How to Choose the Right Wedding Dress Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Choose the Right Wedding Dress

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A selection of wedding dress designs.

Congratulations! You are engaged! When the initial giddy euphoria wears off you will come to realise that you actually need to plan your wedding; the Guide can help with some tips, or you can engage the services of a professional wedding-planner to help guide you through the minefield that is Wedding Etiquette - on the other hand you could ignore all the rules and do your own thing. One of the most exciting parts of your planning is deciding what you will wear on the big day and this entry aims to help brides-to-be with the bewildering choice of gowns they will soon be faced with. This Entry only deals with wedding dresses in the western tradition - other cultures have equally varied styles to choose from and indeed some brides are happy to take their inspiration from every source.

What type of dress do you want?

Part of this decision will come from the overall style of wedding that you want; is it a very grand affair in a huge cathedral, a sophisticated evening event with a civil ceremony, a simple church wedding, a beach wedding in the tropics or a funky day in a modern hotel? This will help to inform your choice but by no means limits it. If you are having a registry office wedding but have always dreamed of a full princess-style dress with a veil and the whole works then there is no reason why you shouldn't have it. Similarly, if your wedding is in a grand building, that doesn't mean you need a dress of Princess Diana proportions if you don't feel comfortable in one. You may not choose a dress at all, but instead you may feel more comfortable in a smart suit. If you have a theme for your wedding,1 that may dictate the style of your outfit - the choice is yours! Before you hit the shops it is also worth talking to your fiancé about what he likes and dislikes. As well as looking wonderful for yourself, you also want your husband-to-be to love the way you look when he sees you in your finery2.

Does it have to be white?

In short, no. Again, it depends on the style of your wedding, but more and more brides are opting to buck tradition and get hitched in a coloured dress. Bridal shop owners will tell you that few brides opt for pure white dresses in any case, as they can be a disaster unless you have the right colouring; an off-white, ivory or cream shade is often easier to wear. More frequently women are opting for dramatic reds or soft pinks, pale golds or pretty lilacs - choose your favourite colour or the one that makes your skin look gorgeous. The tradition of brides wearing white to symbolise purity is a fairly recent one which was given a boost when Queen Victoria chose it over Silver3 for her wedding dress. Before white became popular, the bride would simply wear her best dress and colour was a matter of preference. There are many traditions and superstitions related to the colour of your dress.


Wedding dresses come in a variety of fabrics from very light materials like chiffon and crepe, through satins and silk to heavy brocades. Take into consideration the time of year that you will be getting married. You may not want a heavy fabric if you are doing the deed at the height of summer, and a whisper of chiffon may not be the thing if you expect to have to go outside into snowstorms. You may also want to bear in mind how wearable a fabric is; you will be sitting and standing in it all day and you want it to look at its best in all of the photos. Try scrunching an inconspicuous area of the fabric in your hand to see how easy it is to crease.


Beadwork is currently a popular method of decorating a wedding dress but there are lots of options. Some brides choose lots of sparkle and crystals on their dress, and others prefer embroidery or patterned fabrics. Your decoration could be in the same colour as the dress or may introduce a contrast. Several designers have included things like bright coloured patterns on the bodice or skirt.

Dress shapes

There are a number of different dress styles available to choose from that will flatter different body shapes but there are no hard and fast rules. Unless you are a frequent wearer of extravagant frocks and therefore know what suits you, you should aim to try on an example of each shape to get an idea of what you like. Have a think about what you consider to be your best and worst features, the perfect dress will disguise or draw attention from your least favourite parts and highlight all the best bits. Like any other type of clothing, wedding dresses are subject to fashion, but you need to ensure that the dress you choose is the right one for you. Remember, choosing a dress that is the height of fashion now may quickly look dated in your wedding photos. You can choose dresses or two piece outfits and both have advantages, but for both you will need to think about a number of aspects of your outfit.

Please note, the suggestions made here for what style suits what figure are just that – suggestions! To be certain if a style is right for your figure you need to try it on.

The Silhouette

The shape of your skirt will have a strong influence on the whole look of your outfit on the day. The silhouette can range from a traditional full-skirted ball gown shape to a more modern sleek column dress. Whatever you choose should make you feel gorgeous but should also be comfortable.

The ball gown shape is very full and is usually teamed up with a fitted bodice. The fabric from which it is made will affect the style of the skirt; it may be a full tulle skirt in a ballerina style, or a heavy or structured fabric. This kind of skirt suits many figures and can disguise a pear shape, but be aware that on a fuller-figured woman this style of dress can emphasise the bride's size rather than flatter her best features. Ball gown styles often have a seam at the waistline where the skirt becomes fuller. Very petite brides may feel a bit swamped by this style.

