For some brides picking the dress is one of the most exciting items on their wedding planning checklist. For others, it can also be one of the more difficult and overwhelming tasks. There are thousands of styles, designers, and silhouettes (a.k.a. dress shapes) to choose from, including everything from traditional white gowns to bridal jumpsuits to matching separates. Although choosing your wedding dress is a big decision, we’re here to make sure you don’t stress. Follow our steps below for how to choose your wedding dress to make sure that your dress-buying experience is more fun than frustration.

1. Set Your Wedding Dress Budget

  • Figure out how much you want to spend on your wedding dress. Going into your search with your wedding dress budget in mind will help you focus on options within your price range.
  • Remember that your dress budget should also factor extraneous costs, such as alterations, accessories (like jewelry, a veil, and shoes), taxes and fees, and preserving the dress after the wedding day.
  • To keep your price point on target, resist looking at or trying on gowns that are outside of your budget. It’ll help prevent heartache and the disappointment of finding a dress that’s too expensive.
  • If needed, look for budget-friendly options like used dresses, trunk sales (sales hosted by boutiques to move out older inventory from past seasons), and sample size dresses (the dresses that bridal stores keep on hand for trying-on purposes only). Zola also offers a range of gorgeous wedding dresses under $1000.

2. Gather Wedding Dress Inspiration

  • Browse dresses to start discovering what you like. Check out Zola’s huge collection of Real Weddings to find looks that inspire you (and be sure to click the heart icon on the top, right-hand corner of the photos you love to save them to your Favorites). Then, head over to Zola's Wedding Shop to scroll through a large selection of stunning wedding dresses to find one that matches your vision.
  • Make sure to look for any trends among your favorite styles to discover your wedding dress style. Drawn to lace? Sleeves? Take note. Here are some things to begin paying attention to:
    • Designer Names
    • Silhouettes (Shape)
    • Materials
    • Necklines
    • Length
    • Color
  • A helpful trick is to put together a list of 3-5 adjectives that you’d use to describe your dream dress. Keep those words in mind as you begin looking at dresses. As we mentioned before—there’s A LOT of wedding dresses out there and it can be easy to get overwhelmed quickly.
  • Wedding dresses—like designer clothing—are often part of seasonal collections from designers. Keep that in mind if you begin searching a year or more before your wedding day. Styles and trends can change quickly and particular dresses may not be available a few seasons after they debut.

3. Know Your Wedding Dress Terms

  • Lean on the bridal shop consultant to walk you through all the different styles.
  • Ask questions when you don’t know what particular terminology means.
  • Learn a bit of the lingo to help make shopping less overwhelming and to communicate what you like/dislike at your bridal shop appointment(s). To help you out, here is a quick lesson in the most popular terms you’ll probably come across:

Necklines

  • Square—a square made by straight lines where the straps meet the top of the dress
  • Scoop—rounded with half-circle shape
  • V-Neck—starts wide at shoulders and tapers down into a V at the chest
  • Bateau—begins at shoulder points and reaches across front and back in gentle dip slightly below the collarbones (also called boat neck)
  • Sweetheart—typically strapless; resembles a heart with curved sections over breasts that dip into V in the middle of chest
  • Illusion—typically covers most of chest; made of sheer fabric to create the illusion that the dress is strapless

Fabrics

  • Satin (or silk satin)—smooth fabric with lots of shine; typically made of silk
  • Silk—fine, light fabric with a glossy sheen
  • Charmeuse—semi-satin fabric that’s soft and lightweight
  • Brocade—heavier fabric with raised pattern or embroidery

Dress shapes

  • Ball gown—fitted bodice that comes in at waist and flares out into full-length, voluminous skirt
  • A-line—fitted at bodice; gradually flares out until the hem (creates the shape of a capital letter A)
  • Mermaid—fitted at bodice and waist, flares at knee or below
  • Fit and flare—fitted at bodice and waist, flares just below the hip
  • Sheath—form-fitting, straight-line dress from bodice to hem
  • Empire—fitted bodice, skirt begins below chest and falls straight to floor

