Shopping for The Dress

First of all, before everyone freaks out, no. This is not The Dress. Just the first one I tried on.


So as you all know, I've got a wedding to plan. This is a thrilling, emotional, stressful journey in which my money is taken from my wallet in all sorts of new ways.

You see, the wedding industry knows that every bride is secretly irrational. They know that if they push the right buttons, brides will turn to piles of cash before their very eyes. Buttons like, "This is the day you've been dreaming of, ever since you were a little girl!" "Your wedding only happens once!" "It's the happiest day of your life!"

But let me get this straight: It's the happiest day of my life...therefore I should spend $120 per person on dinner? My wedding only happens once...therefore I should pay $6,000 to rent a room? I've been dreaming of this day forever...therefore I should buy $2,000 worth of flowers? Are you people nuts?

These people are not, in fact, nuts. The problem is, they think I am. They think all brides are. And to be honest, many brides ARE nuts. Their standards are raised, their price gauges busted. It's all so expensive, what's another $3,000 for the dress?

Oh, the dress. That marvelous pile of satin and tulle, that giant white cream puff of lace and beads.

That overpriced, overhyped tearjerker that you only wear for ten hours! Of every nuptially-related search that I've gone through so far, shopping for my dress has been by far the most ridiculous. People, if it's been a while since you were married, or if you have yet to go through this crazy time, let me share with you a little transmission from the desperate, manipulative and utterly backwards world of wedding gown shopping.

In order of increasing weirdness:

The appointments. One cannot simply walk into a bridal shop and start trying on dresses. Oh no. One must make an appointment. These relics of the past serve to hammer home the "personal service" point, but man, are they annoying. Mainly because they slow everything down, a la "Our next appointment is two weeks from Tuesday." But also because you walk in, already feeling this big obligation to buy. For that hour, you are the only customer in the store. I don't need any more pressure!

The clamps. Gowns in the store are called "samples," and all samples are a "sample size." If this size is too big for you, which it probably is, stores will clamp the dress together to make it fit. I am not joking when I say that these clamps look like they were recently used to hold the 2x4's on the bandsaw down at Ace Hardware. They are huge and strong, come in all sorts of bridal colors like Home Depot Orange, and are incredibly difficult to squeeze.

Therefore, shop attendants must double as construction workers, complimenting you on your figure, pulling the dress tight, then clamping it tighter with every ounce of strength they've got. The clamps look and feel completely wrong for this environment, which is otherwise all soft and pink and ruffly. Yet every shop I've visited uses them. Could some aspiring wedding entrepreneur please come out with proper dress clips, so stores could stop using this clumsy workaround?

The partial nudity. Dressing rooms in gown stores are HUGE. Plenty of room for your mom, your sister, your friend, your attendant and her assistant. Pretty much the whole store could fit in there, and they sometimes do. But is there another, smaller room for you to get down to your skivvies? Nope. You've got to dress and undress, dress and undress, in front of all those people.

Fortunately for me, I've had a smaller entourage (sometimes even going alone) and been blessed with only one or two employees in my room at a time. But still. If I'd known about all this standing around in a corset and undies, I might have shaved my legs.

The lack of browsing. Wedding stores tout their personal service like they invented it. What this means is that when you arrive, you describe your taste, then THEY choose the dresses you see. It's rare to find a big, open store with racks for browsing. Rather, a woman rushes back and forth from your room to "the back," pulling only dresses that she thinks you will like.

This process may work well in theory (she makes real-time adjustments to her selections based on your reaction to each dress) and has grounding in operations (if customers handled all the dresses, they would get dirty faster) but it still feels really opaque to me. Like I am some rich idiot to be catered to, rather than a consumer with any control over what I see. I often leave thinking, "Man, I only tried 9 dresses and I know she has hundreds back there." How is hiding the product a good way to sell it?

The veil. Right at the end, when you've found a dress that just might be The One, the attendant says, "Oh sweetie, that looks fabulous! Here, let me get you a veil." She slides the comb into your hair, and suddenly your whole head is framed in a halo of white lace.

I must admit, this works a little too well. Even on me, the most skeptical shopper, the most hyper-aware of this type of trickery. Veils are probably Sales Tool Numero Uno at bridal shops, because with a veil on your head, it's no longer dress-up. It's the real deal. It's like HOLY CRAP I AM TOTALLY GETTING MARRIED. It's thrilling and scary and magical. And you know what happens - I just integrate the dress I'm wearing right into that vision. Of course later, when I'm stewing over my options, it's hard to mentally separate the two. So reader, beware the veil and its powers of influence. Keep your focus on the dress.