A less full look can be achieved with an A-line skirt. As the name suggests, the skirt is A-shaped and flares out from a natural or dropped waist. A-line dresses usually have vertical seams that run from the top of the dress all the way to the bottom, with no seams coming across the dress at the waistline. This style is flattering to most brides, particularly those that are pear-shaped or fuller-figured. A hooped petticoat is often worn underneath a wide A-line skirt to hold it away from the bride's legs to give the skirt a full look. A sleeker look may be achieved with a narrower A-line without a hoop.

An empire line dress is usually straighter than the A-line styles without being too figure hugging. This style has a seam just underneath the bust and then falls away to the floor; it usually suits smaller-busted, slim women.

A column dress has a sleek modern line that is usually quite figure-hugging. These usually suit slimmer brides and those that are tall. Petite brides might prefer this look to the fuller styles.

A mermaid or fishtail dress is similar to a column dress but will usually put more emphasis on the bride's curves. This style is often cut on the bias, and is quite figure-hugging until after the knee when it flares out. A fishtail dress is usually flatter at the front than the similar mermaid style but flares at the back and sides.

Sleeves or not?

Do you like your arms? If not4 then you might want to consider a dress with sleeves, alternatively you could choose a sleeveless dress but cover your arms with a jacket, shrug or wrap.


Next, think about the kind of neckline you want as this will draw attention to your upper body. Your bust, face, neck and shoulders can all be accentuated or downplayed by the shape of the top part of the dress. It helps to think about what you would normally choose for a going-out top – do you often wear halter-, round- or V-necked outfits?

  • Low round or scooped necks will suit most brides and do not give too much prominence to any particular feature, therefore will not detract from a pretty face.
  • A halterneck looks best on a bride with great shoulders, but may look unbalanced on a woman with a large bust.
  • Queen Anne, or sweetheart necklines have a heart-shaped line at the bust and are great if you want to discreetly display a bit of cleavage.
  • A V-neck can draw attention from a large bust as it guides the eye inwards and down the midline of the dress
  • A high round neck or slash-neck dress will look best on a bride with a small bust and both are good if the bride doesn't wish to show too much of her chest.
  • Square necklines will suit most brides, the shape is created where the neckline comes across in a straight line between the straps of the dress.
  • Strapless outfits are very popular and may be straight across at the bust or may have a sweetheart shape. They suit most brides but may not be suitable if you are uncomfortable showing too much of your shoulders, chest or upper arms.
  • Asymmetric necklines, where the dress has a single strap or irregular shaping are also becoming more popular in line with current fashion trends.


You may also want to think about a train for your dress; this is where the material at the back of the dress extends out. Trains come in varying lengths and styles; the shortest is a sweep or duster train, these extend no more than 50cm from the hem of the dress and are the easiest to manage. A puddle train is often found teamed up with a fishtail or column dress in a lighter fabric. It is round in shape and begins at the sides of the skirt to make it appear that the bride is standing in a 'puddle' of the fabric. A chapel length train is usually around a metre in length and cathedral length can stretch out for two metres or more. When choosing a train it is important to think about how you will manage it on the day. It is the job of your bridesmaid to arrange the train when you have walked down the aisle and for the photographs but the longer and heavier it is the more difficult it will be to cope with. There are a number of solutions to this problem, depending on the style of your dress. The easiest to manage is the detachable train, this is usually fastened to the skirt near the waist and can be removed altogether once the ceremony and photos are out of the way leaving the bride unencumbered if she intends to dance up a storm! A clever seamstress can attach a series of loops and laces to the inside of the skirt so that the train can be hooked up into a bustle shape5 or if this isn't possible then a loop can be made that goes over the bride's wrist or thumb so that she can hold the train out of the way while she is dancing. This last option can be a little awkward and tiring for the bride if she intends to hit the dancefloor for a long period.

Veils and other headdresses

Once you have chosen your outfit you may want to think about the accessories that you want to wear on the day. These are likely to include some kind of headdress so you need to decide if you want to wear a veil, tiara, jewellery or flowers in your hair.

Veils come in different types and lengths and may have one, two or more layers. They can have a simple stitched edge or have a ribbon or other edging material around them, some are covered with scattered crystals, sequins or beads so you are likely to find something that suits the style of your outfit. You may decide that you would like a very short single-layer veil. These are worn at the back of the head and only come down to the tops of the shoulders, they are not designed to be worn forward over the face. Two-layer veils have a layer that stays at the back and a shorter section that can come forward over the face, this is called a blusher. These styles can be worn at the back of the head or further forward on the top. The back of the veil can be long enough to reach the elbows, hips, the floor, or all the way to the end of your train!

