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Location, Location, Location
Knowing the place and time of your wedding will help focus your search. Will you be having a daytime ceremony on the beach? You can rule out ball gowns with long trains and dramatic embellishments. Exchanging vows in a candlelit cathedral? Avoid short slip dresses or anything that looks like it could be worn to a cocktail party. Most fabrics are suitable year-round, but some, like linen and organdy, are more appropriate for warm weather, while velvet and brocade are best left for winter.
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Set a Budget
Figure out how much you want to spend, and tell the salesperson before she starts bringing out gowns. That way you won't lose your heart to a dress you can't afford. Typically, a wedding ensemble, including veil, undergarments, and any other accessories, accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of the total wedding cost. Factor in extras, such as alterations—which can add a few hundred or a few thousand dollars depending on how involved they are—and shipping fees. Once the dress arrives, it may require professional pressing or steaming, which can tack on a hundred dollars or more.
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Begin shopping six to nine months before your wedding. It takes about four months for a manufacturer to make a dress and another two months to complete the alterations. Very elaborate gowns will take longer. Short on time? Many shops do rush orders for an additional fee, but your choices will likely be limited. They also may have a sale section with samples you can buy off the rack. If you're lucky, you can get one that needs just minor alterations.
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Do Your Research
It's not every day you see terms such as basque waist or Watteau train or try to differentiate between three shades of white. Pore over bridal magazines, books, and websites to learn about fabrics, silhouettes, and the lexicon so you can better convey what you're looking for. Start a folder with pictures of dresses or details that appeal to you, and take it with you when you shop.
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Make a Game Plan
Decide where you want to go and call stores in advance to find out which designers they carry, the price range of their dresses, and if they sell accessories and provide alterations. Most salons require that you schedule an appointment. If possible, shop on a weekday but not during your lunch hour when you'll be rushed. Don't shop till you drop—limit yourself to two stores a day, so you don't get exhausted or forget what you've seen. Carry a notebook and jot down dress descriptions (photos are usually prohibited until you buy a gown).
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Take anything you know you want to wear, such as a special necklace or your grandmother's veil. Boutiques will often provide bustiers, strapless bras, and shoes, but you may want to bring your own. You'll also need the advice of a few trusted confidantes, but not too many: An opinionated entourage can be confusing and frustrating. Invite one or two people who know your taste, will be honest with you, and whose judgment you trust.
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Find a Dress for Less
You don't have to spend a million bucks to get the perfect gown. Besides having sale racks, many salons hold big sales once or twice a year to clear out "gently worn" or discontinued samples (usually in sizes 6, 8, or 10). To find out when these are, call stores, go to designers' websites, and sign up for mailing lists. Also register for trunk shows, where designers debut new lines. Sometimes boutiques offer discounts if you buy on the show day.
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Keep an Open Mind
This is the mantra repeated over and over by bridal consultants. So take their advice, even if what they urge you to try on doesn't seem like your style. Some dresses don't look like much on the hanger but look great on. On the other hand, never let yourself be talked into purchasing a gown you're not in love with.
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Focus on Fit, Not Size
Bridalwear often runs smaller than ready-to-wear; if you normally buy an 8, you may need a 12. So forget the numbers and don't insist on a smaller size because you intend to lose weight before the wedding—order the one that fits now. A gown is easy to take in, but difficult and costly to let out.
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Get It in Writing
Before putting down a deposit (usually 50 percent), go over the contract with your bridal consultant. Find out when the gown will be ready, the estimated fee for alterations, if it can be shipped out of state (or country), what the cancellation policy is, and what recourse you have if the dress is damaged or comes without the requested modifications. Finally, double-check that the manufacturer's name, style number, size, and color are correct.
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Make the Most of Each Fitting
It usually takes two or three fittings to adjust a gown, but don't be shy about asking for more if you think tweaks are needed. The first appointment occurs about two to four months before the wedding, at which time you need to have your undergarments, shoes, and accessories. You may also want to get your hair done in the style you will wear. Can you lift your arms easily? Do the straps stay up? Do any seams pucker? The last fitting takes place a week or two before the event. Bring your mother, an attendant, or whomever will be helping you into your gown.