What can I expect when shopping for a bridesmaid dress?
March 12, 2011 7:45 AM   Subscribe

I will be shopping for a bridesmaid dress in the very near future. I want to try dresses on in person before I buy. I'll likely be shopping alone, and although I have a general idea of what styles and colors to look for, I'll have to make the final decision myself. I've never been in a bridal shop and am concerned about pushy salespeople and upsells. What do I need to know, and how can I make this as hassle-free as possible?

There is one dress I've found that I really like, but I want to see how it looks on me, and I'm open to other styles. The bride hasn't narrowed things down to one designer, style, or color, so my job is to figure that out. The wedding is in another state and I'll be shopping by myself.

This will be my first time setting foot in a bridal shop and I have no idea what to expect. Can I just walk in or do I have to make an appointment? Is everything I've heard about obnoxious bridal salespeople accurate? Will there be pressure on me to make a purchase? Will they find it weird if I look at too many different styles and colors, or if the bride's not there?

I've already called one place, and the person I talked to said I needed an appointment, and they might not have time for the order (the wedding is in a couple months), and how many bridesmaids would there be and where the wedding is and so on. I know they're running on a schedule, but that's already too much hassle for my taste. Really, I just want to try on dresses.

Complicating factor: I am the bride. I'd rather get a simple $150 bridesmaid dress than a gigantor $1000 gown. I've heard that if you let slip that you're the bride, the salespeople will all but refuse to sell you a maid's dress. I have a good cover story, but I'm nervous that if I go in asking to see a number of different dresses and say "oh, also, could you bring this out in white?" they'll find me out. Am I worrying about nothing, or do I need to steel myself?

(And does it really take three months to get a fucking bridesmaid dress made? Am I screwed here?)
posted by Metroid Baby to Shopping (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You should find a bridal shop that has dresses in stock, or can ship them out quickly—sometimes some of the "superstore" type places, like David's, are better in that respect, 'cause their business model doesn't necessarily rely on having everyone place a gigantor special order for a custom-sewn gown that takes six months to make. Like you, I didn't want to have anything to do with a "traditional" process that seemed that backward and expensive, and that's why I ended up getting a $279 gown at David's. (And am about to be late for my alterations appointment there if I keep typing...)

That said, those places will very gently and/or matter-of-factly try to steer you toward buying at the end of your visit—like, "OK, so you're pretty sure you like that one? Talk it over for a minute if you want, and I'll meet you at the register." But you can decide not to buy it just then, and they should be fine with that.
posted by limeonaire at 7:55 AM on March 12, 2011

Disclaimer: I have never shopped in a bridal shop -- largely due to anticipation of a lot of the same things you anticipate not enjoying. So I apologize for not answering your question directly, but I wanted to ask if you've considered alternatives to a bridal store, such as finding a dressmaker or designer to work with you individually or just shopping in a regular department store's formalwear department.

A couple of data points: I bought my wedding dress online (on clearance) for like $25. It was just a white-ish shift dress. A friend of mine purchased a silvery "bridesmaid gown" from a bridal shop and wore it as her wedding dress. In her case, she just never mentioned to anyone that she was the bride (similar reasons to you) and it was no big deal.
posted by hansbrough at 7:56 AM on March 12, 2011

Addendum: since you have already selected a dress you think you'll like, I totally think you can go into the store just to try that one thing on. Just don't sweat it with the salespeople; they're just doing their job, and if they try to make you feel bad or whatever, just blow them off and don't purchase your dress there. Going back to my dressmaker suggestion, you could get someone to make you a dress similar to the one you like that's customized for you.

And congratulations on your upcoming wedding :)
posted by hansbrough at 7:59 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can maybe get lucky buying off-the-rack at David's. Maybe. HOWEVER, a friend of mine tried to go this route - just order ONE dress for herself - and they kept screwing up the order because they were expecting a bunch more dresses to be ordered. Don't be surprised if they are weirded out.

