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corset wedding dress

Shopping 101: Wedding Dress Shopping Countdown

Shopping for your gown is a mixed bag of thrills and chills. Stay cool and collected with our serious shopping timeline.

Photo: Jinsey Dauk

You spent your lifetime dreaming about your wedding gown, so shopping for it is sure to be an exhilarating, exciting and yes, overwhelming experience. When should you start? Where should you go? What happens once you're there? Well, your worrying is over. From ordering to altering, here's everything you need to know.

12 months to go

set your gown budget

Maybe you have $4,000 set aside for your look. That doesn’t mean you can buy a $4,000 wedding dress. You’ll need to add on taxes, alterations and possibly shipping. Also, don’t forget to set aside part of that budget (10 to 20 percent) for extras like your shoes, veil and jewelry.

do your research

Before you start shopping, figure out what style you’re looking for. Your venue can help you narrow that down, suggests Mark Ingram of Mark Ingram Atelier. If you’re having a beachside wedding, you’ll probably want a flowy, unfussy gown. Getting married at an upscale hotel? A formal ball gown could be your dress. Also find out what silhouettes best suit your body shape. Then look through pictures of wedding dresses online and in magazines. (In our, ahem, unbiased opinion, TheKnot .com/gowns is a great place to begin—you can search by style and price.)

choose your shopping mates

Bring either your mom or a trusted friend when you dress shop, but limit your posse to two people. Too many opinions can make your dress shopping experience unnecessarily confusing.

go wedding dress shopping

There’s a reason why you need to get a jump-start on your gown search­—you’re not buying off the rack, so your wedding dress is essentially custom made for you. This means it will take months of work to create and a series of alterations to fit your body perfectly. Kleinfeld Bridal’s fashion director Terry Hall recommends scheduling your appointments early since salons can get booked up fast. When you go for your bridal salon appointment, bring photos of dresses you like so the salesperson will be better equipped to help you. If you know you want to wear a specific designer, see if they’re having a trunk show (aka a traveling show of their entire collection) at a salon near you.

8 months to go

buy your dress

Now it’s time to make a final decision and place the order. You’ll know it’s “the one” when you don’t want to take it off. When you buy your gown, you’ll have to sign a contract and put down a deposit, which is usually 60 percent of the price of the gown, says Mercedes Cueva, bridal stylist at The White Gown. This is because your one-of-a-kind dress takes manpower to create, so designers need a down payment to start production. Before you sign the contract, make sure all the information is correct. Ask at the salon when they expect your gown to arrive—on average it’s 16 to 20 weeks from the day you place your order, says Ingram—and confirm that they’ll call you when it comes in.

5 months to go

shop for your undergarments

Get your under-the-dress essentials before your first fitting. Whether you’re planning on wearing a strapless bra, slipping into a body-slimming shaper or going braless, the slightest switch in your undergarments can change the fit of your dress, so you should select a couple options.

choose your hair accessories

It’s also time to find your veil, so you can get an idea of your entire look, from head to toe, when you have your gown fitting. For a casual dress, go with a complementary short blusher or cage veil. If you’re wearing a ball gown, you might want to choose something more dramatic and grand, like a chapel or cathedral veil.

select your shoes

No one needs to tell you to go shoe shopping twice, but this time take the height of your heel into consideration (not just how fabulously stylish those stilettos look). You’ll be on your feet for most of the day, so make sure your toes can handle it.

3 months to go

have your first fitting

You’ll most likely have three fittings to get your dress altered to fit you just right. It’s important to time each of the alterations just so. Bring your gown in too early and you might not end up with a proper fit. (You may lose or gain weight after your gown is altered.) Bring your gown in too late and you might not have enough time to make all the changes. Most gowns will need at least some sort of alteration. Some salons charge a flat fee, while others charge per item. The costs range from $200 for a simple hem to more than $1,000 for major adjustments. And remember: Don’t bring just your gown—also take your undergarments, shoes and accessories to your fittings. Your undergarments and shoes will help determine the fit and length of your gown, and trying on your hair accessories or veil with your dress will give you an idea of how you’ll look on the actual day. If you don’t have the exact shoe you’ll be wearing, bring something similar in height. Remember: Your dress should just barely sweep the floor; any longer and you risk tripping on the fabric.

6 to 8 weeks to go

decide on your “something old, new, borrowed and blue”

If you want to include these customs in your ensemble, you may want to have them before your final fitting. For instance, if you’re planning to sew a blue ribbon to the inside of your dress, you can ask your seamstress to do it while she’s making your other alterations.

have your second fitting

Your first fitting is where the heavy lifting happens: adding sleeves, switching up the neckline and so on. By the time you’re done, you’ll look more like a pincushion than a bride. The second fitting is your chance to make smaller tweaks to your wedding dress, like taking in the bodice a bit or perfecting the hem length. During this fitting, you’ll also want to make sure that there’s no obvious wrinkling, bunching or pulling anywhere. You’ll also want to move around the salon in your gown and practice some dance moves in your shoes, says Hall. This will help you test that the fit is right and comfortable so you can easily get around (and breathe without feeling like you may split a seam). You’ll be wearing your dress for 8 to 10 hours on your wedding day, so it has to feel good.

2 to 3 weeks to go

practice walking in your shoes

Strut around in your shoes at home to make sure they aren’t too high or too stiff. This way, you’ll have enough time to break them in, buy a new pair or snag a second, more comfy, pair.

have your final fitting

You may want to have a box of tissues on hand for this final trip to the seamstress. This is where you’ll get to see your gown the way it will look when you walk down the aisle. Bring at least one family member or friend to share this special moment with, and so you have someone there to learn how to create the bustle.

pick up your wedding dress

Once your gown is ready, you’ll need to find a place to store it where your groom can’t sneak a peek. Psst—some salons will hold a dress until just days before the wedding. And this is an obvious tip, but we thought we’d remind you anyway: Inspect the dress when you get it to make sure everything looks right. Keep it in a breathable opaque, not clear, garment bag (just in case he stumbles across it in the closet). If your veil is in the same bag, make sure it’s wrapped in its own piece of plastic so it doesn’t snag on any of the gown’s embellishments.

1 day to go

stash your stuff

Buy a handheld steamer and put together an emergency kit (safety pins, fashion tape); it’s better to be prepared. Make sure you have all of the parts of your ensemble in one place—everything from your gown and veil to your jewelry and shoes should go together—especially if you’re switching venues after your makeup and hair are done.

0 day to go

have fun

Happy wedding day! Just a couple of to-dos left: First, give your dress a final steaming and schedule about 30 minutes to get dressed (a bridesmaid should help you). Then relax and enjoy the moment.

-- The Knot

See More: Wedding Dress Shopping