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How to get a beautiful, modern wedding dress without going broke or crazy

By Jenni Avins

Shopping for a wedding dress is one of those activities that theoretically should be fun: What’s to dislike about searching for an outrageously beautiful garment to make you look and feel awesome, often with free champagne?

That said, it’s also a lot of pressure. Many of us have never been the center of attention to the degree that we are on our wedding days. Even if the ceremony is small, we want the pictures to be nice. We want to feel beautiful, and look like our best selves. There may also be a handful of others we want to please and impress: our partner, our parents, our dearest friends, everyone we ever met on social media. And then there’s the fact that wedding dresses are damn expensive. It’s no wonder they pour complimentary champagne.

Plus, at traditional bridal salons, it’s generally the case that a bride can’t simply buy a dress and take it with her. Rather, she tries on a series of samples (which probably won’t be in her size, and will have to be either taken in or extended with the use of oddly industrial clamps). Then she orders a dress in her closest size to be delivered months later (or rushed at a substantial fee), at which time it will likely still require alterations for a perfect fit.

I am generally here for clothes shopping, and I love a long white dress. But something about the bridal salon experience just made me feel like a victim of the wedding industrial complex. So I went searching elsewhere, and found some alternatives that felt more special, affordable, and efficient.

Vintage wedding dresses

If you are a fashion-lover seeking a one-of-a-kind gem, the vintage route is hard to beat. The key is to chat up shopkeepers, whether in person or online, and let them know what you’re looking for—Ivory macramé? Floral chiffon? 1990s-era Dolce and Gabbana corsetry?—in case the perfect gown is hiding in the archives. (I found the staff at Decades and Resurrection in Los Angeles to be especially helpful.)

In major cities, vintage fairs such as A Current Affair and the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show are great places to make contact with lots of vendors who will be happy to keep an eye out for you. Vintage shopping can be a way to attain insane workmanship—like the beading on the gown below, at Madame Pauline Vintage in Milan—that you might not be able to afford otherwise.

Ready-to-wear wedding dresses

For the no-nonsense bride who would like to get this done ASAP in a beautiful gown, thankyouverymuch, stores like Anthropologie’s Bhldn (in the US) and MaxMara (in Europe) are a good bet. They offer a wide variety of styles, from jumpsuits and minidresses to ballgowns and lace. At MaxMara, a bride could bring home her dress the very same day. At Anthropologie, shoppers try on samples, and are measured before they place an order for the correct size to be delivered in less than two weeks. Another great thing about Anthropologie: a 30-day return policy, an out that’s not generally offered by bridal salons.

Buy it online

For the bride who would prefer this whole thing go down in the comfort of her own home: Online shopping! Department stores like Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue sell wedding dresses online, as do e-tailers including Moda Operandi (where a huge sale is underway), Net-a-Porter, and ShopBopThese outlets have traditional looks, but are also great if you’re seeking something like a slip-dress or a floral gown.

Pro-tip: If you don’t want ads for wedding dresses to appear every time you open a new browser window forevermore, do your shopping in Google Incognito mode.

Secondhand gowns

Here’s the thing about wedding dresses: Often they’re worn only once. This means there is a plethora of barely-worn, beautiful designer dresses just hanging around after their (first) big day is done. Now, a slew of sites have stepped in to create an online marketplace for secondhand gowns: Still White, Once Wed, and Pre-Owned Wedding Dresses all specialize in, yep, pre-owned wedding dresses. TheRealReal, Tradesy, and eBay are great sources too. One friend of mine found the Monique Lhullier dress of her dreams on eBay, and discovered it was just down the street in Brooklyn. It could happen to you!

Wedding dress samples

Some stores specialize in selling wedding dress samples—those dresses designers use for showrooms, shows, and photo shoots—from previous seasons, at a fraction of their original prices. Some of these, such as The Glamour Closet, which has locations in several cities and donates a portion of profits to Parkinson’s Disease research, don’t require appointments. (I pulled over at The Glamour Closet in LA on my way to a comedy show and lo! I got lucky.) In New York, also see: The Bridal Garden, Kleinfeld Sample Studio, and The Sample Room. What I love most about these shops is that although the gowns are major—think Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Pronovias—you can browse the racks, froufing skirts the way you might at any other old store. Except here, with far less pressure, you just might walk out with The Dress.