The Ultimate Guide To Dress Shopping: From Vera Wang To Outlets (And Everything Between)

March 7, 2012 by emilyanderson
shefinds | Weddings

So, you’ve recently gotten engaged, and you’re serious about finding the perfect dress? You’ve come to the right place. You never miss a sample sale, have all of your fave gowns already bookmarked and you know your fair share of designer names and runway lingo, but after browsing through a few bridal mags, you get the sense that the world of wedding dress shopping is a little…different.

You’re totally right. Wedding dress shopping is a totally unique and wonderous shopping experience. And it can be a tad overwhelming. But don’t fret, dear bride-to-be! First, it’s important to narrow down what you want, and we’re here to help, with secret tricks and tips from the bridal experts to boot.

If your heart is set on…

1. A Custom or Couture Wedding gown

The Timeline: A source from Manhattan’s Mark Ingram Bridal Atelier divulged that custom and couture gowns take 6-8 months to make, and as much as 12-14 weeks to deliver to the salon. On top of that, you should allow 2-3 months for alterations – so if you want to wear designer (ie. Vera Wang), make an appointment with your local bridal salon as soon as you have your date set and your venue booked. (And for those of you who’ve always wondered, a designer gown, like Vera’s, can set you back four or five figures.)

Appointments: While some bridal salons accept walk-ins, many others will look at you like you have three heads if you walk-in off the street. Both Mark Ingram and Kleinfeld said the wait is about 1 month for weekend appointments, so plan accordingly.

Sizing: Your street size is not your wedding dress size. It’s likely to be a size or two larger – so don’t freak out. And don’t try to diet yourself into a dress that is “your size,” and by all means, DON’T buy a dress that’s too small for you, with the weird idea that you’ll fit into it in 6-8 months. If you lose weight, you can always have the dress altered. The number doesn’t mean anything–it’s the fit that matters.

Or you’d rather have…

2. A Sample Wedding Dress

Quality: Be forewarned that floor samples are gently worn and generally range from sizes 6-26 (though upscale bridal salons generally only have 1 or 2 samples sizes available in the size 6-10 range).

Percent Off: Every season, the store needs to liquidate samples to make room for new styles – so you can get them for 50-80% off. A special note for my fellow plus-size brides: be sure to call ahead to see if salons carry samples in your size – many don’t carry plus-size gowns at all.

Outlets: Bridal outlets are stocked with sample sizes and warehouse overstock. They don’t have the pomp and circumstance of bridal salons (ie. you won’t be served champagne when you make your selection), and they probably don’t to alterations on-site, but they make up for it with big savings. You’ll be able to pick your own gown off the rack, and you’ll see sticker prices before you go through the trouble of trying them on.

Feeling even more thrifty? How about…

3. Pre-Owned & Second-Hand Wedding Dresses

The Upside: Many brides would rather recoup some of the cost of their gown, rather than have it preserved/stored, hat means you can get the designer gown you wanted for anywhere from 25-80% off!

Where To Shop: Check out a reputable site like or theOnceWed’s Used Wedding Dresses section. You’ll find designers like Monique Lhuillier, Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta and more.

The Downside: Remember that you’re dealing with an individual, not a company. Ask the seller for their exact measurements, if the dress has been altered, and for an accurate description of the dress’ condition (including pictures). Also, it is acceptable to bargain with the seller if you don’t feel the gown’s condition is reflected accurately in the price.

If you just have to have a specific look but can’t afford it:

4. Replica Wedding Dresses

How To Get One: Find a seasoned seamstress, and get a price quote on a dress replica before they start working on it.

Buyer Beware: It should only be about half of the cost of the real deal. If you’re venturing into the world of “Made In China” designer dress replicas – be warned – people’s experiences with this sort of thing are very mixed. (More information on replica sites here.) You’ll pay pennies on the dollar for your gown, but you might not have any way recourse for ill-fitting or low-quality dresses.

If you’re on a time crunch…

5. Off-The-Rack

Time-savers: Some of your favorite department stores and mall destinations now have wedding boutiques, like NordstromJ.CrewNeiman Marcus, and Bloomingdale’s. You don’t have to order them specially, so the entire process will be relatively quick and easy. Before you show up, though, check your local store to see if they indeed have a bridal department and if appointments are necessary.

Sizing: These gowns come in standard dress sizes, so there’s no guess-work involved – and you can often leave the store with dress in hand! Check out the store’s return policy – especially if the dress is on sale. Shopping these sites online can be great because most (like Shopbop) offer free shipping and returns.

If you’re looking for a serious deal…

6. The Aisle New York

Pricing: This is a distinctly unique way of shopping for bridal gowns online. Become a member of The Aisle, and shop limited engagement sales of designers like Oscar de la Renta and Isaac Mizrahi.

All-inclusiveness: They also carry bridal accessories like jewelry and veils, so you can get everything you need in one place. A portion of the proceeds goes to charity – so it’s good bridal karma, too.

Don’t forget about…

7. Online Sample Sales

Not only are there bridal-specific online sample sale sites, like Dress Rush and Exclusively.In, but many popular sites like Gilt and Rue La La also have season bridal sales. Check our sample sale calendar for updates on these events.

Don’t know where to start? Shop our guides to the best simple wedding dressesinexpensive wedding dresses, and strapless wedding dresses.


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