It is your choice whether or not to wear the blusher covering the face, some brides prefer the fuller look of multiple layers but don't like the idea of covering up, others like the idea that the blusher can obscure the occasional lip-wobble or happy tear as the bride walks up the aisle.

Tiaras come in a variety of colours and shapes, from small ones designed to sit just in front of the veil, to large and colourful crowns. They may be covered with crystals, beads or feathers, or whatever most suits the style of your dress. If you are crafty then you may want to have a go at making your own with supplies from a craft shop. Other versions of this look can be achieved using decorated combs or pins, or you may prefer to have your hairdresser weave in some flowers. If you do choose flowers then talk to your florist about the best types to use, they will be out of water for a long time on the day so it is best to choose something fairly robust that won't start to wilt after an hour or two.

How to buy the perfect gown

First of all, sit down with your fiancé and/or your parents and anyone else that will contribute financially to your day and decide how much you want to budget for your wedding attire. For some idea of the prices you could pay in the UK, an off-the-peg gown from a UK high street shop could, at the time of writing, set you back anything up to around £400. A middle-of-the-range designer wedding dress could cost between £300 and £1500, and haute couture and other designer dresses can cost thousands of pounds. One important thing to bear in mind is that if you don't tell people, nobody will know what you spent on your dress - so budget for what you can afford. You will certainly be able to find something suitable in every price range, and it is best to set off with a budget in mind so you don't accidentally try on and fall in love with a designer number that completely breaks the bank.

There are numerous options when it comes to buying a wedding dress, and which you go for will depend on your budget, taste, and the amount of time you have before the big day.

Bridal Shops/Boutiques

An obvious place to start is in a bridal boutique. Many of our towns and cities have these kinds of shops somewhere on the high street and in your pre-engagement days you may well have walked past one many times without noticing it. There are several large chains of bridal boutiques that sell their own range of dresses, and there are smaller, independent shops that will sell gowns from a number of different designers. If possible, try to go to places that have been recommended and ask around to find out if anyone you know has used a particular shop before. Many shops will have a website, and it is a good idea to have a look at that before you go as it should give you a list of the different designers stocked by the store – this will also give you some idea of the prices of the dresses you are likely to find there.

The dresses that can be bought in these boutiques are often made to order, you will see a sample dress in the shop and when you place your order your actual dress will be made and sent to the shop. The lead times on the dresses can vary dramatically, but most shops will tell you that you need to order six to eight months ahead of your wedding day in order to allow time for it to be made, shipped and then altered to fit you. The last point there is important, made to order does NOT mean made to measure, you order a standard size which (unless you are lucky) will then need to be altered to fit you perfectly. It is always worth asking the shop about the cost of alterations before you order as this can substantially increase the cost of your outfit. If you are planning to lose weight for your wedding, it is worth trying to do this before you need to order your dress as most shops will not allow you to order a size that is smaller than your current size, this is because it is usually much easier to take in a dress that is too big than let out one that is too small.

The shops do not stock samples of every dress in every size. A good shop will have at least one dress in each of the dress shapes in every size, but this is not always the case. When you try on an outfit it is more than likely that the sample will not fit you, and you will either have to have the assistant holding the dress up because it cannot be fastened or pinning you into it because it is far too big, in order to give you an idea of how it will look in the correct size. On the strength of this you are expected to make the most expensive clothing purchase of your life - without ever actually seeing yourself in it properly6. It is possible to purchase a dress on a shorter timescale, but there is often an extra charge for rushing the dress through in less than 12-16 weeks7. Alternatively, you may be able to purchase the sample dress from the shop. At the end of each season the shops often sell the end-of-line samples at discounted prices. If you choose to buy a sample then be sure to thoroughly check it for any damage it may have sustained while being tried on in the shop. One other tip is to haggle; you may be able to get the shop to throw in some accessories when you buy your dress.

High Street Shops and Department Stores

Increasingly, high street stores are producing good quality bridal outfits off the peg. These are usually considerably cheaper than the dresses in bridal boutiques, but are often no less beautiful. An advantage here is that the stores often stock the dress in all sizes so you can try on the correct size for you before buying. Also, there is no waiting period for the dress to be made, unless you need to order a size that has run out, so these dresses can be bought much closer to your actual wedding date. This is handy if you are having a short engagement or are planning to change size in the months leading up to the big day. It is important to check the dress that you buy for any damage it might have sustained while being tried on in the shop.

