As a clothing enthusiast, shopping for my wedding dress(es) (spoiler alert!) was very important to me. I’ll share the process I went through and how I approached making some of the many, many decisions involved to find something truly “me”.
Choosing a wedding dress was a major moment in my personal style journey. I usually wear striking black clothing in my life as a Goth, and a myriad of rainbow-bright colours while swing or podium dancing, so “bridal chic” was uncharted territory! I wrestled between my many stylistic inspirations (from Audry Hepburn to Dita von Teese to Morticia Addams!) all layered with the “traditional” concept of a wedding dress, what my fiancé might like, expectations from family and friends – it was overwhelming at times.
I experienced a steep learning curve while navigating this very specific part of the fashion industry, so I’ll tell my story and close by reflecting on what I learned in case you, dear reader, are embarking on a similar epic fashion quest!
Research and brainstorming
My starting point was thinking about my style icons. My ultimate inspiration in most elevated and occasionwear fashion choices is Audry Hepburn. In particular, her Givenchy gown in the movie, Sabrina (1953). Hepburn’s character leaves the US a dowdy and naive teenager, in love with her father’s aristocratic boss, attends cookery school in Paris, and returns an elegant lady, with a fashionable short hairdo and chic wardrobe. This included an incredible ball gown, ready to turn heads and woo her beau at their family ball: the ultimate “glow up”!
This captivated me when I first saw the film as a teenager. What I liked about this dress is the glamorous silhouette: a sleek pencil shape in the front, with volume around the back and sides from the overskirt. It provides the best of both worlds: an elegant fitted gown that shows off the figure, but the drama and opulence of a full ball gown skirt. I also liked the strapless neckline and knew I wanted something like this to flatter my relatively gamine frame. I wasn’t so keen on having black embroidered details, especially as I was going to be accessorising with a full-on veil and bouquet (more on this later!).
With this rough idea of inspiration and style, I took to the internet to trawl through *many* (definitely thousands!) of wedding dress images and made an online “mood board” that I could access anywhere on my devices and add text, images, and links easily #meganerd 🤓
I then went through a checklist of some of the high-level decision points to help me narrow down my choices amongst the myriad on offer:
Silhouette: I knew I wanted a gown rather than a jumpsuit or separates. Ideally, I liked the overskirt idea, but also loved fishtail and trumpet skirt shapes. I wasn’t as drawn to princess-style ballgowns, empire cut, or the less structural a-line shape.
Neckline: I liked off-the-shoulder styles, but wasn’t keen on thin straps or v-neck, or off-the-shoulder as the straps over the upper arms restrict my movement and I always want to DANCE!
Length: I’m a full-length queen, for sure!
Fabric: I loved mikado (a heavier type of silk) and heavy satin, but didn’t want all lace or lots of embellishment. I also wasn’t keen on the nude illusion mesh that I noticed on many gowns. I just knew this would be so difficult to match my very pale skin, so wouldn’t have blended in.
Style: keywords for me were “classic”, “elegant”, “structural”, and “old Hollywood glamour”. I wasn’t feeling concepts like “boho bride” or “sexy”.
Being a Goth for most of my life, I’ve never worn a white or ivory gown…
Being a Goth for most of my life, I’ve never worn a white or ivory gown…
Colour: this was an important consideration for me and one that kept my friends, family, and fiance guessing! Being a Goth for most of my life, I’ve never worn a white or ivory gown, and, while I didn’t think I’d go for black, I’d always thought I would have a dark red gown with a heavy corset bodice and full skirt. ALL the drama! However, when it came to actually choosing a wedding dress for the first time, I wanted to mark this day out as different and explore more traditional ivory/off-white styles. I’m lucky in that I have many occasions where I can dress up in gorgeous Gothic ballgowns, so as this would be the only occasion to wear a more “traditional” bridal dress like this, so why not!? I chose a deep red as the accent colour for the wedding, so I retained this “Gothic” preference subtly.
Budget: you can get a wedding dress at pretty much any price point; potentially a few pounds from a charity shop, a few hundred second-hand, up to obscene amounts of money… I was somewhere in the middle! I knew I didn’t want to go crazy, but it was an important element for me, so I was willing to spring for a mid-price range gown. This meant I had the budget for shopping in most bridal boutiques, rather than looking only at high street options like Asos or Oasis. The latter stores have some truly gorgeous options, but I wanted a more structural style which simply costs more due to requiring heavier fabrics and more internal construction. Second-hand was also an option, once I knew what I wanted…
I had been looking on second-hand websites like the wedding-specific, Still White, plus Vinted and eBay, but I decided that I wanted to try before buying anything. My first shopping trip was really special as I went with my Mum and mother-in-law who was visiting the UK from Canada. I booked an appointment at a boutique and we were treated to a private session with champagne, a playlist of cheesy love songs, and a very helpful stylist.
