Written by Emily Conley and Anne Morrissy | Photography by Emma Belen Photography
Finding your dream wedding dress can feel daunting, regardless of your dress size or body shape. After all, this will be the dress you want to remember as nothing less than perfect. For petite brides, there is the challenge of finding a dress that can be shortened and frustration of finding the right proportions, and for curvy brides, navigating the high-fashion world of wedding gowns can feel downright impossible. We understand the fear and apprehension that commonly accompanies shopping for a bridal gown, but we also believe every woman should feel empowered when shopping for her big day. The key is having the right mindset, confidence and support system to overcome any barriers to finding the dress of your dreams.
Let’s start with one of the toughest parts of shopping for a wedding dress — the sizing. When you buy a pair of jeans or a dress off the rack at a run-of-the-mill clothing store, chances are good that the manufacturer employs vanity sizing. To make matters more complicated, stores all use their own sizing systems, so it’s entirely possible to wear a size 10, 12 and 14 in jeans that come from three different stores. Your waist obviously doesn’t change from store to store, but rather the number assigned to your clothes has little correlation to the actual measurements of the garments.
Now here’s where bridal shopping can get even more challenging. Wedding dresses are typically made following high-fashion sizing, which is based on European measurement charts and differs from American sizing conventions. Because of this, no matter what your American size, you should expect your wedding dress to be one to two sizes (or more) larger than your typical off-the-rack size. For brides who have a difficult relationship with their American size number, having to go up in number can sometimes feel soul-crushing.
Brides who struggle with this have different options for dealing with the emotional impact of their wedding dress size. Some choose to mentally prepare themselves for the size to be bigger, acknowledging the fact that wedding dress sizing runs small and, therefore, accepting the size of the dress as a reality that doesn’t affect how they look or feel. This strategy will work well for a lot of brides, but it isn’t enough for everyone.
Another option is to simply opt to not find out which size dress is being ordered for you. The sales associate can take your measurements and order a dress size based on those measurements, but you don’t have to know which size is ultimately ordered. (If you are opting for this strategy, simply ask for the size information to be withheld or redacted on any form or receipt you need to sign and ask a friend to cut out the tag when you receive your dress.) While this may sound dramatic, if the size of the dress will influence how a bride feels in it, it may be totally worth it to keep that negative information out of mind.
The experience of shopping for a wedding dress can be a thrilling rite of passage or an overwhelming or sometimes even disappointing day. The key to success is choosing the right place to shop and inviting the best group of trusted friends.
In choosing where to shop, first do some research. We’ve got many incredible bridal boutiques in this issue who offer a range of specialties and services. Some brides may opt for a shop that carries a wide variety of plus sizes in stock, while others may be looking for expert in-house alterations that will be able to accommodate, say, a long or short torso.
When it comes to bridal shopping, one of the most important considerations is who to invite along. It’s best to go with at least one other person who can give feedback and make the experience feel more special. One strategy for success is to create a support squad who will give a boost of confidence and an honest opinion without any underhanded or judgmental comments. Many brides choose a single close, supportive friend, parent or family member as their plus-one. Alternatively, other brides find strength in numbers. Regardless of the number of supporters invited, make sure each person included brings only good vibes — invite those people you know will build you up and make sure you feel beautiful.
Because every body is different, virtually every bride will choose to have her wedding dress altered to fit her unique shape, so be sure to plan for the expense and time requirements of serious tailoring. A skilled tailor will have a toolbox of tricks to ensure that nearly any dress will fit any body appropriately. Make sure the tailor takes the time to understand any specific concerns about the fit as well as any desired changes. For example, you may find the perfect ball gown except that it is just too full for your shape or taste. In that situation, a skilled tailor can remove several layers of tulle or crinoline during the alterations.
Beyond the basic alterations, there’s a wide range of customization available when it comes to wedding gowns. A bride may find a dress that checks all of her must-haves, except for the neckline. If this happens, don’t despair! See if there is a way to change up the look, like deepening a V-neckline or adding lace sleeves to a strapless design. Significant changes are possible.
For particularly discerning brides or brides with body measurements far outside the standard, it may be best to opt for a fully custom-designed gown.
Research designers and tailors who specialize in gowns that appeal to your specific tastes and body type. Don’t be dissuaded by the potential price tag — many brides are surprised at how comparably priced a custom creation can be when compared to ordering a dress and paying for significant alterations. Your wedding gown is one of the most important aspects of how you will look and feel on your big day, so don’t be afraid to spend the time and dollars necessary to find the right dress.