I would call around local shops to see if you can buy off the rack there and what kind of selection they have, and does that selection meet your needs. Explain to them on the phone what you are doing, and you'll have a lot more luck I think.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:03 AM on March 12, 2011

If you're trying to avoid the price tag, I'd suggest looking into JCrew or possibly David's Bridal (although I didn't like them). Anthropologie is also exploring wedding garb. JCrew everything is sized, so you would just order and send back if it didn't fit you. The problem with ordering a dress, whether it is bridesmaid or bridal, is that they are actually ordering a dress to be made in many cases, not just ordering one that is already made, and they will take measurements, etc to make it much more to fit your body. Therefore, yes, it can take several months to come in- and in not-great cases, it could still need alternations afterward, which take even more time.

For this reason, you're going to want to buy off-the-rack, which I would tell them, or something that takes very little order time. This will limit you in terms of what sizes they have available or how quickly they can get them, which is why I think JCrew isn't a bad bet.

As to everything else, I think they might just be confused that the "bride" has given you very little direction, and so if anything I think I'd frame it as, "I have a choice to pick what looks best on me and fits my body, because all of the bridesmaids are such different sizes. These are the colors I tend to look good in, and these are theme colors for the wedding/the wedding is in X season."

I do think you'll possibly get some raised eyebrows if you ask to try on dresses in white, but more than that, many times they don't even have the bridesmaid dresses IN white. For that reason, if you are considering wearing white, it might just be best to say you're the bride, try on dresses for size/fit, and then buy elsewhere.
posted by questionsandanchors at 8:06 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I got my bridesmaids' dresses and wedding dress (both of them) at David's because it was convenient and they were having a sale. The salesgirl was actually really good and honest about what looked good and what didn't, and brought stuff to try on that worked. They all may not be that good, though.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:08 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

About the white thing: I was a bridesmaid in a wedding where all of the bridesmaids wore white (the bride wore red). It's not unheard of. You can always be like, "oh ha ha yeah the bride is so wacky and non-traditional, you know." I didn't have a problem finding a bridesmaid's dress in white, but of course the range of styles that are available in white is going to be smaller than for bridal dresses.
posted by neushoorn at 8:11 AM on March 12, 2011

"Can I just walk in or do I have to make an appointment? Is everything I've heard about obnoxious bridal salespeople accurate? Will there be pressure on me to make a purchase? Will they find it weird if I look at too many different styles and colors, or if the bride's not there?"

Call ahead; some places are walk in but others are appointment. When you call ahead you can also tell them if you have any TYPES of dresses in mind, and your size, and have them pull some dresses.

I *generally* had very good experiences with bridal salespeople when I was shopping for my own wedding stuff (probably because I had a wedding planner who steered me towards decent shops), but I have also met the crap ones. If they're crap, just leave. I did not face much pressure, and they expect you to look at tons of styles and colors. It's not at ALL weird for maids to shop without brides; so many weddings today involve very spread-out family and friends. (I mean, heck, my flower girl was 2,000 miles away and went shopping on her own with some pictures of the bride's and maids' dresses to try to find something.) Good places know that maids come back as brides and brides tell their friends and provide customer service accordingly; bad places treat you as a one-time sale they have to make NOW. Good places also know you may only want to get measured there, buy from the bride's shop in another state, and then bring the dress in for alterations. Good places are cool about this.

I wouldn't let slip that you're the bride but you could certainly look at dresses in white by saying the bride is having a "snowball" or "snowflake" wedding or whatever they call them these days where everyone wears white. They aren't as popular as they were in the late 90s but it's still a thing.

Also, give that this is a pretty tight time schedule -- my wedding dress had to be ordered six months in advance AND came even slower than that because silk shipments were getting stopped in New York for searching in the wake of 9/11! (Also my engagement photos got anthraxed at the DC post office, incinerated, and had to be resent! It was crazy!) -- you may want to shop at bridal stores that also carry prom dresses (as well as regular formalwear places); they are more likely to be able to provide things fast and without a surcharge. They'll also have less-expensive dresses available. (And I've seen plenty of white and near-whites on offer for prom this year, seems princessy this year.)