The lack of information. This is the weirdest of them all. Let's say you've found a dress you like. It fits your style, flatters your figure, makes you feel like a real bride. But let's say your mom isn't there. What might you want to do next? Perhaps get her opinion? How about taking a picture? Many stores say no.

And the reason for it is even weirder. Historically, bridal shops have always had exclusivity agreements with designers. So a particular brand might only be found at one store in all of Illinois. This creates the impression that you can only buy this dress in this store. And stores have ridden the exclusivity wave for years, because a bride in Chicago could only really buy gowns in Chicago.

However, as the internet gains traction as a viable gown resource, the possibility of brides price-comparing and 'buying the same dress somewhere else' becomes even greater. There are discounters and consigners and Craigslist and you can even buy cheap knockoffs from China. So stores are freaked out - after all, they're losing their competitive edge. Their response strategy? Limiting the amount of information that a bride can leave with. If she can't look it up, she can't find it cheaper. Hence, no photos.

But surely you could write down its brand and style name, so you could look it up for future reference? Nope. Many stores literally rip the labels out of sample gowns, so that you cannot even tell which dress you are trying on.

I read about this shocking tactic in a handy book, but found it hard to believe until I experienced it firsthand. I was in a pretty posh store, and I liked a dress by designer Melissa Sweet. But it was pricey, and I wasn't ready to buy. I asked the owner, "Which dress is this again, so I can remember it?" She said, "It's the Melissa Sweet." I said, "I know, but which one? I know they all have style names, or numbers or something." "Nope," she said, looking down at her hands. "That's all you need to know."

Wow! Wow. Well, all I need to know is that I won't be making my purchase here!


Of course, all of these elements serve to make me, the bride-to-be, feel completely helpless. I can't walk in off the street, can't feel comfortable in the dressing room, can't browse a wide selection or pick my samples, can't take pictures, and sometimes, can't even know what I'm trying on. It's retail manipulation at its worst, and I'm getting pretty tired of playing the game.

Now of course, I want a beautiful dress. I want a dress that is as unique as I am. I want a dress that will make my boyfriend cry, that will make the whole room gasp, and that will still look awesome in photos 50 years from now. This is no small request! Therefore, this is already no easy shopping trip.

But I also think that finding the dress is intricately tied to the retail experience surrounding it. I haven't found my dress yet, and I think it might be because I haven't found my store yet. Sure, I am looking for an ivory gown with a mermaid cut, lightweight material, tasteful ruffles, no beads, no sparkles, no lace, and some type of sash or bow. But I am also looking for a low-pressure environment with friendly, honest, forthcoming employees, lots of choice, and the ability to deliberate in private. Oh, and no veils until I say so.

Wish me luck.


Anonymous said...

Definitely keep looking. It may be the difference of being in a less urban area than the one you're in (upstate New York - capital district), but pretty much all the bridal boutiques I went to, even the ones that had the huge dressing room and so forth, had their dresses out on display so you could browse through racks and get an idea of styles. So those places do exist. None of them required appointments either. About half of them did request no pictures. And the one that did have a huge dressing room at least had a screened off area you could stand behind to change, so you only had to worry about being mostly naked in front of the one attendant necessary to get you into the dress without getting it dirty.

I got very lucky - the dress I fell in love with was a discontinued floor model, so I got it half priced. Of course, it helped that at the time I was nearly a perfect size 10, which seems to be the default floor model size.

Some of the other fun tricks you can look forward to include the extra surcharge if you want to order a bridesmaid's dress in white, to prevent people from ordering a bridesmaid dress to avoid the huge "but it's your WEDDING DAY" markup factor.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and that book was my guide through my wedding process - it definitely helped me dodge some of the worst pitfalls!

sara said...

Thanks mazlynn! I've been to four stores so far, and all have had varying degrees of the weirdness described in the post. One big boutique, one small boutique, one private home and one consignment shop.

But I'm hoping to choose my stores more strategically now. I have an appointment tomorrow at a place specializing in sample and "once-wed" gowns, all supposedly with reduced prices. I also have a friend coming, which really helps to mitigate the pressure.

Thanks for the encouragement!

cheapskate said...

Sara, are you sure that isn't the dress? :) Its beautiful and looks great! I am not married but have been to plenty of bridal stores and I must say they are all very weird..and annoying. I hate them...but in the end it will all be worth it and you'll forget how annoying it all was! As for bridesmaid dresses, I know of a good place that will make dresses identical to a make/"model" you find at a store for a fraction of the price.. Good luck! Oh and I don't think he's your "boyfriend" anymore, haha.

