By Lisa Flam, CNBC.com
Every bride wants to walk down the aisle in the perfect dress. These days, that gown could cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.
Celebrity brides certainly make a splash with their opulent designer dresses. And at Kleinfeld, the New York bridal emporium, the most expensive gown ever sold was a custom design for $60,000, though most gowns are $3,500 and up.
But in reality, most of us aren't spending close to that much.
American brides spent less than $1,200 on their dress last year, according to two reports. The Wedding Report found that women spent an average of $1,166, while a study by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com estimated the amount at $1,121.
The good news for budget-conscious brides is that the selection of stylish gowns below that level has grown in recent years, says Anja Winikka, TheKnot.com's site editor. Wedding gowns are turning up in department stores and at chain retailers like Ann Taylor and J.Crew, the subject of a CNBC documentary.
"They don't have to sacrifice style," Winikka said of today's brides. "You can still find the dress of your dreams. You just have to do your homework."
To help you get started, read ahead to see wedding gowns for less.
Ann Taylor Ann Taylor
Carolyn One-Shoulder Gown: $550
Ann Taylor, the women's retailer that's been around for nearly 60 years, began offering bridal gowns in 2006.
With 15 to 20 new gowns each year, the company says it has something for every body type at a great price. In sizes 00 to 18, they're fashioned from silk, chiffon, cotton and lace, and sold online for $550 to $950 this season.
The gowns are feminine, romantic and modern, says Ann Taylor style director Andrew Taylor.
"Brides get an elegant, chic, fashion-inspired modern gown at an incredible price and incredible quality," Taylor said.
The gowns have sold well, says Taylor, without releasing sales data.
"The business has done very well and it's growing every year," he says.
David's Bridal David's Bridal
White by Vera Wang strapless ballgown: $1,028
Mainstay David's Bridal may be the first stop for brides looking for a lower-priced gown. And with good reason. The gowns that fill its more than 300 stores cost anywhere from $99 to $1,450, with an average price of just under $800, the company says.
"I would say we are the master of the affordable wedding gown," says Dan Rentillo, design director for David's Bridal. "But we are also about original design and really good quality."
To help keep the prices low, all gowns are made from silk-like synthetic materials that the company develops itself, he says, adding that the quality has improved in recent years.
David's carries several lines, but none with a bigger name than Vera Wang. The White collection by Vera Wang, which arrived at David's early last year, includes dramatic ballgowns and mermaid shapes. They're all true to Wang's aesthetic, Rentillo says.
And brides have noticed. They've been "very appreciative" to be able to get a Vera Wang gown at a lower price, Rentillo says. Of her gowns, he says: "They've done very well for us."
Kirstie Kelly Kirstie Kelly
Satin ballgown: $699
She calls her gowns "cost couture," and she's bringing them to the masses. Bridal designer Kirstie Kelly began creating her Signature line of gowns last year for Costco. They come in sizes 2 to 24 in various styles and are sold mostly online. The price range began at $699 to $1,399 but has been lowered to $499 to $699.
Don't let the warehouse club or low prices scare you. Kelly, whose couture bridal gowns cost up to $15,000, says the lower-priced dresses are made with boning, corsets and "beautifully textured" fabrics - "all of the things that make up a beautifully constructed gown."
Kelly credits Costco with keeping the prices low, and says the gowns would cost $1,500 to $3,000 if they were sold in her showroom.
"Because of the volume, we're able to give this wonderful pricing," she says. "Our brides have a huge smile on their faces. The brides we work with understand the value that they're getting."
And without giving sales figures for the line, Kelly says, "It's been very successful."
Carmen Marc Valvo Carmen Marc Valvo
One-Shoulder Ruffle Crepe Gown: $745
Eveningwear designer Carmen Marc Valvo has dressed bold-faced names from Angela Lansbury to Taylor Swift. Now, he's outfitting brides as well, at both ends of the bridal budget. Last year, the designer began offering couture wedding gowns that run as much as $6,000 and a collection line that costs $800 to $1,200. The lower-priced dresses, made in sizes 2 to 16, are not your typical bridal gowns, says Frank Pulice, a spokesman for the label. They're sleek, sexy and inspired by fashion-forward looks from the red carpet and Valvo's eveningwear collections.
"For the bride who's looking for something beautiful, sophisticated and possibly a little different from what she'd find in a bridal salon, the collection gowns are perfect options," he says.
And, he cautions, don't think the designer has simply slapped his name on the gowns.
"Carmen is designing each and every piece," and overseeing fit and production, Pulice says. "Brides are getting an authentic designer gown for a great value."
Sue Wong Sue Wong
Strapless Ball Gown: $829
When you look at Sue Wong's wedding gowns, you'll see drama. Her vintage-inspired confections fashioned from silk, tulle, satin and lace are adorned with beads, feathers, petals and fringe. And she does it all for under $1,000. Her goal, she says, is to make every bride feel special, even if she doesn't have thousands to spend on a gown.