The one bad bridal shop experience I had was with my shoes; the store (a national chain you've heard of) had several pairs in stock in my size, but when they found out I'd bought my dress elsewhere, they refused to sell them to me and told me it would take them "eight weeks" to get in a pair for "someone who didn't buy a dress here, those are only for our loyal customers." Seriously! So I called the manufacturer of the shoes and told them what happened -- they only sold this particular style through this national chain and I really wanted them! -- and the manufacturer sent them to me in white AND ivory (I wasn't sure which color would go better) at half-price, free two-day shipping, and threw in a little purse gift-premium-thingie. They apologized to me profusely and told me that was totally unacceptable on the store's part. The shop may pull that shit but their contract with the manufacturer says they have to sell the shoes to, you know, WHOEVER WANTS TO BUY THEM. So if you do run in to bad service or a runaround, it may be worth your time to call the manufacturer and at least let them know that a particular store is doing that. Even if a dress is available "only" through a particular store, you may be able to get it direct if the store gives you hassle.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:11 AM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I tried on and bought my dress at an upscale bridal shop.
posted by neushoorn at 8:11 AM on March 12, 2011

Take a friend with you. They're the bride. Decoy.
posted by functionequalsform at 8:12 AM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think the OP is actually a bridesmaid, fwiw.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:24 AM on March 12, 2011

The appointment will depend on the place. I believe even at David's Bridal you often need an appointment, at least for busy time periods. But you can call and ask in advance. Also, sometimes upscale department stores such as Nordstroms also have bridesmaids dresses that you can try on easily. Likewise, there are some JCrew stores that carry the bridesmaids dresses so you can try those on without an appointment.

In terms of when you are at the appointment, if you say that the bride has sent you to try on a few different styles, they won't question. As a faux-bridesmaid you can also avoid any salesperson pressure tactics with the simple phrase "I'll need to run that past the bride first."

Another option would be a try on at home option. Aria allows this; although there is a charge of $15 per dress.
posted by statsgirl at 8:28 AM on March 12, 2011

My mom just talked me down from I swear to god I am going to get married in yoga pants, so that's good. I don't live near a David's, but Mom does and she's willing to check things out. And I'll be cruising the nicer department stores in the area to see what they've got on the rack. If that doesn't work, more calling around, I guess. I'll find something!

(I'm waffling between the whole fake-bridesmaid thing and just coming out with "I'm the bride, it's a small informal wedding, my price limit is $X, and I am buying the dress I want or I am taking my business elsewhere." It's probably just going to be tiring to keep up the act.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:37 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, keep in mind, you're the customer. You don't actually HAVE to tell them what you're shopping for at all. "What sort of dress are you shopping for?" "A white one." "For a wedding?" "I just want a white dress. Can I see this one in an 8 please?"

And you can absolutely walk out. People get worried about being rude, but if the salesperson is being pushy they're being rude first. You don't have to put up with that.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:42 AM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think the OP is actually a bridesmaid, fwiw.

Nope, she's the bride.

I can't recommend independent stores enough. I had the worst luck with David's when I was shopping for a bridesmaid dress. I ended up having my dress made by my seamstress friend and the total was $250 (no discounts!) and it fit like a glove and it was very unique. If you can go that route, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

And yes, you are the customer. You can be as forthcoming or not as you please.
posted by cooker girl at 8:46 AM on March 12, 2011

I was a bride who went with a white bridesmaid's dress, and had zero issues in doing so. I was really just looking for a very simple dress, regardless of what they labeled it as; I told each shop this and they showed me a variety of gowns that fit that criteria. The prices were on the gowns, they had several bridesmaids gowns in stock in white, so it wasn't a stretch to assume that people were actively seeking these out for wedding dresses, and people were perfectly nice. So my suggestion would be to tell them what you are looking for, and expect good things. So many shops carry the exact same brands that you can always go to another place or order online if that one shop isn't cool about it.
posted by bizzyb at 9:06 AM on March 12, 2011

I ended up at Macy's getting a prom dress (white and very bridal!) It's getting to be that time, so keep the big department stores in mind.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:20 AM on March 12, 2011

(I'm waffling between the whole fake-bridesmaid thing and just coming out with "I'm the bride, it's a small informal wedding, my price limit is $X, and I am buying the dress I want or I am taking my business elsewhere." It's probably just going to be tiring to keep up the act.)

