"I always tell the girls, picture a beautiful, silver-framed picture of your bridal party sitting on a grand piano. What would it look like?" says local shop owner Yvonne La Fleur. "There are two things to think of beyond color for a wedding dress. One is, you want to knock the guy's socks off. Secondly, it's how you want to be perceived as a woman. The hard thing about it is often it's the first dress the girl tries on."
In some cases, the more gowns a bride tries on, the more difficult her search can be. Courtney Schulman of Pearl's Place actually advises against a lengthy search.
"I don't think the choosing process should be that long," says Schulman. "The longer someone gives themselves, the more time they have to doubt themselves." There are a few factors that can serve as a starting point. The time of day and location of the wedding will set the tone as to how formal a gown should be. These considerations will help in choosing fabrics and the all-important silhouette or shape of the dress.
"You want to dress for the occasion," says Mary Sides of Wedding Belles.
A gown's silhouette is one of the bride's biggest decisions. If she is not quite sure where to start, many shops agree an A-line or modified A-line gown is flattering on nearly everyone. This is especially true for petite girls who could easily be lost under a gown with too much fabric.
"It really takes trying on dresses to know what your comfort level is, whether you want your hips hidden under a fuller skirt or whether you want to show your curves in a body-slimming silhouette," Sides says.
For a slimming effect, brides may want to try a gown with asymmetrical ruching, a term which refers to the draping and gathering of the fabric.
Modern brides also have a number of options in terms of color. Though ivory and, to a lesser extent, white are still the most popular choices, brides today have the freedom to go a little bolder with their color choices.
"Color has been pretty popular over the last few years," Sides says.
Color elements change according to geography, Sides notes, saying most Southern brides are still very traditional in their color choices, adding that color elements in a bridal gown appear mostly as subtle accents. Popular accent colors range from champagne and pink hues to blue, which has become a popular color choice for beach weddings.
A bride seeking a unique or sentimental look can also consider wearing an antique gown. La Fleur, who began her bridal business with antique gowns in 1970, says the popularity of antique gowns is waning as Americans on the whole have been getting heavier. Lisa Swords of Town and Country offers a different explanation for the lessening popularity of heirloom gowns.
"I really feel today there are very few people that wear their mother's gowns or wear their grandmother's gowns because the styles have changed so dramatically," Swords says. "I think people are maybe more individualized and want to purchase their own gowns."
For brides who want a gown that is completely original, there is also the option of having a gown custom made. Designer Harold Clarke says brides looking to purchase a custom-made gown are indeed looking for something a little different.
"They're looking for quality," says Clarke of his clientele. "The fact that they're working directly with the designer as opposed to working with a salesperson [means] they can get exactly what they're looking for. They know the garment's going to be couture; it's not going to be something they're going to get on a rack."
Clarke begins the couture process by discussing designs with the bride and sketching sample designs. After a design is agreed upon, he creates a prototype of the gown using muslin, a less expensive fabric, which is eventually used as the pattern for the dress.
Clarke says that though he is able to work around a customer's timeline, he generally likes to have at least three months to design and create a gown, and prices vary depending on the bride's choices.
"It's good to find out from [the customer] what their budget is so you can actually sit down and design something within their budget," Clarke says.
Budget is, of course, a consideration for all brides, whether they are shopping for a couture gown or an existing design. It is the general case that shops require a 50 percent deposit before moving forward with fabricating a gown.
Gown prices cover a wide spectrum. Yvonne La Fleur's more informal gowns can cost as little as $229, whereas a Harold Clarke couture gown can cost thousands of dollars. A bride should be conscious of her budget and shop accordingly.
Fabric choice is a key factor in gown pricing. Swords says polyester blend fabrics will be the least expensive, followed by silk blends and then pure silk fabrics. Silk and polyester are often blended with other fibers to create materials with varying quality and finish, though 100 percent silk is still considered one of the finest choices.
"Today I find that women are a little more conscious of fabrics," Swords says. "Most of our [customers] like real silk, but we do sell both."
"Polyester satin is extremely popular," Sides says. "That is what's made gowns a lot more affordable."
Brides should note that certain fabrics are considered seasonal. According to Sides, fabrics like silk linen and organza are more popular for summer, whereas fabrics like silk wool are more popular for winter. There are many fabrics like lace, for example, that are worn year-round.
Brides should also keep in mind that their choice of fabric can impact how difficult it is to alter the garment. Khanh Tran, co-owner of Thimbelina, says certain fabrics with a loose weave, like chiffon or silk, are more difficult to work with, as are cheaper fabrics, which have a tendency to unravel when cut.
Dresses should be altered from the top (neck, bust, shoulders) down to the hem for the best fit. Though alteration prices will vary from shop to shop, Thimbelina co-owner Hang Pham says costs at her shop range from $35 for a hem up to and over $100 for a gown with full beading or lace.
Hiring an outside seamstress for a wedding gown is not always necessary, as many bridal shops offer free alterations with the purchase of a gown. Brides should make sure to ask the shop when purchasing the dress so they can work alteration costs into their budget if necessary.
Both seamstresses agree, as do many other shop owners, that it is easier to take in a gown than let it out, so brides should make sure to be realistic with their gown size.
"Order the size that you are," Schulman says. "You can always take a dress in if you lose five pounds."
Weight loss is yet another consideration that most women ponder before their big day.
"I've never had a bride who didn't lose weight -- except if she was pregnant," says La Fleur. "Losing weight at the end always happens, but truly, five pounds just makes things look better."
In terms of choosing the right gown, La Fleur says that some brides fall prey to too much outside input. Most people who work with brides agree that less is more in terms of opinions from friends and family.
La Fleur points out that when making decisions, women tend to be a little too interested in getting the consensus of the group. "That's not the way to make a decision," she says.
Bridal experts agree that a woman needs to value her own opinion and keep that in mind when shopping.
"[Shop] with someone that you're very close to and dear, and that's going to give you an honest opinion. That's all you need," Swords says.
The most important thing for a bride to keep in mind is that it is her big day.
"It shouldn't be a nightmare situation; it should be a joyous occasion," Swords says.
"Relax and enjoy every bit of it," advises La Fleur. "It's your day. It's fabulous!"
Gown Shopping Tips
- Wear a heel height you're comfortable with.
- Wear a good strapless bra and nude-colored undergarments.
- Come into the shop with fresh hair and make-up.("When you find the dress, you want to feel pretty in it, you want to look your best," says Yvonne La Fleur.)
- Be realistic about your budget.
- Make an appointment so you are guaranteed personal service and the attention you need.
- Allow plenty of time to order your dress. Most shops recommend four to six months from time of purchase to when the dress arrives in the store. Rush orders can be made at some stores, but this can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of a gown.