillmore lace overlay sheath and was dismayed to discover that it cost $4,800. And that was before tax and alterations.
I returned home that evening happy but stressed. What if I didn’t find anything I liked better than the Elizabeth Fillmore with French Chantilly lace? Could I consider spending that amount if nothing else compared?
It would not be a stretch to say that I lost sleep thinking about my wedding dress. Even after I’d ruled out the Fillmore (the front wasn’t as flattering as I initially thought it was), I found its replacement in another French Chantilly lace number, this time from a small shop in Brooklyn, not far from the location of our wedding.
“I love the idea of wearing a dress by a Brooklyn designer since we live in Brooklyn and are getting married in Brooklyn,” I whispered to my fiancé late one night. I promised I would do my best to find a more reasonably priced dress but needed to know that if I couldn’t, would we be able to afford the Rebecca Schoneveld (clocking in right around $4,800, my soft spot, apparently)?
I admonished myself for having expensive taste but sincerely hoped that I’d find something cheaper. Four thousand dollars was a shit-ton of money to spend on a dress. I had no illusions that it would ever be worn again—not by me and not by my non-existent daughter.
As my search continued, I found myself justifying the price tags I’d only recently considered wild and completely out of my means. Instead of scoffing at the high price tags, I began nodding with a growing understanding. There was a reason these dresses cost what they did. There was handiwork involved, real workmanship.
Plus, I reasoned, it might the only time in my life that I get to wear couture. The one day I’d get to be totally decked out in a real designer dress that fit me like no other dress off a hanger ever would.
With some financial finagling and my partner’s blessing, we had a new budget: $5,000.
As I learned about the wedding dress industry, I became truly fascinated. Not only did I know an Israeli-designed dress when I saw one (the beading! the illusions! the super intricate detailing!), but I also understood what it felt like to be draped in a superbly made dress, and it was sublime.
With my new budget and altered different outlook, I felt ready to find my dress. And so it was that my mother and I let ourselves be ushered into a private dressing area at the upscale Mark Ingram salon. There was no champagne but there were designer dresses galore, and among the Jenny Packhams and the Monique Lhuilliers, I found it.
“This is the dress I’m going to get married in,” I told my mom, who nodded and dabbed at her eyes.
The J Mendel dress cost $4,400 and was, apparently, reasonably priced compared to most of his pieces. I quickly did the math and realized that with tax and alterations (approximately ten percent of the total), it would come in at just over five thousand dollars
It was a lot of money, certainly far more than I’d ever spent on anything, including my half of the sofa that my fiancé and I bought together last year.
While I had expensive taste, I didn’t have the means to entertain it. I’d never even purchased a full-price designer handbag, for god’s sake, and I didn’t own expensive shoes like Manolo Blahniks or Jimmy Choos. I liked nice things, but I shopped the sales at Bloomingdale’s and expressed delight when I found good pieces on consignment. The most I have ever paid on a single item of clothing was a leather jacket for $500.
So I vowed to cut back on everything else. Flowers and invitations would have to take a backseat. I would borrow a veil and accept the cake option included in our catering costs instead of going to my favorite bakery. The dress is so much money, but I believe it is worth it. It is the most exquisitely tailored piece of clothing I’ll probably ever wear in my life. And all those other things just feel like details.