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Wedding Dress Shopping Information

Updated: Jun 18

Written by Delbra Percy, The Couture Seamstress


"Buyer be aware" is an old adage, but very true. We, as consumers, must look after ourselves. This goes doubly true when you are a bride. Brides are usually young and rather inexperienced with formal wear, as with the other aspects of wedding planning.  Here are a few rules worth thinking about when you set out at the task of shopping for the most important garment of your life thus far. Some of these rules overlap, while others will not pertain to all brides. These guidelines will provide you with information so you are able make a better choice toward your real dream dress; one that will be right for you.


bridal dress on mannequin

1. A dress that looks good in a magazine picture does not mean it will look good on you

Falling in love with a picture in a magazine may be a big mistake. It is not the dress that will make you beautiful on your special day. It is you. Do not fall into the trap of thinking a dress can hide any flaws in your figure. It can help a great deal, but the emphasis should not be on the dress but the person in the dress. While wedding dress shopping, look for a dress that flatters your good figure points but does not try to overpower you or enhance your bad points. It is so easy to buy a dress that wears you. Which would you rather hear your friends and family say, "what a beautiful dress" or "what a gorgeous bride?”

2. Salespeople want to make sales

This is going to sound harsh, but in all too many situations it is the norm. A salesperson is motivated to sell you a dress. It is their job. The best bridal salespeople do care and make you feel like they are truly doing their best to help you find the dress that is right for you, not simply a dress they can sell you. If you feel uncomfortable with your salesperson, ask for another. If you feel pressured, think about what you want, come back another time, talk to someone you trust. Remember, it is your decision, and nothing must be done immediately.


Quite a few salespeople are paid by commission. That means the more dresses they sell the more they get paid. They do not get rated by customer satisfaction. In some bridal stores the salespeople are paid on a graduating scale. This means the pricier the dress you buy the more money your salesperson makes.


Sadly, most salespersons know extraordinarily little to nothing about dress construction and alterations. But you should be aware they are going to do everything in their persuasive power to convince you that the dress you like can be altered to fit you perfectly and make you look more beautiful than Cinderella. This is not just a quirk of the bridal industry. Any store you enter may have sales staff that are paid by the sales they make. It is just the way retail works. It is my experience that from speaking with brides who have requested specific alterations, that they were guaranteed by the salesperson everything they wanted to have done could be altered that way or even added (sleeves are an example of this) later. Again, this is not always possible. Take pictures, consult a seamstress, do what you need to do to make yourself feel good about a purchase before actually making the purchase. That dress can be ordered a week later with no problem!  In the bridal stores where you are not allowed the luxury of returning a dress, it is especially important that you make your choice carefully. Simply listening to a salesperson’s advice may cause you problems later.


I cannot tell you strongly enough how heartbreaking a time you will have if your newly acquired "dream dress" ends up being a nightmare to alter - or worse, an impossible situation. Bridal boutiques and stores usually have a no refund policy - and they mean every word of it! It is your tough luck if the dress cannot be altered, even if the sale's lady & even another seamstress said it could. Their policies are strong. You need to take it upon yourself to be responsible for your choice of dress and be very sure it is right before you pay for it. One last thing, if you don’t LOVE it without making changes, a seamstress cannot make you love it after the alterations. As a seamstress our job is to make the dress fit your body, nothing more.


3. Never buy a dress that is more than one size too big or too small

Salespeople will tell you that any dress can be altered. As you stand there in a dress that cannot be zipped up because it is 6" too small, a salesperson will assure you that pieces can be taken off the bottom to be put in the seams to make the dress fit or the zipper removed, and a corset back put in. Though these ideas are usually true, that same salesperson will not tell you that it may also look either very odd or simply awful after the alteration is done - and it will cost you quite a bit to have done. I have done this alteration procedure several times, mostly on dresses that belonged to the bride's mother and passed down for the daughter to wear. In this case you do some odd things to get the dress to fit. But I do not recommend doing these type things on a new dress. It is not good for the structural integrity of the dress, and it is better to simply pick another dress.

