Tips to aid in your quest in finding the best dress

Cara Sullivan / The New York Times /

Published Oct 6, 2013 at 05:00AM

If your search for the most amazing gown is starting to feel more like an off-the-rails reality show, take a deep breath. Here, the best tips for when to start, whom to bring and how to navigate styles, sales and fittings.

Set a budget: Shopping without a cutoff point is like driving without a gas gauge — trust us on this. Plan to spend about 10 percent of your overall budget on your dress. But consider this number a starting point. If fashion is more important to you than, say, flowers or music, increase your dress spending and scale back in other places, says Mark Ingram, owner of Mark Ingram Atelier in New York City. Or, go easy on the gown and shell out for a great photographer or band if those are your top priorities.

Do your research: Before you hit the shops, think about what kind of dress you want. Keep a folder where you can stash pictures from magazines, fabric samples, ribbons and anything else you love, and use your smartphone or tablet to swipe through Pinterest boards.

Limit your entourage: On reality shows, brides always bring a whole crew of friends and family members to join in on the shopping fun. And every single time, there’s loads of drama — and never the good kind. The takeaway? Less is more when it comes to companions.

Primp beforehand: The great thing about most bridal salons is that they’re designed to make you look (and feel!) good. The lighting is flattering, and the mirrors don’t distort your frame. But do put some effort into getting ready for your appointment (just be sure to avoid spray tans and anything that could stain white fabric). If you arrive with wet hair and no makeup, it’s a lot harder for the staff to pull dresses you might like.

Step out of your comfort zone: Some dresses look like paper bags on the hanger and drop-dead gorgeous on your body. With that in mind, don’t turn your nose up at anything until you try it on. That said, don’t let a pushy salesperson sweet-talk you into a gown you don’t love.

Forget about size: If you take away just one thing from this article, let it be this: No two designer size charts are created equal. If you’re a size 6 in the ready-to-wear world, for example, you could be anything from a 2 to a 12 on planet bridal. It can be jarring to see a larger number on the order form than you’re used to, but resist the urge to get a smaller size. Taking in a gown is easy; letting it out is difficult.

Track the main contenders: Before smartphones became ubiquitous, snapping photos at appointments was a no-no. But now that it’s nearly impossible to police, most places allow it — and that’s great news for brides. After all, there’s no better way to document your experience. If a store doesn’t allow photos, take detailed notes, make a pros-and-cons list, and record all pertinent information.

Read the fine print: A good consultant will walk you through everything on the contract, including (but not limited to) the price, color, style number and name, delivery date, deposit, estimated alterations fee, and cancellation policy. Fifty percent is standard for the deposit. If you pay more than that, and for some reason the gown you ordered doesn’t end up being what you expected, you could be out thousands of dollars.