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If your search for the most amazing gown is starting to feel more like an off-the-rails reality show, take a deep breath. Here, the best tips for when to start, whom to bring (hint: maybe not all of your 'maids!), and how to navigate styles, sales, and fittings. Follow our lead, and say "yes" to stress-free shopping.
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Set a Budget
Shopping without a cutoff point is like driving without a gas gauge—trust us on this. Plan to spend about 10 percent of your overall budget on your dress. But consider this number a starting point. If fashion is more important to you than, say, flowers or music, increase your dress spending and scale back in other places, says Mark Ingram, owner of Mark Ingram Atelier, in New York City. Or, go easy on the gown and shell out for a great photographer or band if those are your top priorities.
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It takes about six to 12 months from the moment you place the order to when you can bring the gown home, so once you have that ring on your finger, it's game on. "The designer needs four or five months to make it, and then you'll want to schedule three fittings, about one month apart," says Ingram. Giving yourself ample time also guarantees that you’ll be able to fit in a variety of shopping experiences, from appointments at bridal boutiques to designer trunk shows. If you're short on time, don’t worry: For a surcharge ($50 and up), anything is possible.
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Do Your Research
Before you hit the shops, think about what kind of dress you want. Pull pages from magazines, browse our Dress Finder, and see our Pinterest boards for ideas. Keep a folder where you can stash tear-outs, fabric samples, and anything else you love, and use your smartphone or tablet to swipe through Pinterest boards. "At most salons, the majority of gowns aren't out on the floor," explains Ingram. "In order to pull the right styles from the back, your consultant needs to get a feel for what you're looking for. The more guidance you can provide, the better!"
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Make an Appointment
Once you have an idea of what you want, it's time to schedule appointments in bridal shops, department stores with full-service salons, and, if it fits your budget, a couture house. If you have specific designers in mind, find out which stores carry them. Most places don't operate on a walk-in basis, so call for appointments at least two weeks in advance. And while a Saturday slot may seem like a no-brainer, Keng warns against it if you're looking for a laid-back experience. "The store is almost always at capacity then," she explains. "The energy is a little crazy!" The better choice? "Wednesday, early afternoon, is the slowest," Ingram says.
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Limit Your Entourage
On reality shows, brides always bring a whole crew of friends and family members to join in on the shopping fun. And every single time, there's loads of drama. The takeaway? Less is more when it comes to companions. Bring one or two people whose input means the most to you. Otherwise, you'll spend too much time trying on gowns they picked out and steering the conversation back to what you want. If you can't imagine not including all of your friends, "Invite them to your final fitting and make a dramatic entrance for the big reveal," suggests Ingram.
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The great thing about most bridal salons is that the lighting is flattering, and the mirrors don't distort your frame. But do put some effort into getting ready for your appointment. You want to feel confident in the dresses you try on, and it helps the consultant get a sense of your style. If you arrive with wet hair and no makeup, it's a lot harder for the staff to pull dresses you might like. Bring any items you want to wear down the aisle and wear a strapless nude bra and a seamless thong or brief. Keep in mind that you'll be changing in front of people!
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Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
A simple truth: Some dresses look like paper bags on the hanger and drop-dead gorgeous on your body. With that in mind, don't turn your nose up at anything until you try it on. "Many women come in and say, 'I don’t want strapless,'" says Ingram, "and then it looks great." It’s the consultant’s job to match you with styles you'll like, so give her the benefit of the doubt and prepare to be pleasantly surprised. That said, don't let a pushy salesperson (or your mom) sweet-talk you into a gown you don't love.
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Forget About Size
No two designer size charts are created equal. If you're a size 6 in the ready-to-wear world, for example, you could be anything from a 2 to a 12 on planet bridal. It can be jarring to see a larger number on the order form than you're used to, but resist the urge to get a smaller size. Taking in a gown is easy; letting it out is difficult.