Dress lengths

  • Tea length—falls at mid-shin
  • Ankle length—falls at ankles
  • Full length—falls to the floor
  • High-low length—starts shorter in the front and gradually extends in length to touch the floor in the back

Trains

  • Sweep—shortest train; brushes about 6 inches across the floor
  • Semi-cathedral—semi-formal; extend 5-7 feet behind dress
  • Cathedral—ultra formal; extends 6-8 feet behind dress

Embellishments

  • Embroidery—decorative stitching
  • Appliques—fabric cutouts affixed to dress
  • Rosettes—gathers or pleats of fabric resembling roses
  • Bustle—hooks, ties or buttons sewn into the dress to lift up a train and secure it to the back of the dress, making it easier for walking or dancing

4. Consider The Season

  • Make sure to keep the season of your nuptials in mind when choosing your wedding dress, especially when it comes to the gown’s cut and the weight of the fabric.
  • Think about how particular fabrics might hold up in certain conditions, such as rain or mud. Some fabrics can’t handle moisture. Your bridal consultant can help you here.

5. Consider Your Wedding Venue and Vibe

  • Remember that your dress should complement the formality, mood, and general aesthetic of the location. With that in mind, it’s best to begin dress shopping after you’ve locked in your venue and wedding theme.
  • Factor in what you’ll be doing that day. If you’re hoping to hike your way to your mountain-top elopement, then a princess ball gown likely isn’t the dress for you.
  • If you’re having a destination wedding, keep travel arrangements in mind. Some airlines have strict regulations that could prevent you from flying with your dress in a large garment bag (and, unfortunately, packing it in a suitcase typically isn’t an option).

6. Create a Game Plan

  • Before you begin booking appointments and heading into stores to try on gowns, make sure to sketch out a wedding dress game plan:
    1. Gather a list of dresses, either specific gowns or more general styles, that you want to try on.
    2. Call around to determine which boutiques carry the styles and/or designers you’re interested in.
    3. Read reviews to determine which stores have a reputation for happy brides.
    4. Map out which shops you want to make priority.
  • If you’re planning to buy online, here’s a few tips for success:
    • Have a professional take your measurements to avoid mistakes.
    • Make sure that you’re using a trusted source by reading reviews. There are far too many horror stories about online dress shopping gone wrong.
    • Familiarize yourself with the satisfaction and return policies should you have a bad experience.
    • Request fabric samples before making a final decision.

7. Make Appointments

  • Shopping for a wedding dress is a very different experience from typical retail. Instead of waltzing right in, flipping through dresses on the rack and choosing those you want to try on, bridal boutiques require that you make an appointment. There’s a few reasons for this:
    • To make sure you have their full attention.
    • To ensure that the store isn’t crowded or overwhelming.
    • To guarantee that there are dressing rooms available.
    • To provide you with a great experience.
  • Start shopping early. Wedding dresses aren’t bought in store and taken home the same day. The dresses you put on in store are sample sizes that the boutique keeps on hand for brides to try on. Once you choose a dress, an order is placed with the designer or manufacturer and they begin constructing the gown (that’s right—typically dresses aren’t pre-made and in stock at any given time). It can take anywhere from 4-8 months to receive your dress. Then you have to allot additional time for alterations once the dress is received by the boutique. It’s also key to order your dress a minimum of 8-12 months before the wedding to avoid rush fees which can often add hundreds to thousands of dollars (depending on the price of your dress) to your final total.
  • Boutiques frequently book up a few months in advance at busy times of year, so it’s best to make your appointment well in advance. When possible, shoot for a weekday.
  • Unless you’re set on a particular dress or bridal store, a good rule of thumb is to make your first appointment at the least expensive store and slowly work yourself up. The same trick applies to trying on dresses—start with the most inexpensive and work up to options at the top of your budget.
  • Plan to make dress shopping a whole-day event. You don’t want to rush your way through your appointment(s). Take your time and carefully weigh your choices.
  • When you book your appointment, make sure to ask if the shop has any limitations on the number of people you can bring with you. Some places request that you keep your companions to a scant few for a couple of reasons:
    1. Space or seating restrictions.
    2. Concern over too many opinions clouding your judgement.
    3. Limitations on complimentary snacks or drinks.

