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Why I Own Four Wedding Gowns

Decision fatigue can make even the most sensible bride go overboard.

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Somewhere around age 25, I started collecting wedding gowns. It didn't matter that there was no engagement on the horizon. I was a bargain hunter—a vintage collector turned shop owner—and I knew I could find the perfect gown for far less than what the women on Say Yes to the Dress were paying. (Those Friday night marathons on TLC were more than simple downtime. They were wine-fueled research.)

What I didn't expect was for my stash of gowns to make it harder to plan, at 29, for my actual wedding day. Before I knew it, I had four wedding gowns in my closet.

The first: a $5,000 gown that had wound up at a Manhattan thrift store after the designer had closed. I paid $50 for it, then hauled the billowing dress around the corner to a UPS Store to ship it back home to Washington, D.C.

"What are you doing?" one of my bridesmaids finally asked. "This isn't 27 Dresses."

The second wasn't even a wedding dress, but a 1960s evening gown so intricately adorned that I knew deserved to be reserved for a wedding. Dazzling in ivory sequins from shoulder to toe, it cost $40 to buy and another $40 to get the zipper repaired at a tailor who specialized in vintage.

Then I got engaged. The two dresses shared a corner of my closet until this winter, when it was time to start planning the wedding. The ball gown was too fussy for a low-key brunch wedding. And after a few years of fluctuating weight due to health issues, there was no chance of fitting that slinky vintage gown over my hips.

I needed to go shopping.

There are two major types of bridal experiences today, Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, explained. You can visit a place like TLC-famous Kleinfeld Bridal, which will help you create and live out a fairy tale—for a price. "Each of those dressing rooms is a drama in the making," he explained. Between shoes, accessories, and alterations, "they get you in the store multiple times, and sell you everything. They are selling you an experience." Even at mid-range stores, gowns are typically ordered after purchase, requiring the bride to visit again for alterations.

Your other option? Take it home today—or close to it. "Merchants recognize that shoppers expect instant gratification," Underhill said. "Whether it's furniture or dresses, it's disappointing to find something we're excited to buy, get out the credit card, and discover that we won't get that thing we want to buy for six weeks." Off-the-rack options like J.Crew and BHLDN have started to combat that old-fashioned waiting game.

My ability to make a clear choice about a wedding dress had broken down completely.

Both options are fine, but only if a bride is crystal clear about her desires and her financial limits. I wasn't sure what style I wanted for my big day. And while my family gave me a generous gift to purchase a new gown ("Get a dress that fits," my mother pleaded), I felt guilty about spending more than a few hundred bucks on a dress I'm only going to wear once.

Hoping to simplify my experience, I turned to Anthropologie's BHLDN boutique. I selected a few gowns online, made an appointment, and spent $1,000 in 45 minutes. The gown I chose was elegant, but not stuffy. I looked pretty good, and I knew I would look even better once I lost 10 pounds. The dress showed up at my door two days later.

But three months later, well after the return window had closed, I looked at myself in the mirror and knew: That dress wasn't me. I was never going to lose enough weight to feel comfortable in it. And I didn't want to depend on Spanx to create any illusions for me.

So I turned to Etsy, where I found a vintage cocktail dress in my size for $80.

"What are you doing?" one of my bridesmaids finally asked. "This isn't 27 Dresses."

There's a name for what I was feeling: decision fatigue. Dr. April Lane Benson, author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, explains on her blog that decision fatigue usually happens to people at the end of the day, after you've made so many decisions, about breakfast and your commute and work, that your brain starts to cloud over.

"Never shop tired. Never shop hungry."

For me, it wasn't a one-time issue of shopping too late in the day. In the midst of planning my wedding, adjusting to a job change, and moving my fiancé into my cramped apartment, I was stressed. My ability to make a clear choice about a wedding dress had broken down completely.

But it's not all my fault. The Internet and and the 24/7 media cycle contribute to the drama of wedding dress shopping. Forty or 50 years ago, you'd visit your local bridal shop to see your options, probably after years of wondering when you'd get the chance to shop there. If you got married in the 80s or 90s, you could go to the local bridal shop or David's Bridal, which by that time had evolved into America's one-stop shop for weddings.

But now, wedding gown shopping goes well beyond what's available locally. We have hundreds of channels of television. Streaming video from around the world. Kim Kardashian's first wedding. Kim Kardashian's second wedding. Facebook, Tumblr, and the web surfer's black hole: Pinterest.

Underhill gave me a piece of advice that made me wish I could have taken him along to Anthropologie on my budget-breaking day. "Never shop tired. Never shop hungry." The warning applies to the in-store shopper along with the sometime-around-midnight web browser. "It's a significant purchase. Don't make it frivolously."

It's easy for a bridal vision to spin out of control when you add in late-night surfing or magazine flipping. And much of the time, what we really want is far out of our reach.

"Our reference groups keep sloping upward," Benson said. "We used to compare ourselves with the Joneses who lived next door." But now more than ever, we're comparing ourselves to people who are simply living beyond our means.

I thought I was going to find perfection in that expensive gown. But I didn't.

And those fantasy lives on TV or in magazine spreads? We adapt them into our own fantasies. "We're seeking perfection," Underhill agreed.

I thought I was going to find perfection in that expensive gown. But I didn't.

I asked Benson if she thought my predicament was peculiar, or that I was being unreasonable for spending a thousand dollars on a dress but deciding I didn't want to wear it. She spoke gently. "There was some image you had created for yourself, and even though this [dress] didn't feel like it was you, you wanted to fit yourself into it anyway."

In short: I settled because I was overwhelmed.

If you look for BHLDN wedding dresses on eBay, you'll see mine, languishing in the listings with an untouched opening bid of $649 (free shipping!). The ball gown sold quicker, earning me back the $50 I spent on it, but not much more. The 1960s gown is tucked in the back of a closet at my mom's house, too beautiful to let go yet.

With four months until my wedding day, I'm pretty sure I'm going to stick with the fourth dress. But I'm definitely sure that 30 years from now, no one looking at photos from my wedding will ask how much my dress cost, or who the maker was. They will notice how happy I looked, and they might ask if I'm still happy after all these years. I like to think I'll tell them that I am.


Lisa Rowan is a writer and editor living in Washington, DC. She cohosts Pop Fashion, a weekly podcast about fashion, business, and creativity.

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