By Sioux Watson

How exciting to reach the decision to get married. One of the first visions that pop into most new brides-to-be is what they will be wearing on that auspicious day. Magazines devoted to the latest bridal fashions abound, and unlimited images are available online. There is nothing like going to an actual bridal store and seeing with your own eyes the shades of white and off-white, the fabrics, the textures and dress designs available.

And nothing is more crushing after marching off to a bridal shop with an entourage of mothers, grandmothers and best friends than being told gown shopping is “by appointment only.”

WHEN TO START
Wedding planning experts suggest ordering a gown nine to twelve months in advance since many dresses are made to order and come from faraway places like China, where a 15-day Chinese New Year in the spring brings the whole country to a screeching halt. Gowns made in the US, Canada and Europe should be ordered four to seven months in advance. If your budget includes bridal portraits prior to the wedding, most photographers need six to eight weeks to finalize the bridal portrait that is revealed at the reception.

Alterations require multiple fittings and can take weeks. Some brides gain or lose weight after the original measurements are taken, so getting to wedding day with a perfectly fitting dress is hard work and takes time!

HOW MUCH TO SPEND
Very few young couples get to plan a wedding with “money as no object”. Sit down with an interactive wedding budget planner and decide early on what to spend on a dress. Avoid trying on gowns out of your price range to avoid heartbreak! There really are flattering dresses for every figure, and buying a dress in your price range is doable as long as you start early. Some shops have sales with last year’s models or discontinued styles at a fraction of the original price. Sonja Lawrence of Brides, Etc in Southern Pines wisely shares, “Deciding on a budget will be extremely helpful when dealing with wedding vendors. Knowing your limits helps you not to get overwhelmed with all the choices. Keep in mind, ‘if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right,’ which means don't try to do everything – don't spread your budget too thin trying to do everything – because you will end up doing it halfway.”

SCHEDULING APPOINTMENTS
Scheduling an appointment during normal work hours (Monday through Friday, 10am-5pm) allows for a more serene and relaxing atmosphere and individual attention from shop assistants. Set up appointments with local stores first to put less pressure on yourself that a choice must be made in two days (as in when brides fly to New York City to buy a dress and spend more money than budgeted because they feel pressured to buy a dress, any dress). Plan to spend one and a half to two hours per appointment. Smaller boutiques offer more personal service than larger chain stores and not nearly as much pressure. By shopping with your local store, you can access their referrals for other wedding vendors like cakes, photographers, florists, etc. Industry locals always know who is the best, most economical, and has a solid positive reputation.

WHO TO BRING ALONG
Wedding gown decisions should not be determined by committee. Watch one episode of Say Yes to the Dress and you will understand how a group of shoppers, well intentioned but disparate style seekers, can hijack a bride’s most personal decision. Bring your best friend and your mother at the most; shopping alone for a dress is also fine. Most brides find their dress by process of elimination, whittling down a selection to their top three choices and then honing in on “the one”.

KEEP AN OPEN MIND TO STYLES
Speaking of television programs, just like the hosts of What Not to Wear, your bridal gown consultants are experts at what styles look good on different body types. Take pictures of styles you like from magazines to show a consultant what appeals to you, and as long as a dress falls within your price range, be open to flattering styles she recommends for your figure. Often a bride ends up with a dress she loves in a style that previously never occurred to her.

CHOOSING THE “PERFECT” DRESS
Trends in wedding gowns change, so instead of going with what is the latest craze, focus instead on your personal style and what flatters you the most. The top portion is what most people see and is in most wedding photos, so love the top portion first and foremost. When the gown looks glamorous on you (and you MUST try it on), and has both modern and traditional elements, you’ve found your timeless gown that will not go out of style. Years later when looking back at the wedding photos, you’ll still be grateful for your choice.

THAT’S NOT MY SIZE!
It is a mystery to brides why wedding gowns tend to run so small in the sizing. Susan Neville at Traditions by Anna in North Hills says, “Keep in mind bridal gowns run very small compared to everyday wear, so brides should not get hung up on numbers. Boutiques typically keep just a couple middle-of-the-road sizes in stock for fittings, and use tools like clips to show how a properly fit gown will look,” she continues. “The designer styles we carry typically only take four to seven months to complete.” Lawrence adds, “It doesn't matter what size your dress label says, unless of course you wear it wrong side out!” What matters most is the fit. If a gown doesn't fit you properly, it doesn't matter how much money you spend on the gown.”

ONLINE PURCHASES
Go online and it’s easy and instructive to find examples of women who have had the misfortune of buying a dress online at a “bargain” price only to receive the promised dress in the mail looking NOTHING like the photo. It is a true aphorism with bridal gowns that “you get what you pay for”; when shopping for a wedding dress, you should leave it to the professionals if you care about what you look like on your wedding day! For more information on online scams and counterfeiting issues, go to the American Bridal and Prom Industry Association website: abpia.org.

CARING FOR AND PRESERVING GOWNS
Once the wedding is over and you are back from the honeymoon, it’s time to properly deal with the most expensive dress you’ve ever bought. “Preservationists” clean wine and mud stains as well as any invisible stains that may turn brown later on if not cleaned right away. After cleaning, the gown is wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and placed in a museum-quality archival box, in order to save for a future family wedding or resale purposes. Check with your bridal gown store or wedding planner about local wedding gown preservationists. Expect to pay $250 and up, depending on the gown, for this service.

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