Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
As someone who’s never had to do it, I can comfortably say from sitting on the sidelines that wedding shopping sounds stressful at best. And that’s because more often than not, the process involves trying on a lot of very expensive dresses that aren’t necessarily your size in front of a lot of people — some, total strangers; others, your future in-laws. Couple that with any body and money issues you might have, and you’ve got a perfect storm of anxiety.
So to kick off Racked’s seventh-annual Weddings Week, I asked a bunch of brides to tell me about their dress shopping experiences. Some of them were pretty positive, others were a total nightmare, but most fell somewhere in between. Here, 11 women on what they wish they knew ahead of time, how much they spent, what they would have done differently, and their advice for future brides.
Being decisive helps.
Doing your homework, knowing what you want, and being a decisive person doesn’t guarantee a good wedding dress shopping experience — there are still plenty of other things that can go wrong, most of which will be completely out of your control — but it seems to help.
Melissa, who bought her wedding dress at Kleinfeld and describes herself as a “Type-A monster,” says knowing what you want ahead of time is key. “Decide on an overall look before you go out, because if you don’t have a clear idea of the overall vibe you want, you will get so confused with the options,” she says. “Don’t try on embellished gowns if you’ve never once wanted to, because it will likely look great and make you think you want that.”
Emily, from Washington, DC, agrees. “I found the actual shopping experience really enjoyable. I'm a pretty decisive person, and I definitely had an image in mind of what I wanted before going in,” she says. “For the most part, I tried on dresses that validated that image. I did try on one that was out of my comfort zone, and while I actually really liked it, I knew I wanted to stick with my initial vision and I didn't let myself waver from that.”
And if you have trouble making up your mind, bring someone who can help. “Overall, my dress shopping experience was pleasurable,” says Kate, who lives in Austin, Texas. “My mom and sister live in New York, so it was a great way for us to all spend a weekend together, which we don't often get to do. Having two of the people who know me the best was very helpful in narrowing down my vision, since I can be very indecisive.”
“As we got further along in the process, I started to realize more of the finer details that I didn't know I was looking for,” says Kate, “which made it very easy to tell which dresses would and would not work for me. I had done my homework and had a general idea of what I wanted my dress to look like, and that was very helpful.”
You don’t have to go the traditional route.
One of the most common themes that came up with the brides I spoke with was a fear that the entire process would feel forced and unnatural.
“Most wedding dresses didn’t really fit my personality and felt like a costume to me,” says Rachel, who tried on dresses in California and New York. “Compounded with my weird body issues, I just wasn’t having that much fun playing dress-up with some bridal store worker I didn’t know who was trying to read my personality.”
She adds, “Not all women have that crying, Say Yes to the Dress, this is THE ONE moment that a lot of people tell you you’ll have. I never had particularly strong emotions about any of the dresses I tried on, and actually wasn’t 100 percent convinced about the one I ended up buying until right before my wedding. Once I saw it with my hair, makeup, and veil, it finally made sense and I knew I made the right choice.”
When asked what she wished she would have done differently, Rachel says, “I probably would have gone with my gut more and not have bought into the cliché bridal experience as much. I had one particularly bad experience at a bridal store that actually pushed me to make a decision on a dress elsewhere,” she explains. “It was a decision I probably could have made much sooner if I didn’t have so much insecurity about being a bride in the RIGHT way and doing things the way they were supposed to be done. There’s a lot of tradition and weighing of expectations involved in weddings, and I think unfortunately a lot of them come into play when choosing a dress.”
Jen, who bought her dress in New York City, says, “I wish I knew that the wedding dress industry is huge, but doesn’t really cater to people looking for a more modern, structured style. Also, that it’s really hard to imagine how a dress will look on you when it’s not your size and it’s either way too small or clamped onto you.”
She ended up purchasing her dress directly from the designers behind the brand Lakum. “They have a beautiful showroom in Brooklyn where you can drink whiskey, hang out, and actually take your time and try on their dresses in a relaxing environment. I made an appointment and I was the only person there, so I had the chance to really connect with them and have their undivided attention,” she says.
“Getting to hang out with them was so helpful,” Jen adds. “Since they design all the dresses in house, they really guided me to find the perfect dress for my figure. Their dresses are literally what I’d want to wear to every special occasion ever, they just happen to be white.”
A perk of skipping the Kleinfeld-type experience: spending way less money. “You don’t have to do the traditional process where you order the dress and it takes forever,” says Nicole, who went dress shopping in Baltimore and New York City before ordering her dress online from BHLDN. “There are places you can go where you can get it right then and there and take it home with you.”
Don’t stand for crappy service.
Perhaps one of the most trying things about buying a wedding dress is how restrictive the process is if you’re doing it at a traditional bridal retailer. First off, it involves making a lot of small talk about big things — your wedding! your body! — with a complete stranger. And second, the size options are quite limited; expect to try on (or be asked to try on) sample dresses that don’t fit you at all.
“I’d been dress shopping with so many friends for their weddings that I was pretty well-armed,” says Helen from New York. “Since I’m not a sample size, I also knew that the whole in-store thing was going to be disheartening at best, completely demoralizing at worst. I had less than zero interest in going to a place like Lovely Bride and — as they suggested, when I called to ask about the availability of larger sample sizes — bringing along a sample-size friend to try the dress on for me, like some kind of thinness handmaid.”