It sounds to me like you really don't want to put on an act at all. So don't do it! If someone acts snobby or rude to you, just leave. There are zillions of dresses in the world, you know? Don't borrow trouble. Just expect quality customer service (that includes being nice, polite, and respectful of your needs & desires) and peace out if that's not what you get. Like you said, you will totally find something.

Also, many many many stores sell wedding and other nice attire online. I tried on a lot of dresses from Zappo's because they have free shipping and returns. I also tried on a lot of stuff from other websites that didn't have free shipping/returns, but I just considered the return shipping fees to be part of what I was paying for the convenience of not having to schlep to stores and deal with people. So if the idea of contending with salespeople is fraying your nerves, opt out!
posted by hansbrough at 9:30 AM on March 12, 2011

Another option you have for the ruse, if you are either very young or very young-looking: graduation dress. A lot of doofy private schools have the guys all wear tuxes with white dinner jackets and the girls all wear floor-length white gowns to graduation. When it was my turn, I walked into David's Bridal with my dad, declared "I'M SHOPPING FOR A GRADUATION DRESS" and was ushered into the cheap wedding dress corner. I left in under an hour for about 100 bucks with something that actually didn't look half bad.

Other girls in my class showed up in $1000++ Vera Wang and the like. Morons.

If you don't want to go that route, I have been to three weddings in my life, one of which the bridesmaids all wore white. I'm at the age now where lots of my friends and acquaintances are getting married, and my facebook news feed is full of white-covered bridesmaids. So it's not totally weird at all and they shouldn't (shouldn't) give you a hard time.
posted by phunniemee at 9:31 AM on March 12, 2011

I nth J Crew or another place (White House Black Market or whatever it's called) instead of a bridal shop. J Crew has some lovely, lovely wedding dresses.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:38 AM on March 12, 2011

Oops! I meant J Crew bridesmaid dresses, though I see they are $200-$300 as well.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:40 AM on March 12, 2011

Are you near a Nordstrom? I went in to get a white gown for a black and white ball and ended up with a $200 dress from their wedding department. I actually need a different size and they had it have sent from another state. Took about a week and was no charge. Alterations would have taken about the same time, but the bodice was intricate and getting the other size was a better choice. I made an appointment, but you don't need one. Their salestaff are very lowkey, but very helpful.

I think the department store: "I'm looking for a fancy dress in white, ivory or silver" is a very common route for brides now. There seems to be a good selection at various price points that cover a broader range of tastes than bridal stores.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:03 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

BCBG also has some really nice white dresses, many for around $300. That's where I got my non-wedding wedding dress. No pressure because they're not really wedding-oriented (despite now having that "wedding" section on their website).
posted by CruiseSavvy at 10:23 AM on March 12, 2011

I second all those who suggest just looking for a formal white dress or something like JCrew, especially with your time constraints.

If quality is important to you, I wouldn't bother with bridesmaids dresses. The quality of the materials is not really up to par for the money. You'll do better buying a regular dress off the rack at a nice department store and styling as a bridal gown.

However, I'd really caution you about being upfront that you're the bride. As soon as you mention that, some salespeople will try to talk you out of what you're doing. Seems like the word "wedding" is code for "charge me twice as much for this." Unless you're really comfortable dealing with pushy people, just say it's for a black and white ball or something.
posted by pourtant at 10:26 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm going through the same thing! Sort of, I'm a bridesmaid, not the bride, but there's a time constraint and I've never done this before. First of all: Yes, it really does take three months to make a custom dress. I know they make it to a standard size and everything, but it is still made to order and often the 3-4 month time frame is intended to provide a cushion and to ensure quality. If you went to place that said they could get you a custom dress in less than 2 months I'd call sketch on it. Plus if you were allowed to wait til only 2 months or less before the event, something could go wrong/cause delay and then you'd be up shit creek. Most places will offer a rush for an extra $50 or so (which is what I'll probably end up doing). Also remember you need time to get alterations done (a couple weeks at most, depending who you use). I didn't see if you wrote the specific date, but these considerations could possibly put ordering out of the question. See if any of the stores near you have samples or clearance items in stock that fit your criteria. (I just spent a good time looking longingly at half-price in-stock wedding gowns that just happened to all be in my size, *sigh*.)