The Internet

There are many online stores for buying wedding dresses, although not every designer allows their dresses to be sold in this way. A popular method of online shopping from the UK is to try on the dresses in the shops then order online from the USA. Prices are usually lower from the American stores, even when import tax and VAT are taken into account. If you are feeling brave then you might like to bid for a dress on one of the online auction sites and there are also sites where it is possible to buy once-worn dresses. This is a great way to find a designer dress at a bargain price but pay attention to the height of the bride who is selling the dress! If she is several inches shorter than you it is unlikely there will be enough material in the hem to adjust it to be the right length for you.

One-off Gowns

If you have visited all of your local bridal stores and have been unable to find what you are looking for you may want to consider having a custom gown made by a dressmaker, a talented relative or yourself8. It pays to get recommendations if you plan to use a dressmaker, and if you aren't able to use somebody that you already know then make sure that you obtain and check up on their references. Most dressmakers will be happy to show you samples of their work and should be able to put you in contact with brides they have worked with in the past. The costs for having your dress made can vary dramatically depending on the type of dress you want, the kind of detail that you are after and the material that it is made from but compared to some designer dresses this can turn out to be a very cost-effective option. The major benefit of this method is that you can have exactly what you want and you know it will be totally unique.

Charity Shops

Several of the major charity chains in the UK have a shop devoted to bridalwear, and it is well worth hunting these out as they are the perfect place to find a bargain. You might be lucky and find the ideal dress, or you may find one that can be altered by a dressmaker to give you something beautiful and unique. Charity shops are also great places to pick up vintage dresses if that is more your style.

What to expect on your first dress shopping trip

On your first shopping expedition it is a good idea to go with a completely open mind and try lots of different things on. Take a trusted friend along who will be honest about what suits you and, more importantly, what doesn't suit you. Many bridal shops require you to make an appointment to come in and try dresses; this is because an assistant will be dedicated to you for the time you are there, so be sure to call and check this beforehand. It is a good idea to wear a well-fitting bra, and take a good strapless or multiway one with you too for the different styles of dresses. It is also a good idea to wear nice pants that you don't mind being seen in, as the assistant will come in to the changing room with you to help you in and out of the different frocks – this can be embarrassing if you are just in a thong, or a pair of greying, elderly knickers that have seen better days! Most shops will be able to lend you a pair of bridal shoes to go with the dress so you can get an idea of how it will look.

What happens next

Once you have chosen your dress you need to order it. Bridal shops often require a 50% deposit at the time of ordering with the balance to be paid either when the dress comes in or when your fittings are complete. It is a good idea to pay the deposit and balance on a credit card as this will give you some insurance if there is a problem later, for example if the shop goes bust.

One thing that often comes as a bit of a shock when you order is the size of the dress, so be prepared! High street shops have altered their sizing over the last fifty years to reflect changes in women's figures, but wedding dress sizing has stayed the same. You may be a UK size 14 in normal clothes but might find your wedding dress needs to be ordered in a size 16 or 18! You will be measured by the shop and they will compare your measurements to their sizing charts - the size that is ordered will be the one needed for your biggest dimension so if your waist requires a size 14 and your hips need a 16, the 16 will be ordered and you will need to have the waist taken in when the dress arrives. It can be quite upsetting having to order a larger-than-normal size, especially if you have been slimming for your dress but remember, the size label is on the INSIDE of the dress. As long as it fits you and looks fabulous, nobody is going to know what size of dress was ordered.

Once your dress arrives at the shop (or after you have received it from the online retailer) you will need to see if it needs altering. Unless you are very tall it is likely that the dress will need taking up, and other changes may need to be made to fit the dress to you precisely. This means that when you go for fittings you will need to have the shoes you intend to wear on the day, and also the underwear you will have on. You might also want to look for accessories in time for your final fitting so you can see your complete outfit.

And after the big day?

Some brides like to keep their wedding dresses forever, as a reminder of the day - maybe getting it out to do the hoovering in from time to time. If you bought a two-piece outfit it may be possible to wear either the bodice or skirt again, teamed up with something less weddingy. Other brides decide that they won't wear it again and sell it or donate it to a charity shop to sell for another bride to enjoy.

1You may have gone for a romantic 'Arthur and Guinevere' theme, or Rock Chicks and Bikers, or in fact anything at all2Traditionally it is considered unlucky for the groom to see his bride in her dress before the ceremony. Most sensible males will take advantage of this superstition to avoid extended shopping trips and long fitting sessions.3The more traditional royal wedding colour 4Bingo wings, the bane of anyone over the age of about 14! Tricep dips are good for reducing these.. 5This will require the help of a close friend who doesn't mind sticking their head up your skirt at the back in order to tie it up. Try to do this out of sight of any cameras as it isn't a terribly dignified process!6How this state of affairs came about is a mystery7Does this sound crazy to anyone else?8Although it is considered unlucky for a bride to make her own dress; the superstition is that she will shed a tear for every stitch she sews

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