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Track the Main Contenders
Before smartphones became ubiquitous, snapping photos at appointments was a no-no. But now, most places allow it, letting you better document your experience. The trick is to be sure whoever's taking the pictures is getting good ones. In a bad shot, even the most amazing gowns can appear sort of "eh," and the last thing you want is to look at a picture of a dress you loved at the store and suddenly decide you hate it. Pay attention to the lighting and angle, and give your stamp of approval before you move on to the next shot. If a store doesn't allow photos, take detailed notes, make a pros-and-cons list, and record all pertinent information.
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Read the Fine Print
A good consultant will walk you through everything, including the price, color, style number and name, delivery date, deposit, estimated alterations fee, and cancellation policy. As for the deposit, "50 percent is standard—you should never, ever pay more than that," says Ingram. If you do, and for some reason the gown you ordered doesn't end up being what you expected, you could be out thousands of dollars. Another thing to take into account: sales tax. Some brides forget about it, but it can significantly add to the price of the dress.
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Don't Be Afraid to Say "Yes" to Your Dream Dress Right Away
Shopping for a bridal gown is a bit like shopping for a car, you show saying that you're just browsing and then voila, the perfect dress is staring right at ya. Brides are often surprised if they find the right dress quickly, but that's just how it works, when you know, you know. Of course, buying a dress is a big decision, but if you start shopping be ready to purchase.
"TV shows and movies often play up that brides put on dress after dress to find 'the one,'" says Malinda Macari, owner of Your Dream Bridal in Sudbury, Mass. "Trying on a dozen gowns usually just complicates things and exhausts the decision-making process. If you've come into the store knowing your budget and your likes and dislikes, and then find a dress that you love—go with it."
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Move Around While Trying the Gowns
You know how it goes, you stand on a pedestal in front of a mirror to look at each gown. Sure, it gives you a 360-degree-view but you need to get off the stand and move around in every gown worth considering. "You won't be sitting or standing still for the duration of your wedding day," says Aviva Samuels, wedding planner at Kiss the Planner in Palm Beach, Fla. "Spend a bit of time in the gown walking around, sitting, and even breaking out a few dance moves because that's what you'll be doing and you want to be comfortable."
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There is a difference between expressing what you want and acting like a Bridezilla. While it makes sense to trust an experienced sales person, at the end of the day, she's not the one walking down the aisle. If you notice that your stylist isn't quite hearing you, ask to pause and start over until she understands what you're looking for exactly. In a situation where there is clearly a clash of personalities and opinions, you might have to find another boutique that welcomes your feedback, recommends Macari.
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It's OK to Be Nitpicky
"If there is even one thing about a gown that you don't like, don't buy it," says Kpoene' Kofi-Nicklin, the owner of Mignonette Bridal in Chicago. "There are hundreds of gowns out there and the money and effort you will spend searching for one should be worth it." After all, this is the one dress that you shouldn't settle on. Still, don't dis every gown either. Gowns are typically made-to-order, so minor details can be customized or switched up in alternations. Be sure to ask if anything can be done to the existing style.
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Outsmart Your Budget
Kudos for sticking to your budget, but did you know you can make the most of it by thinking about taxes in advance? "If you live near a state line, consider which state has the lowest sales tax," says Benjamin K. Glaser, features editor with DealNews. Five states—Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon—don't have sales tax at all. This saving is probably enough to upgrade your accessories or get swankier heels. Keep in mind that you can also bundle. It may be tricky to haggle down the actual cost of the gown, boutiques often work with you on lowering the price of a veil, accessories, and alterations to help you stay within budget.
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Choose a Convenient Boutique Location
Tempting as it may be to drive 100 miles to a famous bridal boutique, remember that this is not a one-time trip. "You will be in contact with the shop for at least six months, especially if your alterations are done there," says Macari. Do you really want to spend the weeks prior to the wedding driving back and forth for fittings?
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You already know to wear nude underwear, but if you plan to wear shapewear, best to bring that too. "Wearing a body shaper can trim off almost an inch all around," says Macari. "As you shop and try on dresses, this will help you visualize what the gown may look like once it's tailored."
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