And don't worry about pushy sales people, it's the same as any industry that uses commission incentives. Some will be super nice, some with be raging bitches, just be friendly and they (assuming they're human) should respond in kind. And I've never heard of anyone refusing a sale, for any reason. Anywhere. If your options are a bridesmaid dress or somewhere else, they'll sell you the bridesmaid dress.
posted by Carlotta Bananas at 10:49 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you thought about consignment wedding shops? When my best friend got married, she decided to go that route and got a gorgeous dress for a very reasonable amount. They had a good range of dresses, from simple to fancy. I went with her to provide support and feedback, and I thought the staff were helpful, experienced, and not pushy.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:01 AM on March 12, 2011

I was in your fake shoes (out of town wedding, only bridesmaid, bride didn't care what I wore) and I ended up getting something at Anne Taylor (not the Loft store). I got to try on a sample for fit then ordered from the store. For alterations I went to a regular tailor. It was super easy and the dress was good quality for the price (~$180). You can also order from them online and they have some more bridal styles.
posted by hydrobatidae at 11:23 AM on March 12, 2011

I had a really bad experience at David's Bridal. I know you don't live near one, but the experience at David's is about the same as any other bridal shop.
- They wanted to order the dress 2 sizes too large so they could make money on alterations. They refused to show me the sizing chart for the dress so I could make an informed decision. The online size chart does not match the in-store gown size chart.
- I had to order RIGHT NOW to get the dress in 12 weeks. If I order tomorrow, then I might not get it for 24 weeks. WTF, a 24 hour difference in ordering results in a 12 week difference in delivery?
- I'm not even going to get into the horror of the crazy crinoline slip they insisted I wear to try on dresses.
- They also tried to wedge me into a longline bra that was obviously the wrong size with the back size 4 inches too big and cups several sizes small. There's nothing quite so beautiful on a bride as an armpit full of boob overflow.

Then I had a good experience at the David's across town.
- I brought my own longline bra that was fit correctly. That made an enormous difference. Spend a little energy getting correctly fitted for the foundation bra. Your dress will not look good if your bra does not fit you.
- I insisted on trying on buying the dress in the correct size. I refused the wacky crinoline.
- I told them I only wanted to look at dresses which could be available in 6 weeks. It turns out that nearly every dress in the store was available for order in 6 weeks.

Net Results: My dress arrived in 4 weeks and I had the fitting on Thursday. It fits perfectly because I ordered the correct size instead of the size that David's would have made $500 altering. My only alteration is having the train bustled which cost less than 50 bucks.

Good luck - and best wishes.
posted by 26.2 at 11:36 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

When a salesbot says "That looks fabulous on you!", ask "Really? Why do you say that?" If they can't tell you quickly, they're bullshitting.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:46 PM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I went through this last year (almost to the date. Mazel tov!). I shopped online.

My wedding dress was a white jersey cocktail dress from Nordstrom. They have a ton of dresses and you can sort by color. They have a weddings/special occasion section but you can also just search for day dresses, cocktail dresses, whatever.

JCrew has some lovely things. If you like the Cecelia and wear a size 12 I'll be happy to sell you mine. :) (I ended up changing dresses at the last minute because--who knew?--after a totally low-key wedding experience I somehow turned into bridezilla about three weeks out.)

BHLDN.com (Anthropologie's bridal site) is also lovely. But also check out Anthropologie's dresses because if you are not necessarily looking for all white, they may have some lovely choices, too.

Ann Taylor has some nice wedding stuff, too.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:48 PM on March 12, 2011

I'm in the midst of checking out bridesmaid dresses for my sister. This is because I live in NYC and therefore have access to a lot of places. I am not a girly person and I rarely wear dresses.

