Bridal Gown Shopping Rules


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Can I speak plainly? Most bridal salons are not your friend. They are in business to make money. Selling you a dress that makes your special day a success is only gravy. Happy customers are not what fuels the bridal business. Let's face it - repeat customers are not a reality. Even with the divorce rate near 50% and the old idea of "you're only gonna do this once" loosing it's popularity, the chances of you returning to a bridal store as a repeat customer are slim. Most ladies who do decide to walk down the isle a second time do not do it in the grand fashion that needs a bridal salon's services. So, what incentive does a bridal salon have to give good service? Very little. Not to say that they never do. I have had the privilege of working with several that deserve gold stars for their efforts. But I have been so very disturbed over the years of hearing the stories from my customers of how they were treated in the salons and several experiences of my own working with and for several places that I just have to speak out.

"The buyer beware" - an old adage, but very true today. We as consumers have to look after ourselves. And this goes doubly when you are a bride. You are usually young and rather inexperienced with formal wear as with the other aspects of wedding planning. So here are a few rules I think are worth thinking about when you set out at the task of shopping for the most important garment of your life thus far.

Some of these rules overlap while others will not pertain to all brides. Please do not be upset at my lack of political correctness on this page and others. I don't mean to pore cold water on your dreams. I only seek to give you information so you can make a better choice in a gown and avoid wasting your money on a pipe dream instead of a real dream gown that will be right for you.

#1. A gown that looks good in a magazine picture does not mean it will look good on you.

You probably know this, but do you really want to follow it? Falling in love with a picture in a magazine may be a big mistake. Let me try to get you to see it another way - It's not the dress that will make you beautiful on your special day. It's you. Don't fall into the trap of thinking a dress can hide any flaws in your figure. It can help a great deal, but your emphasis should not be on the dress but the person in the dress. Look for a dress that flatters your good figure points but does not try to overpower your bad points with too much lace, frills, etc. It's so easy to buy a dress that wears you. Which would you rather hear your friends and family say, "Gee, what a gorgeous dress" or "Gee, what a beautiful Bride"?

#2. Sales people want to make sales.

This is going to sound harsh but in all too many situations it's the norm. A sales person is motivated to sell you a dress. It's her job. She does not have to care how you look in it or if you can truly afford the price. The best bridal sales people do care and make you feel like they are truly doing their best to help you find the gown that is right for you, not simply a gown they can sell you. But all too many just want to make sales and get on to the next customer.

Sales people are paid by commission. That means the more dresses they sell the more they get paid. They don't get rated by customer satisfaction. In some bridal stores the sales people are paid on a graduating scale. This means the pricier the gown you buy the more money your sales person makes.

Sadly, the majority of sales persons know nothing about dress construction. But be sure that she is going to do everything in her persuasive power to convince you that the dress you like can be altered to fit you perfectly and make you look more beautiful than Cinderella. This is not just a quirk of the bridal industry. Any store you enter will have sales staff that are paid by the sales they make. It's just the way retail works. But in the bridal stores where you are not allowed the luxury of returning a bad gown, it is very important that you make your choice carefully. Simply listening to a sales person's advice may cause you problems later.

I can't tell you strongly enough how heartbreaking a time you will have if your newly acquired "dream gown" ends up being a nightmare to alter - or worse, an impossible situation. Like I've said before, these stores usually have a no refund policy - AND they mean every word of it! It's your tough luck if the dress can not be altered, even if the sale's lady said it could be. I have tried to help clients negotiate with stores for return or refund before to no avail. Their policies are strong. You need to take it upon yourself to be responsible for your choice of gown and be very sure it is right before you pay for it.

#3. If the gown is "on sale" there is probably something wrong with it.

Usually it's that no one liked it enough to buy it, but it may also be that there is some construction flaw that is not quickly noticeable. Is it worth it to find out that the flaw you didn't notice turned up in full blazing clarity in your wedding pictures? Just remember that because it's "on sale" does not mean it's a bargain.

#4. Never buy a dress that is over one size too small and avoid buying a dress that is over one size too big.

