I am a sucker for deals. I love to browse websites like Gilt Groupe, Rue La La, Bluefly, and now The Aisle New York; I frequently Google coupons and coupon codes; I go out of my way to shop at Nordstrom Rack. (Latest Rack deals: a Trina Turk silk tank top for $5.97 and Citizen jeans for $29.99. Shut the front door.) So it’s no wonder that I approached shopping for a wedding dress in the exact same way. I wanted to use a highly fashionable dress for a low, low price.
There are three main approaches of scoring a offer on a bridal gown. First, you'll be able to shop online for a used dress. This is a great way to use a designer gown for the fraction of the retail price. Mrs. Tartlet scored her beautiful Monet by Monique Lhuillier that way. Second, you'll be able to attend events like the Running of the Brides. I couldn’t find one of these events in my area that fit my shopping timeline; however, past blogger bees like Mrs. Latte, Mrs. Piglet, and Mrs. Starfish have great stories and advice to share about their experiences with them. Third, you'll be able to shop at places—either bridal salons or charity shops—that sell sample gowns. This is what I ended up doing.
Again, on the whole, I had a great shopping experience. I ended up with the dress of my dreams. But there are some things that I wish I could have known about buying a sample dress just before I actually did so. I want to share them with you in the wish of saving people some of the stress that I experienced.
Advice #1: Know all of the important sizes: your bridal size AND the sizes of the samples in the store.
Many bridal shops carry one sample of each gown that they sell. Most of the time, that sample dress is a size 8 or a 10. (Some places that are more customer friendly and savvy will also carry a 16 or 18.) Now, this is a bridal 8/10/16/18, not necessarily a street 8/10/16/18, so be ready that the number on the dress might not necessarily match the number on your jeans. If you know your bridal size in advance, you'll be able to save yourself a lot of time and energy when shopping for dresses. I was pretty consistently a bridal 10 when I went shopping. I called ahead to check to learn what size range of samples a store was currently carrying. I skipped the stores that had all 8s and concentrated on places that carried 10s and above. Remember: dresses can successfully be taken in one to two sizes, but they can often only be let out one to two inches.
Advice #2: Be ready to sort and dig (like the mole!).
Many stores that sell sample gowns will keep them on a separate rack and even in a separate room. These racks and spaces resemble the Island of Misfit Toys: these dresses have been discontinued, dirtied, and sometimes broken. They tend to become shoved together in a state of disarray. They are often hidden in their garment bags. As a result, you need to become thorough and patient in your search. You need to use a keen eye—not only to find the varieties of dresses that you like, but also to find the samples that are still in good (read: fixable) condition. My dress, for example, was sandwiched tightly between a huge ballgown with shredded tulle and a slinky silk sheath with a huge lipstick stain. I almost passed it over entirely!
Advice #3: Be flexible when it comes to alterations.
Most wedding dresses need some alterations in order to fit properly—and that is when the dress is ordered based on your measurements. So it comes as no surprise that a sample dress, off the rack, might need a little more help from your seamstress. I bought my dress knowing that there were some minor issues: a couple of small rips along the hem, a dirty train, a couple of missing crystals on the belt. But I found out at my very first fitting that those things weren’t even the half of it.
My seamstress discovered that the shop where I bought my dress had done some quick (and shady) fixes with stitches and straight-pins to make the back of the dress lay properly. following undoing these quick (and shady) fixes, we discovered that the bubble hem was crooked and thus wouldn’t bustle properly. At this point, my seamstress, with a mouth full of straight-pins, muttered, “No wonder this style was discontinued.” I stood there in front of the mirror, staring at the mess of the train, while my joy at the offer turned into regret about the dress. What the heck did I buy?!?
Luckily, my seamstress had an idea to fix the problems. This idea, however, meant that the entire back of the dress could have to become reworked. I was on board, telling her to do whatever she needed to do. With a couple of snips and opened seams, my dress was transformed—into something even better.
So know that some things might have to become fixed, reworked, or changed. Make sure that you hire a trusted seamstress, and then actually trust him/her. Just go with the flow.
Advice #4: Budget for potentially expensive alterations.
This last tip is directly tied to the previous one. I went from considering that my alterations would cost somewhere in the $200 range to getting a quote of $350–450, depending on how much the dress needs to become taken in on the sides come January. That was a hard pill to swallow. What I did, and what you should really do, is remind yourself of the savings that you have gotten on the sample. Of course, it’s also important to become careful when producing a budget and considering these costs. If your total dress budget is $800, it’s not going to work to use a $700 sample, however lovely, that needs $250 in alterations.
I didn’t use a strict budget in mind when shopping for a dress. I knew that I personally would feel most comfortable, though, spending under $1,200 on the dress and its alterations. With my dress being $650 with tax and my alterations at $450 max, I think that I came out pretty well!