When & How to Shop for a Wedding Dress—This Year and Next

The concept of wedding dress shopping is exciting, full of fantasy—yet no easy task. It’s a moment most fashion lovers dream of, but it’s a whole new world, different from off-the-rack shopping at brick-and-mortar stores and more detailed and labor-intensive than online shopping. As a result, getting started can be daunting, and the process is (admittedly) not always glamorous.

Even for the shopping obsessed, that aforementioned complexity combined with a global pandemic creates a slew of challenges most planning small weddings in 2020, and larger events in 2021 and into 2022, weren’t expecting. Enter: wedding dress shopping mistakes that most brides make. From not doing one’s research to not going with your gut, some mistakes are minor (read: Leave your black lace underwear at home and opt for a nude seamless pair that perfectly matches your skin tone), while others can lead to buyer’s remorse.

This is an endeavor that requires expert advice; whether you hire a stylist well-versed in bridal, haute couture, and all things formal, or whether you go it alone with the help of a curated group of friends and family. To help you seamlessly navigate this shopping process, we’re breaking down how to get started and when to shop, and flagging all the mistakes brides make on the hunt for their wedding gowns. Our goal? For you to not only land on the dream ceremony look, but to enjoy the time you spend shopping for it too.

Do Your Research

We’ll say it a little louder for the brides in the back: Don’t go into this process blind! In pandemic times, this applies more than ever before. On the upside, you have time to do the research. Use your weekends at home to scour designer websites, online publications (like BAZAAR Bride), Instagram, and more. Get a solid understanding of the elements you love—be it a neckline, a silhouette, a textile, beadwork, et cetera. Walking into your first appointment with a baseline understanding of which brands, gowns, and styles you love will be extremely helpful when it comes to starting your search; it also gives your consultant a road map to determine what you should try on first.

Don’t stress: You don’t have to know exactly what you want upfront, but consider your venue, dress code, the season you’re getting married in, guest count, and preferred silhouettes so that you have somewhere to start and build from. Also, keep it simple: If you love sleeves and dislike super-fitted, mermaid silhouettes, that’s a start. If you’re planning a wedding with a large guest count and prefer to don a ball gown to stand out in a crowd? That’s a fine jumping-off point as well.

For those who love fashion and already have an idea of their dream wedding dress, manage your expectations. You might have a mental picture in mind, but that imaginary gown may not exist in real life exactly as it does in your head. Our tip: Go into the shopping process with an idea of what you are looking for, and keep an open mind. If you’ve had your eye on a specific brand or dress, get in touch with the store to ensure it will be in-house at the time of your appointment.

Give Yourself a Runway to Make Decisions

Lead time is key. Bridal gowns are made to order and not always made to measure. That means the process of making your wedding dress does not begin until your measurements are taken and deposit has been paid. Once the deposit is received and any and all design specifications are outlined and signed off on by both you, the client, and the store or design house, all fabrics and embroidery/beading needed are secured. Logistics are then put in place in the designer’s atelier to produce your gown over the course of a few months, to reach you in time for three fittings prior to the wedding date.

Each dress and brand have unique timelines, so it’s important to not shop too late (to avoid rush fees or options being unavailable to you) or too early (to avoid missing out on styles that will release between now and your deadline to place an order).

Pandemic myths state that one must start shopping a year or more in advance for a wedding gown and that it’s best to order from American houses, given that international travel and lockdowns are in effect across Europe and beyond—but we’re here to set the record straight. You should start researching, shopping, and planning appointments approximately 10 months out from your wedding date, with the goal of ordering a gown no later than six to eight months prior to the wedding. Six months is cutting it close, but depending on the style in question, many designers and boutiques are jumping through hoops to make any and all timelines work where they can. Shorter timelines are most certainly feasible, but prepare yourself for the prospect of a rush fee; ask about the brand’s policies for rush orders as you try on gowns to plan for that amount in your dress budget.

As for narrowing your search to only designers located in the United States, we have seen no evidence of delays, holdups, or shipping restrictions affecting the shopping process. Designers internationally are working as hard as American houses to get back to work full force, and wedding gowns are, in essence, global creations. Most luxury design houses rely on fabrics from Italy and France, embroidery from India, fastenings from Asia, and more. Choose the boutiques and designers you shop wisely based on your research—then, trust them. No store or consultant worth their salt will show you anything that won’t be available in time for your wedding date.

In a time of global uncertainty, understand that there may be delays, holdups, and changes; support and shop the brands that most speak to you. Shop small business, keep each brand’s values in mind, and spend less time focused on your theories about whether a design house will deliver—leave that stress to the experts. It’s their job to manage your expectations, advocate for you, and ensure your gown arrives on time.

Before 2020, bridal gowns were released seasonally, in October and April, and were then shown to buyers a year before they were available in stores. Now, designers are either opting to release new styles as see-now, buy-now pieces, where designs are released and available for order immediately, or they’re showcasing images of new collections with the promise to have them available by 2021. At the moment, each brand is operating at its own pace. If you’re waiting on a specific designer’s new releases, it’s best to reach out to one of their flagship stores, or to their showroom directly.

Be Realistic About Your Budget

Go into appointments with a game plan: Stay. On. Budget. That doesn’t mean you aren’t able to be flexible with how much you are willing to spend, but having a top-line number in mind will keep your overall budget in check and leave room for the other looks you’ll need surrounding the ceremony. If you’re still unsure about where to cap your spending, ask yourself what price tag would turn your “dream dress” into a gown that’s not for you.