"My special unique touches give a hand-made couture feeling, and makes any bride feel beautiful and ravishing ... on her special day," Wong said by e-mail. "I feel that I am providing a great service and alternative by offering high quality in design, make and aesthetics at a reasonable, accessible price."
TV personality Leeza Gibbons donned one of the designer's frocks for her wedding last year. The gowns come in size 0 to 14 and in various colors, including white, ivory, Champagne and peach.
Nicole Miller Nicole Miller
Silk satin gown: $730
Veteran designer Nicole Miller has seen so many brides whose gown looked heavy and cumbersome or had big puffy sleeves - looks that are decidedly not for her.
"I've never been about frou frou," says the designer, who launched her first full bridal collection in 2003. "I've had so many brides complain that 'I hated my dress so much.' From that premise is sort of how I designed the collection - things that were elegant and beautiful and simpler and just more comfortable."
Her gowns, she says, are a modern alternative to the traditional puffy-sleeve gown and give brides great options for a beautiful dress without going overboard on price. Gowns aren't marked up much, she says. They start at $730 and reach nearly $3,500, though most cost around $1,000, according to the company.
"Ours are more realistically priced but we haven't sacrificed on quality," Miller says, adding that gowns are silk-lined, hand-beaded and made with expensive fabrics. "I like to have a little bit of embellishment and keep it very chic."
Tadoshi Shoji Tadashi Shoji
Cap sleeve gown: $408
You may have heard the buzz earlier this year about designer Tadashi Shoji dressing Octavia Spencer for Oscar night, when she won best supporting actress for her role in "The Help." You may not have heard that the designer, known for outfitting celebrities of all sizes, has also entered the bridal business.
His gowns, which debuted in December, come in sizes 2 to 18, with some available by special order up to size 24. The dresses feature embroidered lace, Chantilly lace, cut organza and hand-beading. They cost $288 to $808. Some are clean and simple, while others are embellished.
"We cater to both sides," Shoji said by e-mail. "My bridal gowns are elegant and refined with an emphasis on fit and comfort," he added. "I always try to give value to my customers."
Afternoon Social Dress by Essere, exclusively for BHLDN: $1,000
If you're a bride who loves shopping at Anthropologie, meet BHLDN. Pronounced beholden, the company that began in February 2011 counts Urban Outfitters and Anthro as its retail siblings.
BHLDN's gowns, offered online and in two retail stores, come in a range of styles, many with a romantic, vintage-inspired vibe. There are gowns that cost more than the national average, but some beautiful-looking options - both long and short - below it as well.
Those choices include flirty tea-length dresses, airy cotton and linen gowns and others with vintage-inspired embroidery, says Nicole Sewall, BHLDN's divisional merchandise manager.
The shorter reception dresses, with hemlines above and below the knee, "offer a playful alternative for a more daring bride," she says.
"Our gowns speak to a variety of brides - from romantic to modern and everything in between," Sewall said by e-mail. "She is confident, has a strong sense of her own personal style, and is looking for a wedding dress that reflects who she is, creating a look that is uniquely hers."
Goddess gown: $695
Don O'Neill hopes that his designs will draw out every bride's inner goddess. The first gown that O'Neill, creative director for newcomer Theia, made for the label is called the goddess gown, a flowing strapless, silk chiffon confection that sells for $695.
"When the gown was finished it looked like it belonged in Athens on top of the Acropolis," O'Neill says.
That dress, which began as an evening gown, has become a signature Theia look and inspired a full bridal collection that first appeared in stores in late 2010. O'Neill says the gowns are chic and sophisticated at an affordable price. They come in sizes 0 to 16 and can cost up to $2,495. The gowns each have a focal point, but do not have heavy embellishment.
"They're not too fussy," O'Neill says. "The bride is the real focus so I don't want to take away from her."
The dresses are designed to fit different body shapes, personalities and ages, O'Neill says. He hopes they'll all help women find their "inner light."
"That's the secret behind the label Theia," he says. "The inner radiance that comes through when you feel good about what you're wearing."
Actress Julie Benz apparently found hers, wearing two Theia dresses for her May 5 wedding.
One-shoulder wrap gown: $278
Contemporary women's clothing retailer Bebe debuted a collection of wedding gowns in March. Designed by Rami Kashou, the gowns run as high as $2,500. Made in fabrics like duchess satin, silk organza and silk taffeta, the gowns can be ordered in sizes up to 14.
Bebe says its gowns are for brides who are modern and love to be the center of attention.
"J.Crew & The Man Who Dressed America" Premieres May 24th at 10 pm ET on CNBC. For more show info, visit J.Crew & The Man Who Dressed America
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By Lisa Flam, CNBC.com