Wedding: Dress Quest

Whether your dress dreams are down-to-the-stitch specific or out of focus, here’s how to begin the search

“I have absolutely no idea,” says my engaged friend, looking overwhelmed as she pages through a bridal magazine — one of the many in a towering stack beside her.

I assure her that lots of brides don’t know what kind of wedding dress they want — though visions of my own

“I have absolutely no idea,” says my engaged friend, looking overwhelmed as she pages through a bridal magazine — one of the many in a towering stack beside her.

I assure her that lots of brides don’t know what kind of wedding dress they want — though visions of my own ideal gown, a strapless ivory full-skirted dress with a delicate alençon lace overlay and scalloped hem, have been dancing through my head since about, oh, age five. Our two dress dreams — one fuzzy, one sharply defined — are common among brides-to-be. But whether you’ve got every square inch stitched out in your mind, or are still trying to decide between a form-fitting satin mermaid gown and a tulle-heavy princess silhouette, finding The Dress doesn’t have to be an impossible task. We’ve talked to the local experts and broken the shopping process down for you — step by step — so you can find the dress of your dreams, without any of the nightmares.

Step 1: Compile a Look Book

As any bride can attest, seeing racks upon racks bulging with dresses of every shape, style and fabric imaginable can be overwhelming. So before you begin rifling through the limitless options, familiarize yourself with what’s out there. “Do a little bit of homework,” says Danielle Adrian, owner of Bridals by Danielle in Philadelphia. “Start getting bridal magazines and looking at the gowns. Get an idea of what you might consider.” See a look you like? “Go to the designer’s website, and see other collections they might have,” Adrian says.

And don’t stop there. Buy a binder and create a “look book” of things that inspire you: pictures that catch your eye, colors you want to incorporate, bridal looks you crave. As you do, you’ll start to get a better idea of certain looks you’re attracted to, which will help determine the overall style you’re trying to achieve on your Big Day.

“There’s so much wedding eye candy available,” says Cindi Deal, operations manager of Marlton’s Bridal Garden. So start compiling — but also be realistic: The second-skin satin sheath worn by the wispy model on page 47 of your bridal magazine may not be the most flattering style in real life.

“Nine times out of 10, when a girl comes in with a picture and says, ‘This is exactly what I’m looking for,’ she doesn’t walk out with that dress,” says Pattie Lamantia, owner of The Wedding Shoppe in Wayne. “Looking at magazines and going online is a great way to see dresses, but remember that those dresses are on models and fitted to them. You shouldn’t have it set in your head that if you see it on a model you’re going to love it on yourself.”

Step 2: Establish a Budget

The one thing that may be more overwhelming than the large inventory of a bridal store? Catching a glimpse of an even larger price tag.

“Sometimes [brides-to-be] are blown away by the cost of wedding dresses,” says Mary Helen Ranieri, owner of Suky in Ardmore. So, prior to stocking your dressing room, be aware of the cost of wedding dresses, and establish a realistic budget.

First, consider what aspect is most important to you on your Big Day. Are you a foodie bride who smiles at the thought of delectable hors d’oeuvres, or is the photography your main concern? “For some people, their wedding is going to be all about the pictures, the band or the food,” says Deal. “If the dress is the fantasy of your wedding, then spend your money on that. It depends on the individual.”

And the range of bridal gown prices is as expansive as the range in bridal gown styles: A lightweight satin J. Crew dress can cost less than $300, while an embellished creation by Monique Lhuillier, appropriate for a black-tie affair, can run upwards of $12,000.

But whether your gown funds are less than $1,000 or tipping the scales at four- and five-digits, you can find the gown of your dreams. While the quality of the dress, in terms of fabric and structure, will inevitably go up as you dish out more dough, Deal insists that “there are beautiful dresses in all different price points.”

Once you establish a price range, stick to it. “If you want to spend $3,000, don’t try on an $8,000 dress, because you may fall in love with it and then you’ll be disappointed,” says Lamantia. “Don’t try on anything ridiculously out of your price range. It’s not fair to do to yourself.”

Step 3: Shop Around

Once you’ve compiled your look book and fixed your price point, it’s time to start the actual shopping. Make sure to give yourself enough time — nine months to one year in advance is preferable.

“A lot of gowns take at least six months to come in,” says Deal. “And you need to cushion that with alteration time” — about three months. But don’t fret if your Big Day is rapidly approaching and your search for The Dress is far from finished.

“We can do a wedding if we have four weeks or 14 months,” says Ranieri. “But it all depends on the comfort level of the bride. Are you going to be comfortable getting this dress [back] two weeks before your wedding?”

Book an appointment with the shop’s bridal consultants, or enlist an honest friend or family member to accompany you to multiple salons, look book in hand. Visit a few places and then, says Deal, “Pick the salon you’re most comfortable with — a calm space.”

“A lot of things are established during that first conversation with the consultant,” says Adrian. You’ll want to go over the type of affair you’re having, and give her a sense of your personality and style.

Faced with choices of different shapes, necklines, waistlines, colors, embellishments and fabrics, narrowing down the dresses to one that flatters your figure and suits your style is no small task. “It’s not like buying a pair of jeans,” says Ranieri. “You really need a bridal expert who does this every day and can eliminate and show you what’s going to look best on you. We see these dresses on a million shapes, so we know what’s going to minimize their bust, make them longer or give them a shape.”

While it’s helpful to shuffle through the gowns yourself, also let your consultant pull dresses for you. More importantly, face your stocked dressing room with an open mind. The consultant chose a flowy, empire-waist dress when you had a drop-waist style in mind? Try it on anyway — you may be pleasantly surprised.

“When we have a bride who hasn’t started at all, we put her in an array of shapes to see what flatters her figure first,” says Ranieri. “Then we narrow down by color, her complexion and price point.” (Girls with fair skin look best in warm ivory and pearl shades, while diamond and pure whites complement darker skin tones.)

Also keep in mind that dresses do not look the same on hangers as they do on your body. “Dresses are very deceiving on the hanger,” says Lamantia, “especially the very simple ones.”

And while you shouldn’t necessarily purchase the first dress you try on, don’t think you need to step into hundreds of gowns before you settle on one. “Some girls will overshop for a dress, and they’re the ones that become really frustrated,” says Deal. Look around and take your time — don’t ever feel pressured into a purchase, our experts say — but if you find yourself coming back to one particular dress, odds are that’s the one for you.