Keep in mind that the price tag on your gown doesn’t include alteration fees, accessories, your veil, shipping, sales tax, or any post-wedding dry cleaning and preservation. Keep all expenses in mind when deciding what you are comfortable spending on a wedding dress.

Don’t Overthink It

Many women waltz into wedding shopping with expectations of how the process will unfold. For some, they imagine getting emotional once they’ve found the gown; for others, there’s a deep-seated fear that nothing will fit, nothing will suit, and they’ll leave empty-handed. The only sure thing is that overthinking this look can take away from the magic of the hunt for it; brides whose expectations are too specific can lose out on the wow factor of finding the dress.

Further, trying on too many dresses can make landing on your gown feel anticlimactic. Many stores limit how many dresses a bride may try on per appointment anyway. And due to COVID-19 safety precautions and regulations, stores are steaming dresses and sanitizing dressing rooms in between appointments. So since you can’t try on the whole store, doing your research (as we discussed) is key.

After ordering your dress, alterations come months later. A solid memory of your gown is key to your first fitting running smoothly, so if you’ve tried on too many dresses, odds are you won’t have a clear vision of what you loved and ordered, which can make the experience both confusing and complicated, and result in the dreaded “this isn’t what I ordered” nightmare you’ve most likely been fearing.

Once you find the one you love, or even just like, consider that gown a placeholder. Use it to judge all subsequent dresses by, replacing it with another only once you one-up it. If no gown comes close, that’s a clear indication you’ve found the one. Once you purchase your gown, stop shopping—unless you’re shopping for a second look. Wedding planning is all about making decisions; second-guessing without a backup plan will set you back and likely negatively impact your budget.

Limit Your Entourage

Keep your crew small and intimate, one to two people max, while shopping—regardless of where you go. More people means more opinions, and a large group will likely leave you feeling like there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Plus, it takes only one negative voice or a small spat to destroy the positive tone of an appointment. Be honest with yourself about who builds you up and who in your inner circle could stand to make you feel insecure. Also worth noting: With current COVID-19 health and safety restrictions, most stores are not allowing more than the bride and a plus one, maximum plus two, anyway.

When you try on each dress, look in the mirror for a gut check; acknowledge how you feel before turning to your support system for additional opinions. Be wary of those who offer their opinions too quickly; how you feel should come first, and strong voices can cloud your judgment. If a dress isn’t for you, understand what about it doesn’t fit the bill—then move on. Appointments fly by, so waste as little time as possible; nobody wins if you spend the majority of your appointment explaining why you hate what you’re wearing.

Attend a Trunk Show

If you know the designer you want to wear and want to key in on a certain bridal fashion aesthetic, head to a designer trunk show by visiting the brand’s website and searching for upcoming events. There, you will likely see a much larger selection of a designer’s most recent pieces, and you may even get to meet a brand representative or the designer themself. Trunk shows often offer price incentives for attending. So though the price tag is the price tag—bridal salons are not places to negotiate or barter—you might be able to shave 10 percent off your purchase.

Are You the Right Fit for Custom?

Customizations and the costs associated with them come at the discretion of each individual brand and designer. If you want a change made to a dress, it never hurts to ask, but be prepared for the changes you want to make to render the gown a custom piece, which automatically kicks the price up a notch, or 10.

The process of designing a custom wedding gown is long and requires vision, patience, and a true understanding of what you want—along with ample imagination. You likely will not see your completed wedding gown until your first fitting, so trust in your chosen designer is essential. A bride with a clear vision, and one who has enlisted the help of a stylist, is typically best suited for this process. The bride who tends to be indecisive or impulsive with fashion is not right for the custom design process—and that’s okay.

Consider Working with a Stylist

Yes, there is such a thing as a bridal stylist; she or he is your advocate and guide in shopping for all your looks, knows the ins and outs of the industry, has great relationships, and can solve any issues that arise creatively. When it comes to scoring options and appointments in a pandemic world, a stylist can be invaluable. This expert will serve as your right hand in choosing your looks, as well as in alterations, accessory coordination, and, hopefully, day-of dressing as well.

Embrace Your Body

Buying a dress based on how you think your body will look on your wedding day is a mistake. Don’t incentive shop; while your alterations may end up being more intensive should you reach your fitness goals in the lead-up to your wedding, purchasing dresses that don’t fit you now in hopes that they may down the road is a dangerous fashion game plan.

Generally, we discourage the notion of shedding for the wedding. The person that you’re marrying proposed to you as you are. There may be a desire to level up in health and wellness, but don’t get caught up in weight and size. Instead, focus on your current measurements and feeling beautiful in your chosen gown now.

Choose Accessories Thoughtfully

While shopping, your consultant might pair your look with a veil to give you a sense of how it could be styled for the aisle, but don’t make decisions too quickly. After ordering your dress, make a secondary appointment for accessories. Then, you’ll be able to try on the sample of the gown you ordered once more and focus strictly on your veil choice. Not to mention, on the chance your wedding date or venue has to change, your accessories can make all the difference in elevating your look to suit the setting.

While most require that you bring your shoes to your first fitting, we recommend using your first fitting to decide on your shoes. Buy (returnable) options and take them to that first round of alterations. Choose which shoe you most prefer while standing in the dress, and use your second fitting for final touches: jewelry, hairpieces, or an evening clutch.

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