Sales people will tell you that any dress can be altered. As you stand there in a dress that can not be zipped up the back because it is 6" too small a sales person will assure you that pieces can be taken off the bottom to be put in the seams to make the dress fit. Though this is usually true that same sales person will not tell you that it will also look either very odd or simply awful after the alteration is done - AND it will cost you lots of money to have done. I have done this alteration procedure several times, mostly on gowns that belonged to the bride's mother and passed down for the daughter to wear. In this case you do some odd things to get the gown to fit. But I don't recommend doing these type things on a new gown. It's not usually good for the structural integrity of the gown and it's better on your nerves to simply pick another gown. AND anything that makes it easier on a brides nerves I am all for.

The perfect fitting wedding gown is a very rare thing. In my 20 plus years of working on bridal garments I have seen only a hand full of gowns that needed nothing adjusted, not even a hem. The trick to getting a great fitting gown does start with the best fit you can get off the rack, or ordered carefully. And the rule of thumb is, "It is easier to take something in than it is to let out". And, quite often it is impossible to let something out. It depends on how much fabric is in the seam allowance and if it has been clipped to smooth out curves or not. That's when adding pieces becomes necessary.

The final decisions are always up to you, BUT let me give you my best advice. Do not let yourself be talked into buying a dress that needs more alterations than you feel comfortable with or that your budget can handle. It's best for the structural integrity of the gown and your nerves to have the least amount of altering as possible - AND that's coming from someone who makes a living altering.

#4a Do not diet to make yourself smaller than the gown you just ordered.

This is an extension of rule #4. If you diet and make your body over 2 sizes smaller than the gown you ordered, alterations will be costly to make the gown fit your smaller body and you may loose design elements of the gown that you won't like loosing.

I fail to understand why any bride HAS TO diet in the first place. Your groom fell in love with you the way you are. If you think you have to change yourself for the wedding day than you need to re-evaluate the reasons you are getting married. AND if you are feeling the need to send me an angry email scolding me for this opinion than you are only proved my point correct. If you think you have to have a perfect body for your perfect wedding day than you are in for a very sad married life. Nothing in this human experience is perfect. Neither are you or your groom. You have to be yourself! It's so very important to present the person you are to your future spouse for the wedding ceremony. If you can't be who you are, are you going to turn into someone else just because you're getting married?

I get emails from brides almost daily, asking how to plan for their dieting in ordering/buying their wedding gowns. My answer is always - Don't diet! If you have been dieting before you shop for your gown it is best that you stop once the gown is ordered and go on a maintenance plan to keep your body shape the same as it was measured for the size of the gown. This will save you costly alterations and the great stress of dieting while dealing with the multitude of things that have to be dealt with in planning a wedding. This is supposed to be a happy time. Adding the stress of dieting does not make sense to me. If you can't make your way through this time with joy, than your marriage is in danger from the start.

I have a rule that brides who are dieting must stop once they have their first fitting with me. If they refuse, than I do not agree to do their alterations. I do not want the stress of doing the alterations twice should the bride's body shrink more than I have pinned the gown in the first place, and what customer wants to pay twice? It is not right for the other brides I am wanting to do good work for to have one bride stressing me more than necessary. I do not keep Bridezillas in my service. If you are overly stressing me than you can find another alteration lady to bother. I want to do my best work for each bride in my service unstressed by one bad attitude bride who is not ready for marriage.

Now, all that said - it is a good thing for a female to care enough about herself to want to improve her body and become a healthier person. Dieting may be part of this, but it is not a good idea to do it while planning a wedding. If you are doing this for the good reason of your own self esteem, do it before or after the wedding.

#5. Just because a bridal consultant takes your measurements does not mean the dress is being made to those exact measurements.

If you are not buying a gown off the rack your sales associate will measure you to determine what size you need to order. This does not mean the dress is going to be sewn to your exact measurements. Many a bride has been surprised and even dismayed to find that her newly arrived gown does not fit her perfectly. "But they took my measurements?" is usually a common reply.

