If your search for the most amazing gown is starting to feel more like an off-the-rails reality show, take a deep breath. Here, the best tips for when to start, whom to bring (hint: maybe not all of your bridesmaids!), and how to navigate styles, sales, and fittings. Follow our lead, and say "yes" to stress-free shopping.
Photo: Bryan Gardner1. Set a Budget
Shopping without a cutoff point is like driving without a gas gauge-trust us on this. Plan to spend about 10 percent of your overall budget on your dress. But consider this number a starting point. If fashion is more important to you than, say, flowers or music, increase your dress spending and scale back in other places, says Mark Ingram, owner of Mark Ingram Atelier, in New York City. Or, go easy on the gown and shell out for a great photographer or band if those are your top priorities.
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2. Start Early
It takes about six to 12 months from the moment you place the order to when you can bring the gown home, so once you have that ring on your finger, it's game on. "The designer needs four or five months to make it, and then you'll want to schedule three fittings, about one month apart," says Ingram. Giving yourself ample time also guarantees that you'll be able to fit in a variety of shopping experiences, from appointments at bridal boutiques to designer trunk shows. If you're short on time, don't worry: For a surcharge ($50 and up), anything is possible.
3. Do Your Research
Before you hit the shops, think about what kind of dress you want. Pull pages from magazines, browse our Dress Finder, and see our Pinterest boards for ideas. Keep a folder where you can stash tear-outs, fabric samples, and anything else you love, and use your smartphone or tablet to swipe through Pinterest boards. "At most salons, the majority of gowns aren't out on the floor," explains Ingram. "In order to pull the right styles from the back, your consultant needs to get a feel for what you're looking for. The more guidance you can provide, the better!"
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4. Make an Appointment
Once you have an idea of what you want, it's time to schedule appointments in bridal shops, department stores with full-service salons, and, if it fits your budget, a couture house. If you have specific designers in mind, find out which stores carry them. Most places don't operate on a walk-in basis, so call for appointments at least two weeks in advance. And while a Saturday slot may seem like a no-brainer, Keng warns against it if you're looking for a laid-back experience. "The store is almost always at capacity then," she explains. "The energy is a little crazy!" The better choice? "Wednesday, early afternoon, is the slowest," Ingram says.
5. Limit Your Entourage
On reality shows, brides always bring a whole crew of friends and family members to join in on the shopping fun. And every single time, there's loads of drama. The takeaway? Less is more when it comes to companions. Bring one or two people whose input means the most to you. Otherwise, you'll spend too much time trying on gowns they picked out and steering the conversation back to what you want. If you can't imagine not including all of your friends, "Invite them to your final fitting and make a dramatic entrance for the big reveal," suggests Ingram.
6. Primp Beforehand
The great thing about most bridal salons is that the lighting is flattering, and the mirrors don't distort your frame. But do put some effort into getting ready for your appointment. You want to feel confident in the dresses you try on, and it helps the consultant get a sense of your style. If you arrive with wet hair and no makeup, it's a lot harder for the staff to pull dresses you might like. Bring any items you want to wear down the aisle and wear a strapless nude bra and a seamless thong or brief Keep in mind that you'll be changing in front of people!
7. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
A simple truth: Some dresses look like paper bags on the hanger and drop-dead gorgeous on your body. With that in mind, don't turn your nose up at anything until you try it on. "Many women come in and say, 'I don't want strapless,'" says Ingram, "and then it looks great." It's the consultant's job to match you with styles you'll like, so give her the benefit of the doubt and prepare to be pleasantly surprised. That said, don't let a pushy salesperson (or your mom) sweet-talk you into a gown you don't love.
8. Forget About Size
No two designer size charts are created equal. If you're a size 6 in the ready-to-wear world, for example, you could be anything from a 2 to a 12 on planet bridal. It can be jarring to see a larger number on the order form than you're used to, but resist the urge to get a smaller size. Taking in a gown is easy; letting it out is difficult.
9. Track the Main Contenders
Before smartphones became ubiquitous, snapping photos at appointments was a no-no. But now, most places allow it, letting you better document your experience. The trick is to be sure whoever's taking the pictures is getting good ones. In a bad shot, even the most amazing gowns can appear sort of "eh," and the last thing you want is to look at a picture of a dress you loved at the store and suddenly decide you hate it. Pay attention to the lighting and angle, and give your stamp of approval before you move on to the next shot. If a store doesn't allow photos, take detailed notes, make a pros-and-cons list, and record all pertinent information.
10 Read the Fine Print
A good consultant will walk you through everything, including the price, color, style number and name, delivery date, deposit, estimated alterations fee, and cancellation policy. As for the deposit, "50 percent is standard-you should never, ever pay more than that," says Ingram. If you do, and for some reason the gown you ordered doesn't end up being what you expected, you could be out thousands of dollars. Another thing to take into account: sales tax. Some brides forget about it, but it can significantly add to the price of the dress.
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