How to Prepare for Wedding Dress Shopping

There’s a lot of pressure put on us to find the perfect wedding dress. We’re taught to believe that when we find the wedding dress of our dreams that the clouds will part, the heavens will shine down upon us and we’ll shout, “I say yes to the dress!”

But for many of us, wedding dress shopping is not like that at all. And that is perfectly okay!

Just because you don’t have a magical fairytale moment when you finally decide on a wedding dress does NOT mean that there’s something wrong with you, that you have doubts about your marriage or that you secretly hate the dress you chose.

All it means is that you are a real person and not some caricature of a bride on a reality show.

That said, let’s dive into how to prepare for wedding dress shopping—before you even step into the bridal shop.

For what you need to know while you’re wedding dress shopping, check out “9 Wedding Dress Shopping Tips That Will Save Your Sanity.”

1. Start early. 

Why? Because shopping for a wedding dress is not like shopping for any other type of clothing.

You don’t just walk into a boutique, take a dress off the rack and leave with it. Wedding dresses are custom made by the designer. So once you decide what dress you want and place your order with the bridal boutique, it usually takes 4 to 6 months before it is actually ready for you to pick up.

So, you’ll want to buy your wedding dress about 8 months before your wedding.

This will give you 2 to 4 months after you pick up your dress to get alterations done, and many brides need more than one fitting. You’ll also need time to buy your undergarments, shoes and accessories, which is much easier to do once you have your dress.

Plus, you’ll have peace of mind if you start early. If you experience any alteration fiascos or end up with the wrong size or color, you’ll still have plenty of time to get things sorted out before your wedding.

For my own wedding dress, I started looking in November, bought my dress in December and it was shipped to me in April. That gave me 3 months to get alterations done and buy my shoes and accessories before my July wedding.

Now, there are a few exceptions. If you are planning to buy a preowned wedding dress or a nontraditional wedding dress—maybe from a shop like Nordstrom or BHLDN—you have time to spare. But I’d still encourage you to shop as soon as you can. That way, if you happen to change your mind, you’ll still have plenty of time to get the dress you really want.

If you have a short engagement (6 months or less), don’t worry! You also have options.

Look around for discount bridal shops in your area that specialize in preowned and sample dresses, as they will have styles that you can take home immediately.

If you don’t have one near you, check out online shops like They have their entire inventory online, including many dresses that are under $1000.

For a short engagement, you may not need to entirely rule out a traditional bridal salon, as some do have a small assortment of dresses available off-the-rack. Some shops will also put in a rush order for you, though it usually depends on the designer.

So make sure you call shops ahead of time to find out if it’s possible to get a wedding dress turned around in your timeframe. If it’s not, move on and find someone else who can help you.

2. Get clear on what you want.

It can be overwhelming to face rows and rows of wedding dresses, especially if you have no idea what you want. And when you walk into a bridal shop, they will ask you what you’re looking for. What style? What length? What budget? So make sure you have an idea of what you want before you shop.

It’s perfectly okay to change your mind—but you at least need a starting off point.

You may already know what you want. If you don’t, take some time and research online. Search on Pinterest or The Knot’s wedding dress database. What styles stick out at you?

You can also do a Google image search for “real weddings,” or tailor a search based on what you look like or what your personal style is. For example, since I have short hair, I often found more relevant and useful photos when I did a Google image search for “short hair bride” than any other search.

Also keep in mind the type of wedding you’re planning.

A beaded gown with a 3-foot train may be out of place at a brunch wedding, and a short, strapless tulle gown may be too informal for a winter evening wedding.

Opt for dresses that fit the tone of your wedding.

If you’re lost, seek advice from a fashionable friend that you trust.  Ask him or her to make some recommendations for you. Most people will jump at the chance!

3. Set a dress budget.

What can you honestly afford—or what amount do you feel comfortable spending? Keep in mind that accessories alone can easily add another $100 to $300, and alterations cost anywhere from $75 to $800, depending on who you ask.

Whatever your budget is, stick to it and don’t let salespeople pressure you into spending more!

4. Make a wedding dress appointment with a shop near you that has the styles you’re looking for within your budget.

If you want to pay under $1,000 for a dress, don’t want to waste your time in boutiques that only have dresses that start at $2,000.

If you know you want a dress from a particular designer or in a specific style, make sure the shop you’re going to has those types of dresses in their inventory.

No one will mind if you call and ask a few questions before deciding to check out their shop. You can also browse many boutique’s inventories online, which should give you a good idea what they offer in store.

If you are plus size, do a Google search for plus size boutiques in your area. While other bridal shops may have dresses in your size, you may find that a shop specializing in plus size wedding gowns will be a more helpful and positive experience.

If you have a strict budget, consider making an appointment with a preowned wedding dress shop. You may just strike gold with an awesome dress that costs even less than what you budgeted!

Keep in mind that Saturday afternoons are the busiest time for bridal shops. So try to make your appointments for Saturday morning or take a day off from work during the week. You may find that the consultants are a bit fresher and “on their game” at these times, and the experience may be smoother and less overwhelming for you.

Make no more than 3 appointments in one day. Trust me, you’ll get exhausted and burn out. Pace yourself. You may find that one single appointment a day is all you can handle.

5. Lower your expectations.

Don’t expect to have that magical movie moment or cry happy tears when you find the right dress. There are some people who love shopping for their wedding dress and to them the whole process is sunshine and rainbows and feels like playing dress up.

For many of us, however, it’s awkward, overwhelming and/or anticlimactic. You are most likely going to try on dresses that are not your size, which the bridal consultant will hold up to you or strap you into with clasps.

Looking at yourself with those clasps sticking out and wearing a formal gown while having your hair and makeup looking completely normal (or nonexistent) can make you feel silly.

Not to mention that many wedding dresses are heavy, and getting in and out of them may make you feel like a tired, sweaty mess—all while a total stranger hovers over you and asks questions like, “What do you think? Could this be THE ONE?”

So just be sure to lower your expectations, and if you DO end up doing a happy dance with tears streaming down your cheeks—you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

6. Decide if you want to go alone or invite friends or family members.

Do whatever you feel is most comfortable and is most helpful to you. Despite what you see on TV, it is normal and fine to go it alone! (I did!)

If you want to invite friends, choose no more than two people to accompany you, and be picky.

Select only the people who will be supportive, positive and helpful—not people who are competitive, bossy or will bulldoze your decisions. It can get pretty heated in those bridal boutiques!

If you want to go it alone, but you have bridesmaids or friends who really want to be involved, bring them to your final fitting instead. That’s a much a happier day anyway—and one to really celebrate!

If you complete these 6 steps, you’ll be prepared to shop for your wedding dress.

If you want tips to make your experience in the store smoother, check out “9 Wedding Dress Shopping Tips That Will Save Your Sanity.”

Please leave your comments and questions below, or email me at

Do you find these tips helpful? Do you have one of your own to add?

Resources: Although all gowns on the website say “All sales are final,” if you contact them and request their “Luxe in a Box” service, they will send you 3 gowns or your choosing to try on at home, and return what you don’t want. (Pro tip: When searching their inventory, enter your size, such as “Size 10” in their search bar to only turn up results in your size!)

The Knot’s wedding dress database