Wedding Dress Cheat Sheet: What to Know Before You Shop


When it comes to picking a wedding dress, brides-to-be seem to fall into one of two categories: enthused and nonplussed. The enthused have probably thought long and hard to develop a vision for their weddings, and what they will look like — possibly years before they’ve ever met their soulmates. When a person isn’t excited, or hasn’t given much forethought to the process, wedding dress shopping may appear to be a daunting experience. No matter which camp you fall into, there are things every future bride needs to consider before starting to try on dresses — and trying on dresses should be one of the first things you do! The earlier you find your dress, the better. The general buying timeline tells a bride to start looking, and purchase her dress 9 to 12 months in advance. This provides plenty of time to order and alter the dress. But what will that dress look like, be made of, and where will it come from? Keep reading for the tips and terms that will help you find your dream dress.

1. Location, location, location!

There are two ways this applies to wedding dress shopping and why it must be a top priority before you start shopping. First, where you will be getting married will dictate, to some extent, what kind of dress will be purchased. Fairy-tale ball gowns are hard to navigate on a sandy beach, and short sheath dresses are probably not appropriate for a traditional, conservative church wedding. (Obviously, it is best to sort this one out with your fiancé.)

With the wedding location settled, you can turn to where you will be shopping for your dream dress, which invites a discussion of what your budget will be. Weddings are increasingly expensive endeavors. Average estimates are hard to pin down, but the overall wedding can easily surpass $25,000. According to Statistics Brain, the average wedding costs $28,082 and the dress is $1,053 of that. Additionally, accessories tend to be around $144, and the veil or headpiece approximately $119. The website does not say if alterations are included in the cost of the dress. If they are not, more money needs to be tacked onto the cost of the dress.

Once a price point is set, you know which stores and boutiques will be carrying dresses within your range. As any veteran watcher of Say Yes to the Dress knows, trying on a dress outside of your budget is a risky endeavor. If you absolutely fall in love with the dress, you suddenly face having found the perfect dress — and no way to purchase it. Everything else will seem lackluster in comparison, causing you to like your eventual dress less, or spend more of your overall wedding budget on the dress than anticipated. Once you know where you will be shopping, call and make an appointment to try on dresses.

2. Basics to Know Before You Go: Silhouette

A few basic terms will help you work with any bridal salon employee to find your perfect dress. If you have a vision of what you want, the more detailed you are in your description, the more likely it is they will be able to assist. Wedding dresses come in a variety of shapes and styles, but a few terms apply to styles across the board.

A-line or Princess: The A-line cut is one of the most popular styles of dress sold today, because it flatters virtually every figure. It will have a fitted bodice with a modestly flared skirt. The Princess cut builds on this shape, enlarging the flare by using vertical panels.

Ball gown: Have dreams of a fairy-tale wedding? This is more than likely the cut for you. The skirt of a dress in this style is even larger than those seen on A-line and Princess gowns, with fulness achieved through petticoats or hoops. Again, there is usually a fitted bodice for the top half of the dress.

Column/Sheath: A total departure from fitted bodices and full skirts are column or sheath dresses. Typically, this style does not have any flare, and will have a narrow cut that will hug the body of the wearer. Due to its body clinging characteristics, this dress does not flatter everyone equally.

Drop Waist: With a bodice that is either loose or fitted, a drop waist does exactly what the name implies — it drops the waist of the dress below the natural waist.

Empire: At the other end of the waist spectrum are empire dresses. Empire style dates back to Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, Josephine, who popularized Empire style during the early 1800s in France. The waist of the dress rises to just below the bust. A generally universally flattering option, depending on other details of the dress, it can both minimize a larger bust, or create the illusion a smaller bust is larger than it actually is.

Mermaid/Trumpet: Dresses in this style can create a dramatic effect. It is closely fitted to the body from the neckline until the knee, where it flares out. The range of flare can be moderate to extreme, and incorporate new materials or details into the design.

3. Basics to Know Before You Go: Styles

Silhouette is, of course, only one aspect of shape, and neck and hem lines must also be considered. Many wedding dresses are floor length with a hemline that just graces the floor, or is barely above it. Traditional, but not the only game in town. Ankle-length gowns, unsurprisingly, hit at the ankle, and ballerina lengths are just above the ankle. Moving up are tea length gowns. Historically, this mean the dress hits near the bottom of the calf, but over time, the hem has been raised and the definition expanded to encompass dresses that fall somewhere below the knee, and a few inches above the ankles. Mini wedding dresses, like mini skirts, have a hem above the knee. For anyone who can’t pick just one, there is the intermission or hi-lo hem. Dresses cut in this style are short in the front — usually about mid-calf — and floor length in the back.

