Kayla Barker Fine Art Photography

Whether you’ve been dreaming of your wedding dress since you were five and know the exact specifications you want for it down to the last sequin, or you’ve never thought about your dress until the groom’s mother nagged, “You still haven’t gotten your gown?” — we’ve got you covered.

Finding your dream gown can be stressful. After all, you’ve likely never even tried one on before, and it’s the most expensive garment many women will ever own, so it can feel like the pressure is definitely on. Plus, your dress sets the tone for the wedding as a whole, whether it’s a grand ballroom affair or a casual beach bash. It may also feel like there’s a whole new language to decode — tulle, A-line, fit and flare, organza, sheath. Plus, more brides than ever are doing multiple dresses, a more formal one for the ceremony and a party-centric (danceable or more blingy and outrageous) one for the reception, which can doubling the task of shopping.

With all eyes on you, not to mention photos you’ll keep forever, of course you want to look perfect on your big day. But what does perfect mean to you? For some brides, a dream dress is a regal ballgown fit for a princess. For others, a dream look is a sexy, va-va-voom mermaid gown that makes everyone appreciate her curves; to other brides, the best dress is one that allows her enough movement to be able to re-enact the choreography from “Thriller” on the dance floor.

The choices can seem overwhelming for sure. No matter your budget, your personal style, or your timeline, here are our top tips for finding the dress of your dreams — the one you’ll love today, on the big day, and in 30 years from now when you look back at your wedding photos.

1. Do Research to Find What You Like

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1. Do Research to Find What You Like

Rip pages out of magazines, click through bridal boutiques online, explore on Pinterest, and check out what celebrity brides are wearing to compile a visual file of your favorite dresses. Then look for a connecting theme — are they all very embellished? Lacy? Voluminous? Have open backs? Find a couple commonalities of styles you like and bring your ideas to your first appointment.

2. Be Open

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2. Be Open

Bridal consultants will tell you that they constantly see women come in with a set idea of what they want for a gown, then try it on and don’t actually love it — and instead, fall for something completely different that they’d never considered. Keep an open mind to finding a dream dress that you didn’t know would be your dream dress.

3. Brace Yourself for Bridal Sizing

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3. Brace Yourself for Bridal Sizing

Bridal sizing means your gown’s number will often be one to two sizes higher than for your regular clothes. Even if going bigger sounds horrifying, remember that no one will know the number but you and your consultant.

4. Shop Early

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4. Shop Early

Many gowns take four to eight months to be produced, and once it arrives, you still have to factor in more time for alterations and accessorizing.

5. Figure out Your Budget

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5. Figure out Your Budget

Yes, it’s uncomfortable to talk numbers, but it will save you from heartache later on. Before your first appointment, figure out who is paying for the gown (your family, the groom, you?). If someone else is paying, get the hard numbers on your limit, so you can choose to stay within that budget or pay the difference yourself to get the dress you want.

6. Plan Non-Obvious Costs Into the Budget

Rebecca Yale Photography

6. Plan Non-Obvious Costs Into the Budget

Say you plan to cap your dress spending at $2,000 — you actually shouldn’t buy a $2,000 gown. That’s because you need to factor in for tailoring, accessories (your veil, jewelry, and shoes) and cleaning and preserving the gown after the wedding if you want it to be a keepsake.

7. Find a Great Bridal Salon

Kelly Cummings of Spindle Photography

7. Find a Great Bridal Salon

Do your homework before you start making appointments, since you don’t want to waste time at a shop that doesn’t carry dresses you like or has terrible customer service. Get referrals from married friends and check online reviews to find shops with solid reputations.

8. Make an Appointment

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8. Make an Appointment

In most bridal stores, the dresses aren’t displayed in a way where you can just leaf through them and browse on your own, the way you can in other retail stores. You’ll need an appointment so a consultant can help you select dresses and try them on.

9. Start Inexpensive and Work Your Way Up

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9. Start Inexpensive and Work Your Way Up

Make your first appointment with the least-expensive bridal shop and keep scaling up if you don’t find anything. Same goes for trying on dresses during your appointments — try on the most affordable one first, and work your way up to the bank-breaker; you may fall in love before then!

10. Shop on a Weekday

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10. Shop on a Weekday

Bridal salons are packed on the weekends, meaning you may get less personal attention or that the dress you love is being tried on by someone else. It’s worth using some personal time from work to have your appointment on a weekday.