As it was my first “go”, I tried on different silhouettes and fabrics so I could see how they felt. I enjoyed experimenting with a draped style in crepe, a massive ballgown with a cool contemporary high neckline (we named it the “Star Trek” dress!), and a more sexy, skin-tight glittery lace number, which we all agreed looked nice but didn’t feel “bridal”.
it wasn’t just about picking a dress, but one that aligned with my idea of the occasion and how I wanted to feel…
This was an element I wasn’t expecting: it wasn’t just about picking a dress, but one that aligned with my idea of the occasion and how I wanted to feel. Some of the dresses I might have ordinarily picked as “occasion” dresses for a party, somehow didn’t feel right for my wedding. I used this prompt in my mind when trying on other dresses, asking myself “do I feel like the bride I want to be?”, and it really helped!
Finding a dress…
I didn’t splurge on my first trip, so continued the search at a vast and affordable bridal chain store, David’s Bridal. I was initially a little disappointed as I didn’t like most of the hundreds of dresses they stocked, eek! However, the appointment was free and I was looked after beautifully by the stylist, so I stayed to have some fun trying on, and ended up with a surprise…
I decided to step out of my comfort zone and expectations to try a gown that included embellishment on the bodice and lace on the hem with a gorgeous train. The skirt was plain crepe fabric, though, so it still had that classic style and vintage element I was looking for. Despite being off-white, I found it quite “Gothic” in its maximalism: the detailed lace, a long, dramatically shaped train, and the beautiful shimmer of the beadwork (it would look amazing in black IMHO!).
The stylist and I then got creative to see how we could create the “Hepburn-in-Sabrina” vibe. We used a puffy tulle skirt, folded it in half and clipped it to the slides of the dress with the train bustled up underneath. Voila, I had the overskirt shape I wanted!
I video-called my Mum and she absolutely loved the dress, and I was convinced to “say yes!”. I ordered the dress and the skirt, with the plan for my alterations seamstress to construct the overskirt with hooks to make it removable. Genius.
be open-minded when browsing and sometimes you may be surprised…
This was another learning for me: be open-minded when browsing and sometimes you may be surprised when trying something on and everything “clicks”. Also, think creatively about other ways to achieve the silhouette or detail that you want, even if the dress doesn’t come with it.
The end of the search??
While I loved the unexpected dress I had fallen in love with, I had a thought in the back of my mind that I hadn’t even tried on a gown that more closely matched my inspiration mood board. I had also only visited two bridal boutiques, so had barely shopped around- not my usual way of doing things!
it was important to have an idea of which designers and even specific dresses I was interested in so I could pick the right shop…
For my satisfaction (and because I found it FUN!), I wanted to continue to search a little more, but in a focused way. Wedding dress shops will stock selected gowns only, so it was important to have an idea of which designers and even specific dresses I was interested in so I could pick the right shop, especially as a try-on session at a boutique usually costs around £20-30 (in 2022/23). I had shortlisted a couple of gowns and looked for shops stocking their range: one in fancy Knightsbridge and another in South London.
In Kingsbridge, I tried on some luxurious Vivienne Westwood draped satin corsetted gowns, and my dream sculptural masterpiece by Zuhair Murad. It was wonderful to try on these gowns and I *might* have splashed out and spent over budget if it was perfect… but I had some adjustments I wanted to make. Often, this is possible, but the stylist informed me that this designer would not adjust the designs at all, and I’d have to have it done by my alterations seamstress which would be very expensive. Sadly, this wouldn’t work for me, so on to my next appointment.
My next appointment was at a boutique with lots of positive reviews on Google and stocked some of the designers I knew were more my style (and price range). I tried on my other shortlisted dream dress, and that was it: love at first try! It had a very flattering neckline, sculptural details, AND a detachable overskirt. I tried it on with a veil and some bridal shoes to get the full impression and I decided it was perfect for my ceremony. So I said “yes” to a second dress!
Once both my dresses arrived a few months later, I needed to book some alterations with a seamstress to slightly tweak some of the sizing, make my evening dress overskirt, and add some decorative buttons.
