Independently Owned Bridal Salons
Most of the bridal salon appointments you'll be booking fall into this category. This is your neighborhood bridal shop that carries a range of different styles and designers. When you walk in, you'll probably see wedding dresses out in the open. “Brides can browse through the racks, or if it becomes too overwhelming, consultants can take the lead and walk the bride through the gowns,” says Lanie List, owner of Lovely, a shop with locations in New York City and Los Angeles.
Good to Know: What's great about these salons is that the dresses they carry usually fall in a similar price range and share a distinct style. This means that the bridal salon has done most of the research for you. Plus, these salons often carry accessories like shoes, veils and jewelry, so you can easily shop for your entire look in one place.
Couture Bridal Salons
Couture bridal salons offer an intimate setting and a curated selection of high-end designer gowns. You'll be given the royal treatment (bubbly and macarons anyone?), but be warned, "expect impeccable service, but also higher prices," says Mark Ingram, owner of Mark Ingram Atelier in New York City. Another bonus of a couture salon is that they often carry exclusive styles from designer labels, so you won't be seeing your gown on every other bride out there. 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.
Good to Know: Some advice: As amazing as an appointment at one of these salons sounds, if you can't afford to buy a couture gown, don't shop here. The worst thing is to fall in a love with a gown that's beyond your budget. It sucks -- so don't do that to yourself.
What? You can buy your wedding gown at the same place you buy your socks and skinny jeans? Why yes you can! Department stores are actually a good place to start. Many offer complete bridal service and styling for the entire bridal party -- including the groom -- so if you want a one-stop shop this is your place. Bigger department stores 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.
Good to Know: 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 store.
For brides with a limited budget, there are some discount bridal salons where you can find reduced-price gowns. Because the prices are marked down, you usually don't get a full-service experience (with a bridal consultant walking you through the process). Styles may be a mix of discontinued national brands and private-label merchandise sold at reduced prices.
Good to Know: You may or may not find on-site alterations at these types of stores, so expect to buy off-the-rack, and then make other plans for alterations after you buy.
National Bridal Chains
These stores manufacture, import and sell their own private-label gowns, which means they offer lower prices and generally a huge selection. David's Bridal, one of the largest bridal retailers, introduces more than 100 styles each year. 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.
Good to Know: Because these stores are national, they usually have great customer service and will accept returns (if you've never worn the dress of course). And since you can also buy off-the-rack, it's a good option if you're in a time crunch.
Custom Gown Designer Shops
If you want something that's completely one-of-a-kind or you just can't find anything you like (it happens), then you should look into getting a custom-designed dress. Custom designers can be found in most major cities. Read reviews and talk to references before you decide on your designer. You'll want to make sure that the experience is a collaborative one and that you find a designer who has a style that aligns with yours.
Good to Know: The benefits of a custom gown is that it's a work of love and no one will have the same dress, but on the flip side, it can also be very stressful. It's one more thing you have to take on, and you might not always get what you imagined. Go this route if you know exactly what you're looking for, or you're incredibly open-minded and would like the designer to dream it up for you.
You're already a pro at online shopping, so why not buy your wedding dress while you're dropping those cute new sandals in your shopping cart? There are so many sites that have great selections of wedding dresses. It's an easy way and fast way to browse through a ton of gowns, and most retailers usually have good return policies.
Good to Know: Be warned: If you are going to shop online, there are a lot of counterfeit sites out there. The site may have a picture of a gorgeous gown, but what you actually get in the mail (if it shows up at all) may look nothing like the picture. Avoid getting disappointed by making sure you are shopping on an authorized site (call the designer's customer service number and check with them if you're not sure).
Wedding Dress Rental Shops
It's not the most common way to find a wedding gown, but some clothing-rental stores and sites have white dresses in stock, and you might even find a seller that's devoted to wedding dresses. The upside of renting is that 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.
Good To Know: You probably won't find the selection you would at a bridal salon, and you may have to plan around the availability of the dress.
Pre-owned Wedding Dresses
This might be an absolute no for some, but buying a used dress does have its benefits. There are websites where you can connect with brides who want to sell their gowns, and you can usually find extremely discounted designer dresses. Plus, if you luck out and buy a dress off of someone with a similar body type and height, you may not even have to make any alterations. The downside? Most of the time you can't try on the dress before purchasing it, so you really don't know what you're going to get.
Good To Know: Similar to your online retailers, you have to be extra-careful about counterfeit dresses on these sites. The last thing you want is to get scammed.
See More: Wedding Dress Shopping