11. Make Shopping a Whole-Day Affair

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11. Make Shopping a Whole-Day Affair

It’s surprisingly time-consuming to put one wedding gown on and off, let alone three or four, and you definitely don’t want to feel rushed to make a decision. Instead of making plans for brunch after your appointment or trying to fit it in between other errands, leave a few hours so you can take your time browsing and trying on dresses.

12. Choose Your Crew Wisely for Appointments

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12. Choose Your Crew Wisely for Appointments

Yes, you love your mom, your sister, your sister-in-law, your maid of honor, and your six bridesmaids — but if you’ve ever tried to get a crowd to agree on where to go for dinner, you can only imagine how hard it will be to find consensus on a gown. Narrow the group down to the two or three people whose opinions matter most to you.

13. Bring the Right Undergarments

Select Studios

13. Bring the Right Undergarments

It can be hard to take in how a strapless dress really looks when your leopard bra straps are sticking out, or how a curve-hugging gown would fit once your hips are smoothed. For your appointments, wear a nude thong and strapless bra, and bring Spanx.

14. Pick Your Silhouette

John Robert Woods

14. Pick Your Silhouette

Your ideal gown’s shape is partly based on the style you like, the venue and mood of your wedding, and also what flatters your body most. A fit-n-flare is both contemporary and traditional and works on many body types, whereas a simple sheath is best on tall, willowy brides. A voluminous ballgown adds drama, but can overwhelm a petite frame. Mermaid styles show off curves like your favorite pencil skirt.

15. Consider Less Traditional Lengths

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15. Consider Less Traditional Lengths

No, they won’t work for a formal wedding, but for a more casual, rustic, or beachy wedding, untraditional lengths can be a fun way to bring your personality to your big-day dress. Tea-length is fun for a quirky bride, whereas a white minidress has a rocker-chic party vibe.

16. Pay Attention to Fabric

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16. Pay Attention to Fabric

In addition to silhouette, color, and embellishments, fabric makes a big difference on how a gown will look on you. A heavier, more structured material (think silk shantung, taffeta, or guipure lace) will hold its shape and smooth your figure. Less flattering for those with curves are unstructured silk or filmy chiffon.

17. Wear Heels to the Appointment

Lacie Hansen Photography

17. Wear Heels to the Appointment

Some bridal salons have communal high heels you can borrow, but that’s a little icky, and a dress will look a lot different with flip-flops than stilettos. Be prepared by bringing heels of the same height you think you’ll likely wear for your big day, so you’ll have a better idea of how the dress will look.

18. Bring Scene-Setting Photos

Chung Li Photography

18. Bring Scene-Setting Photos

In addition to gowns you pull from magazines or Pinterest, bring photos of your ceremony and reception site to the appointment; seeing the venue ambience can help your consultant pull gowns that will be the most appropriate for the location.

19. Believe Your Consultant that a Gown Looks Better "On"

Paper Antler

19. Believe Your Consultant that a Gown Looks Better “On”

Wedding dresses often have heavy details that can make it sag on a hanger. “Unlike shopping for a shirt, you won’t really know what a wedding dress will look like on you until you actually try it on, so be open if your consultant promises the dress will look better on you than it does on the hanger,” says Anne Chertoff, bridal expert at You & Me TV.

20. Shop Trunk Shows for Savings

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20. Shop Trunk Shows for Savings

You can often take 10 percent off a gown that way and get to meet the designer, who may also “waive or discount certain changes, like raising or lowering a neckline, extending the length, changing the color, or adding straps,” says Terry Hall, fashion director at Kleinfeld Bridal in New York City.

21. Hit Sample Sales

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21. Hit Sample Sales

“Salons frequently have sales to move older inventory, so you’ll find designer gowns for 25 to 50 percent off. The only downside is most sales are stocked with sample sizes — that’s bridal 8 and 10, comparable to ready to wear size 6 and 8,” says Mark Ingram, President of Mark Ingram Atelier in New York City.

22. Know That Embellishments Add Big Bucks

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22. Know That Embellishments Add Big Bucks

“Handwork like embroidery or beading always adds to the cost of the dress,” says Hall. Of course, if simple isn’t your style, those embellishments are worth it! Just factor that into your budget.

23. Don't Try on Gowns Above Your Budget

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23. Don’t Try on Gowns Above Your Budget

If you can’t afford it, there’s no point in trying it on — you’re just torturing yourself and making a standard that no dress you can actually have will live up to.

24. Consider Shopping Online

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24. Consider Shopping Online

Around 18 percent of brides end up buying their gown online. Just check the return policy — especially if you’re ordering a few to try on and consider — to make sure you’re entitled to a full refund if it doesn’t look as dreamy in person.