This brought another learning: alterations can be pricey! Taking up a hem will be necessary unless you’re over 6ft tall as the dresses come in a “sample” length to suit as many brides as possible. At places I shopped around for in London, this costs from £100 (in 2023) depending on the detail at the hem e.g. some have plain edging so relatively straightforward, while others have lace hems that need to be unpicked and re-attached at the new length, which costs more.
I had 250 buttons added…
Bodice alterations are more labour-intensive and costly, and adding those gorgeous tiny, satin-covered buttons cost me £1 per button…I had 250 buttons added, so yes, alterations are an important part of budgeting! I called a few places to get an idea of costs and ultimately chose a seamstress who was recommended to me and their prices were in line with other estimates. Their work was excellent and I was really happy with my dresses!
My top learnings:
- Give yourself plenty of time (6-9 months), esp. If you want a “designer” dress: I started seriously shopping 9 months before the wedding and some boutiques (the higher-end ones) were pushing me to order ASAP to have it arrive in time. The boutiques I ordered from were more relaxed: I ordered my first dress in late August and it arrived ahead of schedule in November, the second I ordered in October and it arrived in January. Similarly, if you’re buying second-hand, sometimes the sellers don’t respond as their accounts have been idle, so don’t leave that to the last minute either.
- It’s not just about getting a “pretty dress”, but one for your wedding. You will likely be asked “do you feel like a bride?”, but I’d adapt this to ask “do you feel like the bride you want to be?” – it’s not about some stereotype of what a “bride” is, it’s about how you want to feel. Work out an idea of what you want and if the answer is “yes!”, then go for it!
- Get an idea of which designers generally work in a style you like e.g. “boho” versus “classic”, and pick a bridal boutique that stocks these designers to maximise success; important as these appointments often cost money. Be open-minded when browsing; sometimes you may be surprised when trying something on and everything just “clicks”.
- Having said that, don’t give up on getting what you want, even if it requires some creativity. Some designers will allow alterations to their designs e.g. a bodice from one of their dresses on a skirt of another, or adding straps to a strapless gown etc., but some of the higher-end brands are less inclined to deviate from their vision. It is possible to think creatively about other ways to achieve the silhouette or detail that you want. Ask your shop stylist and alterations seamstress to help. You could also approach a designer to make a custom design for you- many independent designers will work with individuals for a truly bespoke gown (I was ready to do this if I hadn’t found something I loved).
- Explore high-end but set your expectations: pay your money for the appointment and try on that dream dress. But prepare yourself in advance that it might not be affordable (and most boutiques don’t let you take photos), but at least you’ve treated yourself and had that experience. This worked well for me, as I was then able to use that to inform what I liked best- it wasn’t that budget-breaking “dream dress” after all!
- Second-hand is a great option: If you’re lucky, you may be able to find your dress second-hand and much cheaper (and more ethical!). I investigated this route and would have loved to make it work, but I discovered that I’m relatively tall and most dresses had been taken up to fit shorter brides so it didn’t work for me. I did, however, find an older shop sample gown on Vinted that hadn’t been taken up to use for a modification project I’m working on – more on this to come!
- Factor in alterations to your budget. They can be expensive but make all the difference, and the length alteration will likely be essential for most brides.
don’t feel obligated to take anyone else. There are other things you can do to include a bridal party in the process…
- The process doesn’t have to be like on TV or in the movies: I did all but one of my wedding dress shopping trips by myself. This is not how they usually show it in films though, so I felt like a bit of an outlier! The boutiques loved that I turned up on my own as it’s faster to try on more gowns, and less emotionally charged if a bridesmaid or mother doesn’t agree with the bride’s choice! I usually shop for clothes on my own and I’m very confident about my choices, plus my Mum lives on the other side of the country so can’t easily”pop” in. If this is you, too, don’t feel obligated to take anyone else. There are other things you can do to include a bridal party in the process, like accessories shopping. I did a “viewing party” at home with my Mum: I tried on both my outfits for her while she drank champagne and ate macrons. I asked her opinion about accessories like shoes and gloves and even my makeup, so she had input into both of my final looks. It was a really special day, so: do things your way!
That’s the story of the most expensive and time-consuming clothing shopping I’ve ever done! I’m delighted with my dresses and loved wearing them on my wedding day (and for some other wedding tour events). I felt elegant and also like “myself”, despite the colour choice being outside my comfort zone. There were lots of micro decisions to make along the way (that’s weddings for you!), but ultimately I stayed true to myself and it was worth the effort. Next time, I’ll talk about the sugar on top that completes the full bridal look: accessories 👰
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