Start shopping for a custom gown about nine months before the wedding.
Put the order in at least six months ahead—it takes months for a custom-made gown to be created to your specifications, and then you need time for alterations. If you're buying off the rack, don't wait until the last minute; give yourself a few months to find your dream dress.
Figure out which stores to hit.
If you want a high-end designer dress, you may have to head to the nearest big city if your local boutique doesn't carry many. Your budget will also help you narrow down where to shop—stores that specialize in dresses sold off-the-rack offer affordable options while boutiques and salons sell dresses that are made to order and therefore more expensive.
Look at what dresses catch your eye on websites and in magazines.
With so many gorgeous gowns to choose from, you may like several different silhouettes, and that's totally fine. Print or cut out photos of your favorites and bring them to your first appointment; they'll give your consultant a visual idea of what styles and shapes appeal to you and what overall attitude (romantic, modern, retro) you're trying to project.
Book a weekday salon appointment.
If the store suggests making an appointment, make one. When you arrive, you'll want to dive right in and start trying on dresses, not wait around for the next available consultant! Weekends tend to be more hectic, with more brides and their posses in the shop. Though you'll still get 90 minutes or so with a consultant on a Saturday, everyone will be more relaxed on a weekday when the store isn't a zoo.
Leave your crew at home.
Lots of people means lots of opinions, which will be frustrating. Some stores limit the number of people a prospective bride can bring with her. Smart move! Instead of a large group, bring two people who will be honest and kind. (You don't need to hear any harsh body critiques.) Maybe Mom and your MOH?
Stick to your price range.
What's the point of trying on $5,000 dresses if your budget is half that? There are gorgeous gowns in every price range, including yours, so concentrate on the ones you can afford.
Trust the salon pros.
If they suggest you try on a dress you think won't flatter your figure, give it a shot anyway. Experienced consultants have a trained eye and know which dresses look good on what body types.
Keep track of the dresses you like.
Trying on gowns is great fun for, oh, the first dozen or so. Then it becomes tiring and overwhelming and you may forget which were your favorites. So if the store allows cameras, take photos of your preferred gowns. If there's a no-camera policy, write down the manufacturer's name and style numbers of each dress you're considering.