25. If You're Plus-Size, Call Ahead

Courtesy of Roz la Kelin

25. If You’re Plus-Size, Call Ahead

Nothing is worse than getting to a bridal salon and finding they only stock samples to size 10 (unfortunately, that’s the case for many, even though they sell sizes up to 26), and you have nothing to actually try on. Call ahead to make sure your shop has plus-size samples for the style and designer you want to try on, or if not, whether they can get some in before your appointment.

26. Decide if You're More Traditional or Trendy

Grace Winter of Asya Photography

26. Decide if You’re More Traditional or Trendy

Perhaps you’re more the type who wants to look classic and timeless on your wedding day — think lace. Or maybe you’re a fashionista who loves being up-to-the-minute — if so, try on some of the hot bridal runway trends for 2016, including feathers, plunging necklines, and 3D florals.

27. Take Inspiration From Celebrity Styles

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27. Take Inspiration From Celebrity Styles

Even though you may not have a star’s unlimited wedding budget, you can still draw inspiration and help create a vision of what styles you want to replicate in your dress. That could mean the classic lace sleeves of Kate Middleton or the white-to-hot-pink ombré of Gwen Stefani’s playful gown.

28. Stay True to What You Love

Azzura Photography

28. Stay True to What You Love

It’s easy, especially for people-pleasing brides, to bend in the moment to what gown your mom, sister, or maid of honor loves on you. But it’s crucial that you go with what you love and what feels like your dream dress, regardless of other people’s expectations.

29. Try on a Non-White Gown

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29. Try on a Non-White Gown

That might mean subtle eggshell or ivory, romantic blush, or even a bold red. It may not be right for you, but a survey showed 14 percent of brides would wear a colored wedding dress. Don’t be afraid to be unique!

30. Target Salons in Your Budget

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30. Target Salons in Your Budget

“You’ll feel you have a wide selection if you choose a salon with lots of options in your budget, rather than feeling like you’re limited to just a few gowns if you shop at a salon where most dresses are out of your range,” says Ingram.

31. Be 100 Percent Sure Before You Say Yes

Touchstone Pictures/Courtesy Neal Peters Collection

31. Be 100 Percent Sure Before You Say Yes

“All brides need to know it’s her dress before she says yes! When I work with a bride and sense that she is unsure, I encourage her to sleep on it,” says Hall.

32. Walk Away if You Feel Pressure

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32. Walk Away if You Feel Pressure

A salesperson should never put the heat on you to make a decision on the spot if you’re unsure. A wedding gown is a very emotional purchase and a lifetime memory being created, so if you need more time to decide, take it — guilt-free.

33. Order Early to Avoid Rush Fees

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33. Order Early to Avoid Rush Fees

“Since gowns take so long to be produced, placing your order 8-12 months in advance means you will avoid rush fees, which can run as much as 30 percent of the price of the dress,” says Hall.

34. Have a Professional Take Your Measurements

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34. Have a Professional Take Your Measurements

Even if you’re ordering online, have a seamstress takes your measurements — this is not the time for DIY, since putting the measuring tape even an inch up or down from the industry standard can throw off your results.

35. Order Too Big Rather Than Too Small

Heather Kincaid

35. Order Too Big Rather Than Too Small

Most gowns can be altered down one or two sizes and, depending on the seam allowance, up one size, so it’s better to order too big and take it in than be stuck with a zipper that won’t close.

36. Test to Make Sure You Can Move

Larissa Cleveland

36. Test to Make Sure You Can Move

No wedding gown is going to be as comfortable as your pajamas, but you don’t want to be pulling it up or constricted by it all night, so bust out some moves in the dressing room. If you’re planning a church wedding where you may need to kneel or sit during the ceremony, practice doing that in the gown. If you’re planning to drop it like it’s hot on the dance floor, try it out to make sure you can move how you want.

37. Be Sure You Love It Before You Buy

Abby Jiu

37. Be Sure You Love It Before You Buy

If you decide you no longer want the dress after you order it, you’ll most likely lose all of the money you put down, whether that’s a deposit or the full amount.

38. But Don't Take It as a Sign If You Don't Cry

Kevin J. Miyazaki

38. But Don’t Take It as a Sign If You Don’t Cry

If you’re not an emotional person, or if you see the dress more as a way to express your personal style, you may not be brought to tears in the dressing room — but that doesn’t mean you haven’t found your gown. Not all brides cry when they find “the one.”

