12 Steps To Find Your Perfect Wedding Dress

Shopping for a wedding dress is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But with so many gowns to choose from, it can also be incredibly overwhelming. Here’s how to hone in on the right style for your big day.

1. Search early

Start your search about nine months to a year prior to your wedding date, if possible. “Designer gowns should be ordered six to nine months in advance to ensure there is enough time for delivery and alterations,” says Mara Urshel, the co-owner of Kleinfeld. If you want to customize your dress by adding beading or lace or by modifying the neckline or train, it can take even longer, so plan accordingly. On a time crunch? Ask your consultant if your dress of choice can be rush delivered for an additional fee or consider attending a sample sale, where brides can score off-the-rack styles with discounts of up to 80%.

2. Come up with a realistic budget

“Just because you have $1,500 set aside for your wedding dress doesn’t necessarily mean that you can buy a $1,500 gown,” says Courtney Lutkus from Simply Radiant Events. Factor in tax, shipping (if you’re not buying off-the-rack) and alterations. Some salons cap alterations at a certain amount whereas others charge a flat fee. Most salons require a deposit that accounts for 50% of the ticket price of the gown — pay by credit card so that you have a record of the payment in case problems arise. “Brides are devastated when they find ‘The One’ but don’t have the available funds to purchase, which risks their gown being discontinued or sold to another bride. By planning ahead monetarily, you’ll be ready to say ‘yes’ and celebrate the day you find your gown,” says Sandra Gonzalez from SPARKLE Bridal Couture.

3. Familiarize yourself with wedding gown silhouettes prior to going shopping

“Before you get lost in the blizzard of gown glossary terms, consider the basic outline of the dress,” says Bianca Sparbanie from RSVP by B Wedding & Event Planning. Bridal gown silhouettes fall into six broad categories: ball gown, empire, A-line, sheath, fit-and-flare, and mermaid. Try on one of each the first time you go shopping for your gown — it’ll quickly become clear which works best for your shape. Selecting the silhouette you want to wear will help narrow down the huge range of gown options. From there, you can decide on secondary criteria, such as neckline, sleeves, embellishments, etc.

4. Narrow down your favorite wedding dresses in a private Pinterest board

Browse hundreds of the latest styles in BG’s gown gallery and pin your favorites. Then take a step back and look for similarities amongst the dresses. “You should start to notice commonality amongst the styles that draws your attention; whether it be the designer, silhouette or fabric,” says Melissa Heholt from Statice Events.

5. Schedule your appointment wisely

Consider scheduling your appointment on a weekday, when there are fewer crowds, and you may get more time to shop. If you have a personal day to spare, or even a half day, it might be worth taking off work to go gown shopping at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday or another off-peak time. That way, you can get the best service and attention possible from the sales staff. Schedule appointments at bridal salons that are within your budget and offer your preferred designer.

6. Limit your dress shopping entourage

Although it might be tempting to poll everyone on what will be the most important fashion purchase of your life, the more people you invite, the greater the chance that you’ll end up overwhelmed or confused. Bridal consultants advise selecting two or three loved ones (five at the max), to accompany you to gown appointments. “You want to bring whoever will be instrumental in helping you make your decision. They should be honest and have your best interest in mind,” says Cristina DeMarco, vice president of Bridal Reflections. Save the big crowd for your fittings, instead.

7. Envision how you want your dress to make you feel

“Do you want to look sexy, understated, modern, chic, traditional? Or perhaps you want your dress to have a more vintage feeling? Once you find your story, I promise you will find your dress,” Randy Fenoli writes in his book, It’s All About the Dress: Savvy Secrets, Priceless Advice, and Inspiring Stories to Help you Find “The One.” Share your vision with your gown consultant, who can help you pull styles that match the feeling you wish to evoke on your wedding day.

8. Keep an open mind when trying on gowns

A dress that seems so-so on the hanger may end up looking spectacular once you actually try it on your body. On the flip side, a gown that you’ve been pining over online might fall flat in person. “I cannot tell you how many brides come in swearing they want a ball gown, yet end up loving a slinky sheath instead — and vice versa. And brides who claim they want no beading can easily fall in love with a head-to-toe beaded number,” says Liz Sellassie from Designer Loft bridal boutique.

9. Communication effectively

Give your gown consultant constructive feedback and your dress-shopping experience will remain exciting, rather than becoming exhausting or stressful after the first five or six dresses. Don’t make the mistake of keeping your thoughts to yourself out of fear that you’ll hurt their feelings. Your stylist needs to know if you dislike poufy ball gowns or if you love the skirt of one dress but not the bodice so they can choose options that are more on-target for your style.

10. Comfort is your best friend

Test how comfortable a prospective gown is by moving around in it — sit down, dance, and walk up and down the store aisles. Follow your gut: Choose a dress that is flattering to your body, rather than what is trending. If you have to keep pulling up the top because you’re worried about a wardrobe malfunction, do yourself a favor and skip it. If a gown is so tight that breathing seems like a luxury, ditch that too. “It may not seem like a big deal now while you are caught up in the ‘honeymoon stage’ of buying the dress. However, you don’t want to spend your most cherished day battling the gown instead of relaxing and enjoying yourself,” says Aviva Samuels from Kiss the Planner. Melani Lust from Melani Lust Photography concurs: “I have photographed several brides who didn’t ‘try’ out their dress, and it made for a very uncomfortable and exposed evening!”

11. Be careful with size

Don’t get hung up on the dress size, which may be two sizes bigger than your normal, everyday clothing. “Bridal sizing runs small. Period. When it’s time to buy, you will order the dress that comes closest to your size and have it altered or custom-made for you,” says bridal designer Trish Lee. It’s always safer to order based on your current bust, waist, and hip measurements, rather than sizing down and counting on the fact that you’ll slim down in time for the big day.

12. It’s your big day!

In the end, choose the dress that feels right for you, no one else. “I have seen it happen too many times where a bride gets the dress that everyone else wants her to wear and is miserable. This is YOUR day and YOUR dress!” says Ramona Southard, the owner of Love and Lace Bridal Boutique. You should feel beautiful and confident in your wedding gown; only you can make the right choice, not your maid of honor, Mom, or whomever else. Unsure if it’s truly “The One?” Try adding a veil to help get yourself in the wedding-day mindset and see if you could imagine yourself walking down the aisle in this dress. If the answer is “yes” and you don’t want to take it off, that’s a sure sign that your search is over!