Many brides end up spending more time and money on their wedding gowns than they would have judged sensible in their single days, and it’s easy to understand why. There’s the pressure of the spotlight, for one, and the symbolic significance of feeling at your most comfortable and beautiful at the beginning of a new life chapter—and perhaps later, on social media.
In the US, the average price for The Dress is about $1,350, according to The Knot’s oft-cited Real Weddings Survey (take that with a grain of salt, though). For a designer gown with intricate details, that figure can rocket to several thousand dollars. But even for the most expensive dresses, here’s a secret: you don’t have to pay full price.
My friend Kate Berland, a marketing manager at YouTube, recently found The Dress on her lunch break. When she sent me a picture of herself trying it on, it was clear she had a remarkable find. Swaths of white chiffon wrapped a strapless bodice and swirls of silk cutouts gave the skirt a full, feathery effect. The skirt arced to tea-length in the front, revealing just enough leg to make it more Sex and the City than Cinderella.
“Oscar de la Renta,” said Kate. She paid about half its original price, and took the dress home two days later—as opposed to the several months many brides have to wait for a first fitting.
Kate bought her dress secondhand, and while there’s a stigma around being thrifty about your wedding dress, there shouldn’t be. Wedding gowns are frequently expensive, and only useful to their owner for a single day. For busy brides with expensive taste and moderate budgets, consignment shops and websites can be a godsend—especially as selections swell.
In 2009, the website Preowned Wedding Dresses had about 2,360 gowns for sale. Today it has more than 20,000. I’ve now watched clever, stylish friends in New York, London, and San Francisco buy gowns with labels like Monique Lhuillier and Vera Wang from secondhand shops and sites.
At first, they asked me to keep their methods a secret. Now, like Kate, they’re celebrating their secondhand gowns as a smart alternative to the expensive, time-consuming, and stressful search for The Dress.
At a traditional bridal salon, women usually choose a dress based on a sample, and then wait months for their own to arrive.
Kate first attempted to shop for a wedding gown that way, visiting San Francisco bridal salons with her mother. At about nine months before the wedding, it should have been perfect timing, but it also happened to fall during the run-up a product launch she was overseeing.
“It was really stressful,” said Kate. “I was on and off my cell phone the whole day with work, trying to be there with my mom in the moment.”
She didn’t find a dress that day, and put off the search. Suddenly, it was May. Work was still busy, but the clock was ticking, so Kate did what any self-respecting Silicon Valley bride would do: “I just Googled ‘Where to buy a wedding dress in the Bay Area,’ and looked for places that were near work.”
Kate wasn’t looking for a secondhand gown, but she came across Bridal Project, a small consignment shop in Burlingame, CA, where she could make a one-hour appointment on her lunch break. There, Kate was met by the store’s owner and her assistant. The store closes for each appointment, so Kate had the team’s undivided attention. They pulled several dresses based on her size and specifications.
The Oscar de la Renta fit the bill perfectly. Kate gave herself a 48-hour breather before she returned to the store, bought the dress, and took it home, ready to start her alterations and accessories selection.
Unlike at a bridal salon, where many dozens of dresses can—overwhelmingly—be custom-ordered in any size, buying a secondhand dress “off-the-rack” limits what’s available in a particular size and style, often reflecting which gowns flatter different body types. Previous brides have already done the editing for you.
Of course, like all secondhand shopping, looking for a consignment gown is hit-or-miss. But with a limited budget, the odds of scoring a knockout gown are much greater when you’re shopping secondhand.
Of the seven gowns Bridal Project pulled, only the Oscar de la Renta was in the ballpark, as opposed to the day of “meh”-inducing dresses Kate described trying on with her mom: serviceable, but not stunning.
They’re a fraction of the price
Kate was able to buy a couture-quality gown from a designer she had already dismissed as far beyond her budget. Bridal Project only carries like-new gowns that originally cost $1500 and upwards, creating a blue-chip assortment from designers including Carolina Herrera, Vera Wang, and Jenny Packham, with price tags reduced to 30-50% off of their original price.
At the Bridal Garden in New York City—a charity, rather than a consignment shop—designers like Lela Rose, Badgely Mischka, and Angel Sanchez donate samples, which sell for up to 75% off their original prices.
You can customize with alterations
Whether a bride buys a secondhand dress or not, she will usually require some tailoring for the dress to fit perfectly. Traditional bridal salons often encourage women to buy a generous size, since taking in a garment is easier than letting it out, and charge hundreds of dollars for alterations.
Pre-owned dresses frequently have been tailored this way in advance—bustles added, skirts hemmed—so much of the work will be done. Kate wasn’t sure if her high-low skirt was a custom detail for the previous owner or not, but it suited her perfectly. A local seamstress took a few inches out of the bodice, sewed a strapless bra inside, and added a dart at the sweetheart neckline.
“She fixed the uni-boob,” said Kate.
All details that will make the dress more comfortable for Kate come Saturday—and perhaps for another owner, down the road.