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the rules of the salon

Before you set out, be aware of the following unspoken bridal etiquette:

  • Most salons don't allow you to browse through the racks -- they'll assign you a dressing room, ask you what you're looking for, and bring gowns to you.
  • Cameras are basically off limits. (Salons need to guard against brides taking a picture of the gown, and then getting a dressmaker to copy it.)
  • Saleswomen will likely want to dress you. Let them. Wedding gowns are often heavy, complicated, or fragile, and salespeople will know how to get you into and out of them.
  • No matter how much pressure you feel to put money down on the first gown you love, don't. Unless your wedding is in a few weeks, waiting a few days won't matter.
  • Expect strict (or nonexistent) cancellation and refund policies. These gowns are custom-made, so once they've cut the fabric, you own it!
wedding dress - shop

Shopping 101: Where to Shop

You've done your research online and browsed through a big stack of bridal magazines. Now it's time to get shopping. You have lots of store options, depending on your time and budget constraints.

Photo: Philippe Cheng

Independently Owned Full-Service Bridal Shops

Typically, these shops offer a full range of services for the bride and the wedding party at a wide range of prices. When you walk in, expect to see gowns out in the open. “Brides can guide the bridal consultants, or if it becomes too overwhelming, consultants can take the lead and walk the bride through the gowns,” says Lanie List, owner of Lovely Bridal, a shop with locations in New York City and Los Angeles. Independent salons often lean toward specific styles (like indie or glam), so they’re perfect for a bride who already has a style in mind. In addition, they’ll usually have all the other accessories you'll need, like shoes, veils and even jewelry. While an off-the-rack gown might be a possibility, these stores tend to require special-order gowns for brides and their attendants. Price ranges and designers vary from moderate to high-end.

Couture Salons

Couture bridal salons offer an intimate setting and a curated selection of high-end designer gowns. Another similarity among most couture salons: They often carry exclusive styles from designer labels. You’ll almost always have to call to book an appointment (no drop-ins), since these salons pride themselves on providing an experience tailored to each bride -- which means they’re perfect for the bride who’s looking to get pampered while gown shopping. “Expect higher price points but also impeccable service,” says Mark Ingram, owner of Mark Ingram Atelier in New York City.

Department Stores

Many department stores offer complete bridal service and styling for the entire bridal party -- including the groom, so it’s a great destination for brides looking for a relatively hassle-free shopping experience. They also often “offer special collaboration with higher-end designers at lower price points,” says Andrea Wasserman, national bridal director for Nordstrom. Brides in a pinch can shop off the rack; those who have more time can choose made-to-order gowns and book in-house alterations. Another perk of shopping through department stores is that you can browse online first and then call in the gown to try on at your local department store.

Discount Outlets

For brides with a limited budget, outlets are self- or reduced-service shops where you can find major discounts on wedding gowns. These stores may or may not offer on-site alterations, so brides who shop these stores should expect to buy off the rack and take the gown home after it’s purchased. Styles may be a mix of discontinued national brands and private-label merchandise sold at reduced prices.

National Bridal Chains

These stores manufacture, import and sell their own private-label gowns, which means that they offer lower prices and generally a huge selection. “David’s Bridal comes out with four collections per year,” says Dan Rentillo, design director for David’s Bridal, one of the largest bridal retailers. Big retail chains often carry everything from dresses to veils, sashes and shoes. Many of these retailers also offer exclusive affordable designer brands and have alterations available on-site. Since you can also buy off the rack, it's a good option if you’re in a time crunch.

Custom Gown Designer Shops

Custom gown designers can be found in most major cities and are for the bride looking for a one-of-a-kind gown, uniquely created for her. If you’re considering going the custom route, you'll need to find a designer whose vision aligns with yours and whom you trust, as it will be a collaborative effort. In the end, you'll have a gown like no other.

Wedding Dress Rental Shops

Some clothing-rental stores have wedding dresses in stock, and you might even find one near you that’s devoted to wedding dresses. If you’re looking for a designer gown but don’t have the budget for one, you can rent one for just a fraction of the retail value. However, you probably won't find the selection you'd find at a bridal salon or even a warehouse or outlet store. And you'll be able to choose among only the dresses that the rental shop has to offer, which may not be the latest styles.

--updated by Jennie Ma

-- The Knot

See More: Wedding Dress Shopping