The perfect-fitting wedding dress is an exceedingly rare thing. In my 45 plus years of working on bridal garments I have seen only a handful of dresses that needed nothing adjusted, not even a hem. The trick to getting a great fitting dress starts with the best fit you can get off the rack or ordered carefully. And the rule of thumb is, "it is easier to take something in than it is to let out.” Quite often it is impossible to let something out more than 1/2 inch on each side. It depends on how much fabric is in the seam allowance and if it has been clipped to smooth out curves or not. That is when adding pieces becomes necessary.


The final decisions are always up to you, but let me give you my best advice. Do not let yourself be talked into buying a dress that needs more alterations than you feel comfortable with or that your budget can handle. It is best for the structural integrity of the dress to have the least amount of altering as possible - and that's coming from someone who makes a living altering wedding dresses.

4. Do not diet once you have started your alterations (preferably do NOT diet or lose weight once your dress has been ordered!)

If you diet and change your body more than one size of the dress you ordered, alterations will be costly to make the dress fit your smaller body and you may lose design elements of the dress that you will not like losing. Losing design features could also create issues with the structural integrity of the dress which would mean the fabrics don’t hang as they should.  


I get emails from brides all the time, asking how to plan for dieting in ordering/buying their wedding dresses. My answer is always - do not diet after you have ordered your dress and definitely not after your alterations consultation! If you have been dieting before you shop for your dress, it is best that you stop once the dress is ordered and go on a maintenance plan to keep your body shape the same as it was measured for the size of the dress. This will save you costly alterations and the great stress of dieting while dealing with the multitude of things that must be dealt with in planning a wedding. This is supposed to be a happy time.

bridal dress on mannequin in boutique

If you have been dieting it is always best that brides stop once they have their initial consultation. If you continue to diet and the dress alterations must be re-done because you have lost weight, the cost is on the bride to pay twice for those alterations. The seamstress does not want the stress of doing the alterations twice should the bride's body be smaller than it was when the dress was initially fitted, and what customer wants to pay twice? Seamstresses want to do their best work for each bride they service. Having to re-alter a dress that should have been already completed may not be feasible in their work schedule.


Now, all that said - it is a good thing for a female to care enough about herself to want to improve her body and become a healthier person. Dieting may be part of this, but it is not a good idea to do it while planning a wedding. If you’re doing this for the good reason of your own self-esteem, do it well before the bridal dress purchase or after the wedding.

5. Just because a bridal consultant takes your measurements does not mean the dress is being made to those exact measurements.

If you are not buying a dress off the rack your sales associate will take your measurements to determine what size needs to be ordered. This does not mean the dress is going to be sewn to your exact measurements. Many a bride has been surprised and even dismayed to find that her newly arrived dress does not fit her perfectly. "But they took my measurements?" is usually a common reply.


You need to understand the difference between "Special Order " and "Custom Made.” In “Custom Made,” a garment is cut and sewn to a specific set of client measurements and should fit well when finished. In contrast, a Special-Order garment is chosen carefully using size charts to determine the best size to order that will make alterations minimal, but it usually does not eliminate the need for them. Few retail bridal boutiques can offer “Custom Made” dresses. It is a very expensive undertaking that few customers can handle. Special ordering is sometimes tricky because the various companies have varying size charts and when you add the fact that no two brides have the same body, you can start to understand why alterations are a necessary part of the dress selection process.

When your sales associate selects a size for your dress, she looks at many factors. One of the most important is your figure proportions. Since it is always better to take a large area in than let a small one out, your associate is going to select a size determined by your largest proportion for the size category you best fit into. This means that if you have a large bustline in proportion to your waist and hips, she will select the size to best fit your bust and you will need alterations in the waist and hip areas to make the dress fit your measurements.


In contrast, a small-busted bride will have to select a size according to her hip measurement. Alterations may be needed in the bust area, or as many brides choose, padding can be cleverly added to enhance the figure to fit the dress.  If there is more than a two-size difference between bust and hips, I would suggest the bride look for two-piece bridal dress. This means a better fit, because now you can purchase 2 different sizes, one to fit the bust and one to fit the hips. Some dresses may also be specially ordered to fit your different body measurements. Always check with your salesperson to see if that may be the case for the dress you are hoping to purchase.