I think that you should claim to be a bridesmaid shopping for a white bridesmaid dress and make fun of the bride for having a white wedding party ("I just know I'm going to spill wine on the darn dress!"). That said, I haven't felt pushed by anyone yet and I've been to JCrew, David's, Macy's and a place that distributes Dessy/AfterSix and a few others. I told them I was on a recon mission and that I'd be perfectly happy to wander around by myself.

I had a list of features that were required (no bows, no ruffles, no lace, tea length, shoulder straps) and after getting some help at the first place, an idea of what fabrics I liked (taffeta = evil, silk charmeuse looks like cheap lingerie, and so on). Most places will have samples in a variety of colors and won't know what color you're going for until you place the order - so you may be fine.

Most of the places' racks are disorganized; David's are clearly separated into styles and at least the place I went to had multiple sizes to try on.

The main thing I learned in the process: it really isn't that horrible. Of course remember to only go shopping for stressful things when you're not tired/hungry/cranky and if it does end up making you miserable find a way to reward yourself afterward.

Also: the J.Crew Cecelia is very nice.

Good luck!
posted by sciencegeek at 3:20 PM on March 12, 2011

I got married in a gorgeous (nonwhite) dress off Bluefly. They are pretty hassle-free about returns, so you can slap a bunch on a credit card and send most (or all) of them back.
posted by kestrel251 at 4:51 PM on March 12, 2011

I also bought mine from Nordstroms and was amazed to find out today that the alterations will only take a week even though it's prom/wedding season! My dress was $199 and my alterations cost $72. Skip the bridal shops and go with a department store that won't put the hard sell on you and enforce artificially long time frames.
posted by soelo at 6:01 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Costco has bridal dresses now. (But only at some locations, and only for a few days, as a trunk show.)
posted by iviken at 5:46 AM on March 13, 2011

I'm a bride who is wearing a white bridesmaid's dress. I went to both a bridal shop and a bridemaid's shop and was up front about the fact that I was a bride and wanted something non-fluffy and inexpensive, although I didn't talk specific numbers. Neither store was pushy or put off by my demands, although the bridesmaid's shop was generally a more pleasant experience. I wouldn't expect anything negative to necessarily happen, but of course be okay with walking out if you're uncomfortable.

This is unsolicited, but bring/wear whatever underwear or bra you plan to wear at the wedding. You'll look a lot better, have a better idea about how things will work on you, and will have a bit less ego deflation when not everything looks fantastic.
posted by mchorn at 7:46 AM on March 13, 2011

The good news is yesterday I found a fantastic dress at Neiman-Marcus. It's the style I was looking for and fits me perfectly. The bad news is it's only available in hot pink. (It's an awesome shade of hot pink, but I hadn't planned on hot pink being one of my wedding colors.) I didn't buy it, but I'm giving some serious thought to getting it and either returning it if I find something better or changing my color scheme to the Dunkin' Donuts colors.

My resourceful best friend also found an Etsy shop that looks to be exactly what I want, and has a fairly quick turnaround time. I'm usually hesitant to order from Etsy, but I'm inquiring.

The J. Crew Sophia dress is really pretty, too. I've really liked J. Crew bridesmaid dresses in the past, but for some reason I'd ruled them out a few months ago.

Thanks for your help!
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:50 AM on March 13, 2011

When I went to David's, I told them a wedding date that was 6 months out from my actual one.

I ended up ordering from LilyWedding, which made the dress in a style I chose to my measurements and had it to me in less than 15 days. It was awesome, and less than $300.
posted by bookdragoness at 8:56 AM on March 14, 2011

"I found a fantastic dress at Neiman-Marcus. It's the style I was looking for and fits me perfectly. The bad news is it's only available in hot pink."

Do you remember the brand name? Maybe you can find something else made by the same company that you like almost as much and that comes in either white or a more weddingy color. I'll bet you can search by brand on the Neiman Marcus website.
posted by soelo at 1:31 PM on March 15, 2011

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