39. Personalize With a Tailor You Trust

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39. Personalize With a Tailor You Trust

“Couture” or “cut to measure” dresses are pricier because they’re created just for you. It’s far less expensive to buy off the rack and spend some money on a good tailor, and you’ll still have it perfectly altered for your body.

40. Try a Local Bridal Boutique

Josh Gruetzmacher

40. Try a Local Bridal Boutique

These offer an intimate setting, which is great for personal service but can mean fewer dresses to try on than massive stores. The upsides are that they know the area, so they can be helpful about what other local brides are wearing and will likely know your venue, so they can have a better sense of your wedding style.

41. Or Try a Bridal Superstore

Courtesy of David’s Bridal

41. Or Try a Bridal Superstore

Chains like David’s Bridal have a wide price range, meaning you may be able to snag a dress for as little as $300. Plus, you can usually try on dresses in your size, not a sample size, which is good news for brides who fall above or below a size 8 or 10, the usual sample sizes.

42. Book Early if You Prefer a Destination Bridal Shop

Courtesy of Kleinfeld Bridal

42. Book Early if You Prefer a Destination Bridal Shop

If you’ve seen a bridal shop on TV (say, Kleinfeld or Bridals by Lori), so have lots of other brides, which means you’ll need to book far in advance — especially for a weekend appointment. The major benefits of these stores is that they have some of the most knowledgeable consultants and a wide variety of dresses from hundreds of designers.

43. Keep the Season in Mind

Peter Van Beever

43. Keep the Season in Mind

If your wedding is in the Caribbean in August, go for lightweight fabrics in breezy styles, whereas if you’re getting hitched in the winter in Boston, it’s all about snow-like sparkle and heavier, lush fabrics like satin or taffeta.

44. Throw Out the "Rules"

Gia Canali

44. Throw Out the “Rules”

Despite all the advice that’s available about choosing the most appropriate silhouette, style, and fabric, you don’t have to listen to us, your consultant, or your mother. If you want to wear a taffeta ballgown on the beach, it’s your wedding!

45. Tweak a Gown in Tailoring, Don't Re-design It

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45. Tweak a Gown in Tailoring, Don’t Re-design It

“It’s fine for a good seamstress to do small updates like adding straps or changing the hemline,” says gown designer Monique Lhuillier. “But any customization that requires the inner support and structure of the gown to be changed is risky, costly, and many times, irreversible. If it’s not done with precision, it can potentially ruin a gown.”

46. If You Don't Love It, Don't Panic — You Can Salvage It

JW Studio

46. If You Don’t Love It, Don’t Panic — You Can Salvage It

If the dress arrives and you’re iffy on it, you don’t need to scrap it. Gather your trusted style advisers and “try it on with totally different accessories, like a new belt, or add a bolero. If that doesn’t help, a seamstress can really change the look by shortening it, changing the neckline, taking off sleeves, or adding sleeves,” says Molly Guy, creative director at Stone Fox Bride.

47. If You Must Start Over, Save Some Cash

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47. If You Must Start Over, Save Some Cash

Say you really can’t fall back in love with the dress, but you can’t afford to scrap it and start from scratch buying a second one. Re-sell it online, emphasizing that the dress is brand new and unworn. “That way you can recoup more than the average 50 percent resale and get back 60 to 80 percent of the retail price,” says Julie Jones, founder of Encore Bridal, a gown resale website

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48. Decide Your Dress Preview Policy in Advance

Angela Shae

48. Decide Your Dress Preview Policy in Advance

Of course you don’t want the groom to see your pick, but what about friends? Make a rule before you start sending pics of the gown of how widely you’ll share — just with the people at the appointment? Just with the bridal party? If you don’t set the rule in advance, you could feel trapped later into showing everyone, and lose some of the magic of the reveal on the big day.

49. Keep the Dress Away From Home

Readyluck Photography

49. Keep the Dress Away From Home

Especially if you live with your groom, you don’t want him to stumble upon your gown and ruin the surprise. Ask a relative or very trusted friend (perhaps someone you’d want to bring with you when you take the gown for tailoring appointments) if they’ll let you keep the dress at their place until the big day. Plus, if it’s not in your closet, you won’t be tempted to wear it every day until the wedding.

50. Relax and Stop Looking

Bia Sampaio Photography

50. Relax and Stop Looking

Now that you’ve found your dream gown, stop shopping — it will only make you nuts if you keep looking at dresses that you may like even more. Yours is great! Now just look forward to showing everyone on the big day.

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