At a bridal boutique in San Francisco, Hillary, who’s a size 16, says, “I had specifically said ‘I don't want to try on form-fitting dresses unless I'm trying them on in my size.’ And of course I got the answer back ‘Well, just try on this size 8 anyway, it might fit.’ So I did, and I felt like a sausage. I'm in the dressing room almost in tears. The thing is, I knew I wasn't going to buy that dress, but seeing yourself in any wedding dress and looking not the way you want to look is just really damaging.”
Until she went to The White Gown in New York, Hillary’s experience of attempting to try on a dress that fit — not a crazy request — was bleak. Her mom, who was buying Hillary her dress as a gift, did some of the legwork by calling bridal boutiques to assess what kind of inventory they had in store before coming in. “She described to me a pretty grim moment of calling Saks and explaining her budget,” Hillary says, “and then said ‘Also, my daughter wants to try on things in her size.’ The staff was like, ‘Well, then you might as well not come.’”
At The White Gown, “I was able to try on dresses of all different shapes,” she says. “I feel like was able to pick my gown because I liked that dress, not because it was the only thing I could try on.”
Jamie from New Jersey also advocates that finding a bridal shop that makes you feel comfortable is key — and if things are going awry, it’s probably not worth sticking around. “Even though it's their job, each consultant might not know exactly what they are doing, and it's okay to request someone else if you're not getting a decent level of service,” she says. “Everyone raved about the first shop I went to, so I didn't think it would be possible to go wrong there. But the consultant was brand new, and every dress she put me in was something I said I didn't want. Not to mention the other consultants had to keep coming over to me and fixing the clips because she was not doing it correctly.”
When asked if there was anything she would have done different, Emily says, “I wish I had asked more questions of the bridal salon employees. People in the wedding industry — especially when it comes to things like dresses — are so nice, and in my opinion, they're nice to a fault.” She adds, “It can be uncomfortable talking about money, and I felt like all of my questions about everything from payment to fittings to alterations were met with a super nice, very sweet non-answer.”
Which — surprise! — led to an issue. “Two weeks before my wedding, I came to pick up my dress and realized that none of the alterations had been made, and the bustle hadn’t been added in! It was all over some miscommunication because the salon basically never addressed my questions head-on.” In hindsight, she says, “I wish I had been more assertive about what I had questions about, because I think people in the industry forget that the majority of people only deal with wedding stuff once in their life and we have no clue how any of it works.”
Melissa says, “It’s VITAL to get someone who has experience (like, a decade), because they know everything about dresses, fits, cuts, options, etc. I told [my bridal consultant] what I wanted and didn’t want, and she literally produced a dress I would never have picked out of a lineup. It turned out to be my dream dress and everything I wanted and didn’t even know I wanted in one dress.”
Let’s talk money.
So, how much should you actually spend on a wedding dress? While no one can answer that question for you, there are a lot of things to keep in mind when shopping for a wedding dress. The first, most obviously, being that you’re only gonna wear the thing once.
“I loved my designer dress — I had my mind set on it the second I saw it on the runway,” says Ashley from New Jersey, who wore a Carolina Herrera dress on her wedding day. “Looking back I still love it, but wonder if maybe I should have saved a pretty penny and just went with a more affordable dress that was in my top five. I can't regret it now, but I'm like, can we do it again so I can wear it more than once!?”
“I always thought I would spend, like, $10,000 on one and go over the top, but as you get older and more reasonable you realize that makes zero sense,” says Melissa. “I got a beautiful dress in the $5,000 range, which I know is still not cheap, but worked — because guess what: It’s sitting in a box at my parents’ house, where it may never see the light of day again.”
“I wasn’t really sure how much I should budget for my dress,” says Kate. “I got the idea from The Knot that dresses fell in a few categories: $600 or less; $600 to $1,500; $1,500 to $3,000; $3,000 to $5,000; and $5,000 and up. This made me feel like $1,500 or less was considered cheap, and above $3,000 was too much, since I didn't see my dress as a top-priority spending category for the wedding overall.” She says that, “in the end, I settled on staying below $3,000. Things in Austin tend to cost less than in other major cities, so staying under $3,000 was very easy to do at the stores I shopped at, since most dresses seemed to be around $1,200 to $1,700.”
But don’t forget: In most cases, you’re not just budgeting for the dress. “No one tells you the veil is going to be super expensive,” says Nicole. “It’s a piece of tulle! And it’s like, $300-some dollars.”
And then there are the alterations. Nicole spent $275 on her dress from BHLDN, but spent more than double that on getting it tailored. “I knew I was going to need some alterations, but I didn’t realize it would be so expensive. I went to someone who specializes in bridal. She made me feel super comfortable and confident, but when she wrote me a bill, it was for $600. But at that point in your wedding, you’ve been spending so much money that it feels like nothing,” she says.
Accessories can also be quite expensive if you’re buying them at a bridal boutique. “I didn't realize how expensive the accessories were. No one really talks about it, and now I feel pressured to wear the things I bought [for my wedding day], but I would rather make a spur-of-the-moment decision,” says Hillary.
For her wedding, Helen walked down the aisle in a Swiss dot J.Crew dress, and changed into a T-shirt and custom ball skirt (“and flats!” she says) for the reception. But not all accessories have to be expensive: Helen found that T-shirt in the clearance bin at Gap. “It was like it had been made exactly for me, exactly for this wedding. Also, it was — I am not kidding — $2.99.”
Correction: June 5th, 2017
This article previously misidentified the bridal salon that suggested “bringing along a sample-size friend.” It was Lovely Bride, not Stone Fox Bride.