8. Collect Your Crew

  • Two or three people is usually the perfect number of companions to join you while dress shopping. Typically the following people are good candidates to go with you to your bridal shop appointment(s):
    • Your mom
    • Your dad
    • Siblings
    • Future mom-in-law
    • Siblings-to-be
    • Your maid/matron of honor
  • Try to make sure that the person who will be helping you into your dress on your wedding day is present at your appointment(s). That way, she’ll know what kind of assistance you need. If they can’t make it to the initial appointment, then have them join you at a fitting later on.

9. Go Prepared

  • Take anything you know you want to wear on the wedding day with you to your appointment(s), such as:
    • your wedding shoes (or shoes with the heel height you have in mind)
    • family heirlooms, like your grandmother’s veil
    • accessories or jewelry you know you want to wear
  • Bring along the right undergarments, such as shapewear and a strapless bra in white or nude.
  • Have photos or a list of dresses you want to try on hand to share with the consultant. It can be as specific as the names of particular gowns or as simple as a few shapes and styles you find yourself drawn to.
  • Prepare yourself for bridal sizing. Here’s some helpful things to keep in mind:
    • Wedding dresses use a different sizing system so expect that your dress may be one to two sizes up from what you’d typically wear.
    • Prepare to have your consultant use garment clips to cinch in the dress so you can get an idea of how it would look post-alterations.
    • Remember, the sizes don’t matter much anyway—the goal is to find the size that’s the closest fit and then tailor the dress from there to be perfect for you.
    • Take note that some bridal salons are not as size-inclusive as others and only carry sample sizes up to size 10. We suggest doing a bit of research (or calling ahead) beforehand to determine which stores have more variety of sizes to try on.
    • Always buy true to your size (or size up). They can bring the dress in if you need a smaller size, but it’s not always possible to make the dress larger.
  • Have someone in your crew take photos of you from various angles in your favorite dresses. If you’re having trouble deciding, these photos will be critical to look back on post appointment.

10. Keep an Open Mind

  • Let your consultant give you some initial options so they can get to know you and your style—even if you already feel strongly that you know what you want.
  • Sometimes a dress might look amazing in a photograph, but might not meet your standards on you. Don’t be discouraged if your dream dress on paper isn’t so perfect in reality.
  • Listen to the wedding dress experts helping you at your appointment to see what they suggest for your style and body type.
  • Don’t let friends or family pressure you into a dress that isn’t right for you. The dress should ultimately feel great and make you happy. While we understand the desire to please by going with the crowd favorite, you have to wear the dress on the big day.
  • Keep in mind that dresses often look completely different on the hanger. What looks like a shapeless bundle of fabric totally transforms with the help of a human body and some garment clips.
  • Remember that finding your wedding dress isn’t always love at first sight. Sometimes it takes several appointments or even buying a couple different dresses to find the one that you’ll ultimately wear on the wedding day.

11. Purchase Your Wedding Dress and Tailor It

  • The store where you purchase your dress may not offer alteration services. In that scenario, ask the salon for suggestions or do your own research to find a trustworthy and well-reviewed seamstress.
  • If you find yourself trying to completely redesign your dress during alterations, step back and ask yourself if it’s really the right dress. Extensive and complex alterations can be very expensive, and it may be in your best interest to choose a different wedding dress.
  • Work with the seamstress to add personal touches, such as a bustle or beading.
  • Remember that dresses typically cannot be returned (as we mentioned before, they’re made-to-order). If you find yourself in a position where you need to keep shopping, it’s a good idea to consider selling the dress to recover some funds.
  • Don’t stress if you have to start over. Sometimes you feel that you’ve found the dress, but later change your mind. It happens more often than you’d think. Should this be the case, take a deep breath and start over.
  • Don’t keep shopping after you buy. Even if you feel like you’ve found your dream dress, it can be tempting to continue shopping. A word of wisdom: don’t. Trust yourself and remember why you fell in love with your dress.