FOR CURVY BRIDES
Curvy women come in all sizes. But historically, finding wedding gowns in sizes larger than a 12 has been extremely challenging. That trend is slowly changing, and today more and more brands and salons are including and even catering to the plus-sized market. This means that with a little research, curvy brides of larger sizes can go to a salon and try on gowns in their sizes, something that was once nearly impossible, and there are more styles and designs available than ever before. There are no rules! No one style of dress is better or worse for curvy brides. It’s a matter of personal taste, and how the cut and design of the dress works on each unique body. However, one thing for curvy brides to keep in mind is comfort: strapless dresses, for example, may necessitate significant foundational undergarments or come with stiff built-in boning.
FOR TALL BRIDES
Brides who are six feet tall or taller may need to order a dress with extra fabric to ensure a true floor-length gown. Most wedding dress brands will offer this option. However, it’s important to note that the extra fabric is added entirely to the length of the skirt, so for tall brides with average-length legs and long torsos, the extra fabric will not necessarily help the fit. Because of this, it’s best to find a dress with a bodice that works regardless of the promise of added length. Alternatively, if a tall bride falls in love with a dress that does not offer the option of extra fabric, a skilled tailor can often find creative ways to add length through the addition of a subtle lace panel or new layers.
FOR PETITE BRIDES
For brides who are shorter than five feet, four inches, it can be helpful to buy a gown that is cut for their shorter stature. Many brands offer a petite version of their dresses, and in this case, it usually means that the entire dress is scaled down proportionally for shorter frames, not just that the skirt is shortened. However, the challenge for shorter brides is that salons rarely carry petite sizes in stock, so the petite bride is left to try on a gown that is too long overall and hope that the problem will be solved by ordering the petite version. This can occasionally lead to some fairly extensive alterations when the dress arrives, so plan accordingly.
FOR ATHLETIC-BUILD BRIDES
Wedding gowns are generally designed with the classic dress-form mold in mind — think curves in the bust and hips, and a narrowing at the waist. Brides with an athletic build who do not have these pronounced curves may struggle to find a wedding gown cut for their straighter proportions. One trick is to look for gowns in a fabric with a little stretch that will accommodate different shapes. For athletic-build brides who have a dream of a specific fabric or style of gown but are having trouble finding the right fit, a custom design may be the best option, as the designer can tailor everything to the bride’s specific measurements.
Everyone deserves to feel incredible and look amazing on her big day. During bridal appointments, it can be helpful to have an idea of certain preferred styles, but it’s definitely not required. No matter what your body type, forget any notion of certain styles you aren’t “allowed” to wear. Bridal fashion options are extensive: the most important thing is for each bride to find a design that makes her feel special and beautiful on her wedding day.
For most of us, our wedding day is our most photographed day. With that in mind, it’s of the utmost importance that you are in love with the way you look in your dress. No two brides are exactly alike: what may appear off-putting on the hanger may fit like a glove once you try it on. Think of finding a dress like its very own chapter in your wedding book. Go into this chapter with an open mind and an open heart to ensure that you are giving yourself every opportunity to fall in love.
For brides planning to lose weight before the wedding day, it can be tempting to put off dress shopping until you drop a few pounds, no matter your starting size. However, don’t wait too long! Most wedding dresses take at least eight months to arrive, and alterations will then require another one to two months, so plan accordingly.
It is advisable to purchase a dress that fits your current figure and not a goal that you set for yourself. There is no reason to put extra pressure on yourself to squeeze into a dress that is two sizes too small. Planning a wedding can be stressful enough, so why add the stress of weight loss into the mix?
Your partner loves you exactly as you are. Never let your beauty be defined by a number.
One clever way to increase your confidence about your own appearance is to surround yourself with images of women with a body shape that reflects your own. If you are petite and athletic, seek out images of similar brides. If you are curvy, find images of beautiful curvy brides. Don’t build Pinterest boards of wedding dress inspiration that only feature thin, professional models. Find body-positive photos of real-life brides. Seeing wedding gowns on women with a similar body type to your own will help you identify styles that you like and will make you feel more comfortable when you try on a gown and look in the mirror in a wedding dress for the first time.
Make a big deal out of your wedding dress shopping day (or days)! Many brides choose to make an event out of it — with a stop for manicures, brunch or spa treatments after the shopping is over. If you’re nervous about the dress shopping itself, bookend the trip with things you love to do so you have something to look forward to. The excitement and enthusiasm will naturally carry over.
In a one-hour salon appointment, brides typically try on eight to 13 gowns. Once you have seen a sufficient number, narrow the options down to your favorite three to five dresses, then make your choice from these. Be honest about your preferences and don’t let anyone pressure you into buying a gown you don’t love.
Make sure the dress shopping experience is fun, successful and enjoyable by setting the right tone and mood, and going into it with a positive outlook. Every bride will eventually find a dress that works! It might not be what you expect, so always keep an open mind when trying on different styles. At some point, you will slip into a gown that feels just right and makes it easy to imagine walking down the aisle. When that happens, pop some bubbly and celebrate.