Marketing Mommy said...

Back in 1998, I went to one wedding dress shop. It was Jessica McClintock. I walked in on a whim, looked through 2 rooms of dresses, picked one I liked and ordered it. One hour and $300 later I was out of there. It came in a month later and I spent $100 getting it altered and another $80 on a wreath and veil (scam!), but ultimately it was pretty painless.

Yeah, the dress was synthetic instead of silk, but it looked great for the 5 hours I was in it!

Anonymous said...

Soooo, Sara, we hear you finally got The Dress! How about sharing the shopping experience with us?

sara said...

It's true, I finally bought the dress.


The shop was awesome, and the owner was fabulous. First, she sat me down and conducted an in-depth interview about what I liked and didn't like. She closely studied the pictures I brought. She took my inarticulate dress descriptions seriously.

Then, she had me change into a white towel-y robe (not unlike those found at spas!) It was luxurious and totally comfortable.

Next, she had me browse a giant room full of racks! She said I should pull out 4-5 dresses, which I did. Each gown had a big tag with the price, brand, style name, and a detailed description. So much information!

Once I had the dress on, and was going through final deliberations, she asked if I wanted to try a veil. I said "No, not yet." This was totally fine. (I eventually asked for a veil, which is how it should be).

Best of all, the store had a runway. A RUNWAY. It's like a long, white raised aisle that ends in a mirror. So I walked down the runway, and what I saw was 'what he will see' - me walking down the aisle, starting far away and getting closer and closer. It was amazing! My decision was made.

The store is called White Chicago. I totally recommend it!

Oh, and the dress - it's awesome too. :)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your upcoming wedding Sara! I recently got engaged myself and will be getting a taste of your experiences first hand... I'm greatful for this blog, because I am too a very skeptical shopper and often perceived to be a bitch because of that! I'll keep you in my mind while trying to fight off unwanted store attention!

Hillary Schuster said...

white chicago is featured in the newest "eat shop chicago" guide. how does it compare to other places in terms of price? it looked pretty great.

last year my little brother's wife came to chicago looking for a dress. we tried to stop in the bridal shop at macy's but you needed an appointment and it was all weird and hidden away (but there seemed to be more than one girl there at once).

she ended up buying a $500 off the rack evening dress at nordstrom. it was actually pretty painless. she borrowed a different dress for the reception back in michigan, though - so very few people saw her in the dress.

sara said...

White Chicago is definitely a place for bargains, IF you are looking for a designer dress. It's not a place for $500 gowns, rather it's a place for $3000 gowns marked down to $1250.

All their gowns are either samples, or "once-wed." Either way, you buy off the rack - I took my dress home with me that night. (I fully plan to sell it back to them after the wedding!)

Abbie's dress is gorgeous, by the way. Good job!

Anonymous said...

i swear planning and setting up weddings is like the worst... especially with how expensive everything is. im glad i was the groom and didnt have to worry about finding me a dress; it just sounds like an un-fun experience.

.:. Amethystia said...

That sounds so exciting!!! I mean, the part about the White Chicago store. I've never actually thought getting married could be something I might do. I've only just turned 19, stop putting crazy thoughts in my head!!! Hahaha. Seriously.

Anonymous said...

what about custom wedding dress ?as I know,many my friend get their custom dress from this site.

alice said...

Hi Sara!

I was just looking for unique wedding proposals when I stumbled upon your fiance's blog about the proposal(WOW! BY THE WAY!) and then i eventually got to this post about your dress. i just started a post-wedding wedding blog to soothe my wedding planning withdrawal symptoms. my wedding was also in chicago so feel free to check it out or ask me for advice! wedding-palindrome-wedding.blogspot.com. btw i might post about your amazing wedding proposal soon if you don't mind!

suniya said...

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DropShip said...

Some very good advice in this post. I'll have to pass it on to my cousin who's getting married in a month, if she hasn't gotten her dress already that is.


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Unknown said...

That's a great collection! Thank you, we had a lot of fun to browse through all the links although there are a couple which don't work anymore!!! Dresses are very nice and beautiful.


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Mystery Shopping said...

That is a very pretty wedding dress. It is such a bit day and looking your best is so important to the bride. I really enjoyed your post and look forward to checking out more of your blog.

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zerry ht said...

My wedding dress was gorgeous. Wearing designer dress on my wedding at New York Event Venues was a great experience. Helped by my sister in choosing wedding dress for me. It was dazzling with awesome embroidery work on it.

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