The next set of terms to familiarize yourself with before your shopping trip are descriptions of the bodice and neckline. While most, like halter, sweetheart, and spaghetti strap are fairly common when describing the features of tops and dresses, a few more nuanced terms may be helpful as you shop for your wedding dress.

A Sabrina neckline is related to the bateau, or boatneck style. The opening is narrower, not going out to the tips of the shoulders like a boatneck, and it also has a deeper curve. Portrait necklines are modifications of the off-the-shoulder look. It extends out with a drop-shoulder line, often with a scoop as the line extends from one shoulder to the other. There is generally more fabric involved in portrait necklines than there is for an off-the-shoulder style. Jewel necklines are rounded, but not scoop necks. A scoop neckline can plunge just as low as v-neck, whereas the jewel neckline sits at the base of the throat, similar in cut and situation to the neckline on a typical t-shirt.

Sleeves, once mandatory for church weddings, are not as fashionable as they once were. Of course, Kate Middleton has helped to popularize the look after she wore a full-length sleeve dress for her royal wedding. Slightly less long are three-quarter sleeves, and cap sleeves are short — often tightly fitted and rounded. Dramatic flourishes can be found in your sleeves as well. Bell varieties remain fitted through the elbows, and flare at the wrist. A dolman reverses this, being wider at the top than the wrist, and it is also called a bat sleeve.

4. Basics to Know Before You Go: Fabric

This is going impact the price you pay, and the cost of alterations, so it is crucial you sort this aspect out if you’re on a tight budget. Silk is one of the most popular dress fabrics, but it is also expensive. Silks, or rayons, are used to create light layers on wedding dresses too, including chiffon, georgette, and tulle.

Silks are also woven into other fabrics to creating more affordable options. One example is satin — a fabric with a sheen on one side. Duchesse Satin combines silk and polyester or rayon, and has a satin finish. Crepes are soft, thin, and have a crinkled appearance. Crepe de Chine is an even thinner variation. Knits are another fabric, like pique which has a honeycomb appearance on one side, and is smooth on the other.

Brocade is another woven fabric; it is thick and has designs, or patterns which are raised. Since it is heavier, it is a popular choice for cold weather weddings. Velvet is another option for winter or cooler temperatures for the same reason. Damask shares many features with brocade, but is lighter.

Laces are elegant and timeless choices, with dozens of designs. Flowers make up the background of Alencon and Chantilly laces, but the latter has a ribbon design, too. Duchesse lace designs are flower and irregularly spaced, and Spanish lace specifically utilizes roses.

5. Trunk Shows and Sample Sales

If you really want to be a savvy wedding dress shopper, see what trunk shows or sample sales will be happening leading up to your wedding. Both are opportunities for exploring more dresses than you normally have access to, in different ways. A trunk show is held by a designer or company representative at a bridal salon. The designers entire range of dresses will be on display, and a bride-to-be can try on the styles, and meet the designer themselves. This is beneficial because there will be more dresses available on trunk show days than what is typically in a salon, even though the salon carries the designer. If you have specific alterations in mind, this is something you can discuss with the designer, who can then help you understand what is and is not feasible with the material, cut, and timing. There is also the potential to save money at a trunk shows, but a discount is not a sure bet. To find out if there will be a trunk sale at a boutique or salon, simply call and ask.

The real money saver when it comes to designer wedding dresses are sample sales, with discounts up to 70 or 85 percent. However, there are some serious drawbacks to the sample sale route. First, you need to be a sample size — usually a 6 or 8, or smaller — to benefit. Alterations can make a dress smaller, but it is more difficult to make a dress larger. As the sample dress, the gown has been tried on numerous times in a salon already. It may be showing signs of wear and tear, necessitating additional repairs. It is unlikely a consultant will be assisting you at a sample sale, and you’ll probably be fighting a lot of other women looking for the perfect dress. If you are focused and have a plan of action, the sample sale might be your best bet to save money, but be well aware of what you are getting into. Sample sales will be advertised by salons and online. If you are unsure, call around to see if one is happening nearby.

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet: