Everything you need to know about booking into and buying at bridal boutiques

Whether dress shopping is your idea of paradise or the definition of hell, your hunt depends on more than just décor and a steady flow of fizz

Thanks to a glut of big-day blockbusters, the early shopping experience is well documented, and romanticised: you browse, you shimmy into The One, your mum sobs and you skip out. But what really goes on before you put down that deposit? And once the real deal arrives in store, what then? 

Thorough research on where to book an appointment cannot be scrimped on. “I’d suggest looking for boutiques that are members of the Retail Bridalwear Association so you can shop with confidence – it’s vital to be financially protected,” advises Helen Walker at Glasgow’s Anne Priscilla Bridal. “It’s also important to listen to friends and family who might have recommendations for good service. And be sure the store you choose actually caters for the look you’d like to create.”

Once you’re confident in your shortlisted boutiques, it’s time to get booking – and fast. “Saturday and Sunday appointments fill up quickly,” warns Apple Blossom Time’s Jolene Taylor. “If you want a weekend appointment, you’ll probably need to book three weeks in advance. We offer evening appointments on Wednesdays too which are quieter and only require a few days’ notice.”

Ahead of the appointment, your boutique will want as much information as you can give them about you and what you’re planning for the wedding. “We always encourage you to make a love list on our website of all your favourite gowns, which we then look through prior to your appointment to get a feel for what you’re like,” explains Anna Cirignaco, owner of Eleganza Sposa

When the appointment rolls around, getting organised will help to keep you relaxed and will best support the team waiting to greet you at the other end. “It’s much better to arrive promptly, particularly on busy days and especially if the bride brings a big party with her, as it is hard to let appointments run over,” admits Anna.

“At Apple Blossom Time, we offer two-hour appointment slots,” says Jolene. Isn’t that a bit much? “The time really flies!” she assures us.

“If you have a strapless bra, bring it with you,” encourages Jolene. “They are always handy to have when trying on strapless gowns or even those with illusion necklines or low back detailing. And please don’t wear fake tan or heavy makeup – all the samples you try on will become another bride’s real dress in our annual sample sale.”

Once you’ve settled in, most boutiques will start off by presenting you with a small, carefully chosen selection of gowns while your own stylist accompanies you into the (spacious) changing room to help you into each one. If you can bear to relinquish a little control, the results will be rewarding.

“If you know exactly what you want, with no room for manoeuvre, it can restrict us,” says Anna. “It’s great when we get a bride into her first dress and she then tells us what she likes and doesn’t like about it. At the end we always go back to your favourite for one last try-on so it’s fresh in your mind.”

If you’re concerned about how you’ll make that decision, Jolene has a few patient words of wisdom: “It is a lot harder for brides to make a choice these days. As trends evolve, there are so many similar styles. A second visit seems to finalise it, though – if you leave a boutique and there is that one dress you keep thinking about, that’s constantly in the back of your mind, chances are you have found what you’re looking for.”

Mermaid-style gown with embellished tulle and plunging neckline (style 2739) by Benjamin Roberts

The next step is to flash that cash. “Ideally, we recommend that brides order their dress no later than six months before the wedding,” says Jolene. “At the time of purchase, we require a 50% deposit. It can then take up to four months for the dress to be made and delivered. Once it arrives, we ask the bride to come back and try it on before paying the remaining balance. Afterwards, we’ll book you in for your first fitting, which usually takes place a month before the wedding. The trick is to not alter your dress too soon.”

Having an idea of the boutique’s approach to fittings long before the alterations stage is imperative, argues Helen. “These services differ widely across shops,” she says. “At Anne Priscilla Bridal, our fittings and alterations are carried out on the premises, with all dresses stored, pressed and finished here.”

Expect at least two fittings, with the second coinciding with the pick-up of your gown. Check the pricing structure, bombard the seamstress with questions and, again, wear the appropriate under-garments. “Alterations vary from as little as £10 to about £300 for customisations,” explains Helen. “It is essential that you bring the correct underwear and the exact shoes in order that your dress can be accurately fitted to you. This fitting is more technical.”

Common alterations include adding a bustle (do not underestimate the importance of practising this with your mum or maid of honour!) and adjusting the hem.

And at the second fitting? Enjoy the big reveal. “Don’t get harassed,” urges Helen. “Often brides are so busy by this point that they can be overwhelmed at the fittings. Go for a little hair trial beforehand so that you can see the bridal look all together. Enjoy the moment.”

After that? Your aisle awaits!