How to avoid the pitfalls of dress shopping

It’s not every day you splurge a grand (or two) on a gown, so how do you know if you’re doing it right?

From left: Velma gown and Hilda capelet by Watters, £POA, Bridal Atelier Scotland; Swiss Cottage gown by Dando London, £POA, Bridal Atelier Scotland; Fishtail lace gown with racer neckline by Gallery by Kenneth Winston, £970, Ivory Whites; Amelia gown by Savin London, from £2,500, Eleganza Sposa

Warning: hypocritical advice approaching. Despite being a girl who flies by the seat of her pants most days, with an infuriating last-minute mentality, you can take it from me: winging this shopping business is not an option, even if you aren’t completely consumed with what you’re going to wear.

“Timing is everything,” insists Anna Cirignaco, owner of Eleganza Sposa. “Firm up your date and venue first, as this will give you the timeframe and the setting in which your day will take place. This not only sets the tone and the theme of the event, it also makes sure there’s plenty of time for dress alterations, particularly if your date is during the summer.”

Gowns live by their own schedule, which can be a tricky concept to grasp if all you’ve known is the instant gratification of the high street. “Most dresses take four months to be made,” cautions Karyn McLeod, owner of Perth’s Ivory Whites. “You also need to allow time for alterations, so six months beforehand is the moment to order.”

Manufacturing and ordering aside, the search itself deserves care, so give yourself the insurance policy of a couple of extra months. “Allow yourself enough time to shop,” says Jennifer Gilbert of the Bridal Courtyard in Glasgow. “We recommend starting 12 months before your date; that way, there’s no pressure and you’ll be seeing current trends on the shop floor.”

A-line tulle and mikado gown by Aurora by Nicole Spose, £1,499, The Bridal Courtyard

Equally, an over-enthusiastic, premature approach isn’t sensible either. With too much time on your side, a change of heart becomes much more likely. You might start to loathe that Bardot neckline, for instance. Don’t give yourself unnecessary headaches; the year mark is the sweet spot.

Diving blindly headfirst into the process, unsure of what you want or where you might find it, is a trap many overwhelmed brides fall into. While a concrete plan is neither realistic nor advisable, everyone, including the boutique’s stylist, needs a springboard. “Do your homework,” urges Christine Fyfe at Loch Lomond’s Bridal Atelier Scotland. “Check out different designers and give yourself a starting point.” Grab a stack of magazines, pull up a row of tabs on your browser and get to know your Sassi Holford from your Savin London.

The same goes for styles of gown. “At Eleganza Sposa, we ask our future brides to visit our website first and create what we call a Love List,” explains Anna. “It works almost like Pinterest and lets you and your stylist understand your expectations and bridal personality before your arrival.”

You’ll also have to research boutiques, so you don’t end up committing to a store that’s unreliable or whose stock quality is questionable. Read those testimonies. “Track down reputable brands and boutiques, then make your appointment,” advises Anna. “Check reviews online and ask other brides for their thoughts on retailers.”

Christine concurs: “It’s crucial that you trust your consultant and that you feel they have your best interests at heart.” A quick glance at their Facebook page will soon give you a rough sense of their reputation.

That said, being too rigid and stubborn with your ideas is a recipe for disappointment and missed opportunities. Determined to sashay down the aisle in a frothy, ballerina-length creation? A fluid, floor-skimming A-line might be far more flattering – and you won’t know until you try. “You must go shopping with an open mind,” says Christine. “The style you adore might not suit you. This is where your consultant is so important.”

Alice crêpe gown with embroidered lace back by Ella Rosa by Kenneth Winston, £900, Ivory Whites

“Don’t write off a dress before you’ve even put it on,” cautions Karyn. “We know how our gowns look on, so if we suggest you try a particular style, it’s really worth giving it a go. We’re listening to what you like – and there’s no harm in trying.”

Budget – not knowing it (or sticking to it) – is another potential pitfall. Only you can reasonably assess what you’re willing to splurge on a dress, but, as a guide, you’re typically looking at somewhere in the region of £800 to £3,000. You may spend less if you get lucky at a sample sale or trunk show – and you can, of course, spend an awful lot more.

“Try to work out a figure of what you’re prepared to spend before you go shopping,” recommends Jennifer. “If it’s £1,000, let the consultant know so she doesn’t start showing you dresses that are miles outside your price bracket.”

Honesty is the best policy. “If the gown is over-budget, tell us!” insists Karyn. “We want to help you. The more you tell us, the more we can help. We offer payment plans and can sell samples at a lower price.”

The budget business doesn’t end with the gown; make sure you leave something for essential alterations (there’s no avoiding those, I’m afraid) and accessories. It also goes without saying that buying the latter before you find that frock is futile – no one wants a clashing veil.

While you’ll probably want to make a party of your spotlight moment (did someone say prosecco?), it’s wise to limit your entourage. “A whole horde of people is too many opinions to swallow,” affirms Christine. “It’s your wedding, after all, and only you’ll know what feels right.”

According to Anna, two loved ones is more than enough: “It keeps the appointment personal and memorable.”

Do you remember life before the internet? No, us neither. Despite its all-consuming impact, however, sometimes it can be a foe rather than a friend. Be wary about bridal shopping online and go old-school.

“It is too important a decision to make online,” stresses Anna. “Use the internet for research but nothing more.”

As you scroll through a stream of seemingly flawless gowns, you risk being sucked into the smoke-and-mirrors game of copycat sellers, cautions Jennifer. “It’s tempting to save money anywhere you can as, let’s face it, it all adds up,” she says. “But don’t cut corners when it comes to your dress. The photographs online might look amazing, but if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and you’re wasting your time. You deserve the full boutique experience.”