You need to understand the difference between "Special Order " and "Custom Made". In Custom Made, a garment is cut and sewn to a specific set of client measurements and should fit well when finished. In contrast, a Special Order garment is chosen carefully using size charts to determine the best size to order that will make alterations minimal, but it usually does not eliminate the need for them. Few retail bridal salons can offer Custom Made gowns. It is a very expensive undertaking that few customers can handle. Special Ordering is sometimes tricky because the various companies have varying sizing charts and when you add the fact that no two brides have exactly the same body, you can start to understand why alterations are a necessary part of the gown selection process.

When your sales associate selects a size for your gown she is looking at many factors. One of the most important is your figure proportions. Since it is always better to take a large area in then let a small one out, your associate is going to select a size determined by your largest proportion for the size category you best fit into. This means that if you have a large bustline in proportion to your waist and hips, she will select the size to best fit your bust and you will need alterations in the waist and hip areas to make them fit to your measurements. In contrast, a small busted bride will have to select a size according to her hip measurement. Alterations may be needed in the bust area, or as many brides choose, padding can be cleverly added to enhance the figure to fit the gown.

#6 Check Everything.

Whether buying a gown off the rack or ordering one, examine it VERY carefully before paying for it or accepting delivery and taking it out of the store. If you find a flaw after you get the gown home, the store is under no obligation to fix it. They do not have to give you any compensation either. "All sales are final" is very true in the bridal industry.

a) Check for fit - If you have ordered this gown with measurements taken by the store attendant, the fit should be close to good. It is not usually perfect. Though they took your measurements, the gown was not custom made to them. The measurements were taken to compare them to a chart of sizes for the gown. The store associate picks a size that will give the closest fit for you, but alterations are usually necessary to fine tune the fit.

For some figure types there may need to be extensive alteration. This happens when one measurement is very large or small in comparison to the others. The gown's size is selected by the largest body measurement. If a lady has a hip measurement of 42" and a bust of 34", the dress will be ordered by the hip measurement and the bust area will need tightening.

b) Check for flaws - If you wait to examine the gown when you get home and find a tear in the fabric that happened in the shipping process, it is your problem to fix. The store does not have to help you. Some will, but most will not. They have your money and don't have to do anything for you. I don't mean to sound cynical, but I do want to forewarn you. The system is harsh but it can be worked with if you take the precautions to educate yourself and be prepared when difficulties arise.

c) Check for alteration elements - If you are buying a gown off the rack that is a little too tight, and you have no choice to get a larger size, check the seams for let-out space. If the seams are trimmed close or clipped for better shaping around curves, than it can not be let out. It is better that you find another gown than go through the heartache of finding out that the one you bought and can not return is not able to be altered.

If the gown will need taking in check the sides seams for design elements that may be lost. Most designers will position lace and beading away from alteration points like side seams, but often these get taken in the seams when they are sewn. Some laces can be removed before the seams are taken in and replaced over the alteration, but this too has it's drawbacks. Beads may fall off in the moving process and create a costly situation to replace. You can examine the gown carefully to see if the beads were sewn to the lace first, than the lace to the gown. In this case the beads will not fall off and the lace can be more easily replaced after the alteration.

Taking along a trusted friend or family member who sews is helpful, but wedding gowns have special fabrics and construction that she may not be familiar with.

#7 Buy the gown you want.

This may seem silly, but many brides buy a gown that is "close" to what they want thinking they can alter it. I have stated many times on this site that altering for fit is one thing but altering for design change is another. Do not be tempted to buy a gown that is marked way down just because a sales person says it can be changed into the gown of your dreams. Remember, that sweet teenager helping you knows nothing about alterations and less about design changing.

#8 If you are a C cup or higher - You Will Need A Bra.

If you are large busted and need support you will need to shop for a gown style that lets you wear a bra that will support you. The gown can not give you this support even if it is boned. Gowns are designed to support themselves, not your breasts. Many small breasted brides can go braless in many gown styles, but anyone larger than a B may find that this is not the case for her.

Proper support is so very important not only to how you look but how you feel that day. If you feel lousy, you will look lousy. I advise that you buy a good supportive bra first and then go looking for a gown style that has a neckline that will cover the bra back and front. Do not let yourself fall in love with a gown that has a lacy, or revealing neckline before you have selected your bra.



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