6. Check everything when you pick up your dress

Whether buying a dress off the rack or ordering one, examine it VERY carefully before paying for it or accepting delivery and taking it out of the store. If you find a flaw after you get the dress home, the store is under no obligation to fix it. They do not have to give you any compensation either. "All sales are final" is true in the bridal industry.


a) Check for fit - As we discussed earlier, when you order a dress with measurements taken by the store attendant, the fit should be close to good but not usually perfect. The measurements are used to compare them to a size chart for the dress, and the store associate picks a size that will give the closest fit. However, alterations are often necessary to fine-tune the fit. Be sure to double check that the dress fits according to the size you were measured. I have found dresses marked as a size 10 but in actuality were marked incorrectly and the dress was a size 6. Always check!


b)  Check for flaws - If you wait to examine the dress when you get home and find a tear in the fabric that happened in the shipping process, it is your problem to fix. The store does not have to help you. Some will, but most will not. I do not mean to sound cynical, but I do want to forewarn you.


c)  Check for alteration elements - If you are buying a dress off the rack that is a little too tight, and you have no choice to get a larger size, check the seams for let-out space. If the seams are trimmed close or clipped for better shaping around curves, then it cannot be let out. In a normal situation, the dress can only be let out about 1” total. If the dress requires more than one inch to be let out it is better to find another dress than go through the heartache of finding out that the one you bought cannot be returned and is not able to be altered.


If the dress needs to be taken in check the sides seams for design elements that may be lost. Most designers will position lace and beading away from alteration points like side seams, but often these get taken in at the seams when they are sewn. Some laces can be removed before the alterations are done and replaced afterwards, but this too has its drawbacks. Beads may fall off in the process and create a costly situation to replace.


Taking along a trusted friend or family member who sews is helpful, but wedding dresses have special fabrics and construction that she may not be familiar with.

7. Buy the dress YOU want

This may seem silly, but many brides buy a dress that is "close" to what they want thinking they can alter it, or they purchase a dress because their mom or best friend thought it looked the best on them. It is great to alter for fit but altering for design change is another thing altogether. Do not be tempted to buy a dress that is marked way down just because a salesperson says it can be changed into the dress of your dreams. Yes, it may be possible. However, by the time you make the design changes to the sales dress, the cost of the changes would mean you could have ordered the new dress to begin with. Remember, the salesperson helping you probably knows little to nothing about alterations and less about design changing.

Recently I have had a rash of brides that have wanted me to add a slit to their dress. This is one of those things that salespeople say, “oh, sure, that can be done inexpensively. Not a problem.” That is not true.  If there is no seam in the dress where you would like to have a slit placed, it is not an easy alteration. It can cause structural changes and the dress normally will not hang properly after the cut is made.

8. If you are a C cup or larger - You Will Need A Bra unless you are normally comfortable without one

If you are large busted and need support, you will need to shop for a dress style that lets you wear a bra that will support you. The dress cannot give you this support even if it is boned. Dresses are designed to support themselves, not your breasts. Many small breasted brides can go braless in many dress styles, but anyone with a C cup or larger may find that this is not the case for her. Seamstresses can change the bra pads to a push up, however, this doesn’t add support, it simply lifts you breasts up – which may be all you are looking for or need.

Proper support is so especially important not only to how you look but how you feel that day. If you feel lousy, you will look lousy. I advise you to purchase a bra first and then go looking for a dress style that has a neckline that will cover the bra back and front. Do not let yourself fall in love with a dress that will not provide the coverage necessary for you to wear the bra you are comfortable wearing.


If you truly want to go without a bra, then looking for a dress that has straps is best. Bodice alterations are complex and require many hours of work. If you are willing to work with your seamstress to find the structure you need and allow her to spend the time necessary to add both structure and possibly straps for your support then by all means give it a try. But you may be adding quite a bit in alterations costs.


If you have a bridal dress that has an open back (meaning a dress that has nothing between the side seams of the dress and the center back of the dress where a bra back would be, then there is no way to make the dress tighter in the front. If your salesperson placed a strap here to show you a better fit, it will require a strap here to get this fit. Is this what you want?  

The point we're trying to make is to be aware. The final decision is yours, the bride. Stand up for yourself.


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