Say Yes to the Dress – Or Say No to the Wedding Industry?

If you’re like me (and clearly enough of the population to keep a reality tv show on the air for years AND inspire a spinoff series), you spend too much time watching Say Yes to the Dress marathons. If you’re a die-hard SYTTD fan like I am, you know that one of the first questions asked before they step foot in a sample dress is “what’s your budget?” To be honest, before seeing this show, it never occurred to me that a wedding dress would cost more than $1000. I know, I know, how naive I was! If figured I spent about $300 on my prom dress (which was a very elegant and beaded ballgown) so a wedding dress should cost approximately 3x that. Of course that was 10 years ago now(!) but, still – the moment someone on the show said $3000 and I uncovered that $3k is really on the lower end of dresses I’ve been both pining for and pinning, my jaw dropped.

On SYTTD, the average dress budget is somewhere between $3000 and $5000. These brides don’t all seem to come from super wealthy families. Who knows, maybe some are in massive debt, they just don’t get into that on the show. They ask the your budget because it’s no use trying to a $5000 dress when you plan to spend $3000 and, you know, buy a fancy laptop computer that year that you need.

Ok, HEEC, why don’t you just spend $1000 on a dress then, surely there are decent $1000 wedding dresses out there – maybe not at Kleinfields or Brides by Lori, but not EVERYONE spends $3000+ on their wedding dresses! The problem with the wedding industry is that the second something is remotely tied to a wedding, the price multiples by more than rationally makes any sense at all. A $1000 wedding dress is often more like a $100 dress in white. What I learned in my first trip to try on wedding dresses is – a $5000 dress with hug your curves in ways that no “$100” $1000 dress every will. Skinny girls can look good in just about anything, but ladies with curves, well we need all the help we can get to look the very best on our wedding day.

I suddenly became overwhelmed about trying on wedding dresses. While I used to love shopping, these days it’s just a necessary activity. I’m not that satisfied with my 168lb, 5’3 figure (attempting to get down to 120-130lbs for the wedding, hoping to keep the later half of the equation the same!) I also learned a few even more nerve-wracking things about trying on wedding dresses at stores, some of which I vaguely understood before in concept but not in practice.

1. To start, wedding dresses at stores are only carried in one size – then they clip you in so you can kind of / sort of get an idea of what the dress would look like custom made to your sizing. You would think, then, the sample size available would be on the larger end. I mean, this is America, not China. But, no, sample sizes are usually really small. Like size 6 small or smaller.

2. To make matters worse, wedding dress sizes are more “real” sizes, which means a size 12 is actually a size 8 and so on. So those samples that you thought maybe you could squeeze into – to just get an idea – that were a size 6 are the ones you end up getting stuck in, suffocating, convinced your salesperson was going to have to cut you out once you fainted due to the heat and claustrophobia (yes, people, that did happen to yours truly.)

3. Bridal dress samples come in ivory, cream or beige, not white. This isn’t that big of a deal, but you basically have to order a $3000-$5000 dress site unseen anyway, trusting that it will look good in another subtle variation of an acceptable bridal hue. That doesn’t seem so odd with the exception of the fact you’re spending $5000 on a dress — I would think I could try on the exact dress in my size before putting down two months rent on a garment I’ll wear one day of my life.

4. Wedding dresses take 9 months to make and fit, give or take. So if you’re thinking of getting married in “about a year from now” you need to pick your dress really freaking soon. Ideally tomorrow.

5. Simple dresses AREN’T cheaper. I don’t know why I had in my head that my dress was going to be even cheaper because I’d be okay with something simple instead of some ridiculous ballgown. Well, actually, it’s the construction and fabric in a simple dress that can make it either look super cheap or like a million bucks. Unfortunately, the dresses that do look like a million bucks almost cost that much in proportion to their lifetime usage.

6. Unlike regular shopping, you typically can’t browse the racks to look for THE dress. You have to share your tastes with a bridal consultant who they pulls dresses for you. So your dream dress may be in the store, you just have to hope they find it. And, of course, in most cases sales people are compensation-based and might not be incentivized to sell you the cheapest dress in the store that happens to be just perfect for you!

I went in to my first appointment with an open mind, unsure of what would look remotely good or acceptable on me. The appointment I booked for try #1 was at a Nordstrom Bridal Suite, which I figured would be a lower pressure environment then a typical bridal studio. A good friend came with me and watched me try on dress after dress. Most looked completely horrible. A few were acceptable. The two front runners were similar styles, so it was extremely interesting to experience the difference in construction between a $3000 dress and a $5000 dress (yes, my favorite so far is a $5000 Reem Acra dress. Now I understand why they say don’t try on dresses out of your price range, because pretty much wedding dresses only start feeling like luxury in the $5000 ballpark.)

While I shared text messages of me in the dresses with a few trusted girlfriends, most were just for kicks (here’s me looking like a wedding cake that’s starting to melt! Here’s me in a $6500 flowing, hand-embroidered, empire-waist dress that looks incredible on the rack but makes me look like I’m about to turn in for a long nap and possibly give birth.) The success of the appointment was finding the general style I like (which is not at all what I thought I would like), which helps narrow down what I ask to see in other stores.

I’ve thought back to other friend’s weddings I’ve attended in the last 10 years. Most of my friends do not come from families that are as “middle class wealthy” as mine. One good friend spent $150 and wore a grass-green dress with white lace that she purchased handmade from China, which fit her beautifully and was just so her. Another friend, with no relation to the first own, sewed her own dress from scratch in an emerald green fabric with black texture. Both wed in a park, and I’m sure both weddings were under $10k, if not $5k.

For the more traditional weddings I’ve attended, I’m unaware of the cost of the wedding dresses. The only one I know for sure is a good friend who got married in wine country. While she saved a lot of money on the overall wedding due to her industry connections (she’s a wedding florist), she spent about $3000 on her designer dress, which is a typical price for a lovely dress like that. But knowing that somehow makes me feel like it’s even more ok to spend that much money on a wedding dress, despite knowing that spending that much on a dress that can only be worn one day in one’s life is kind of, well, beyond rationality.

So I’m not sure what to do. This whole wedding thing is turning into a bit of a nightmare with a devil and angel sitting on my shoulders saying “splurge, girl, splurge!” and “save, bitch, save!” at the very same time. I’m trying to consider the overall wedding cost and the dress as part of this, as thinking of the dress as a “costume” and “entertainment” for the event makes it seem more appropriate to put that much money towards the dress as part of a $30k-$50k one-night-only production staring yours truly and her BFF, tying the knot in wedding bliss and banter for eternity.

How much did you (or your wife or your friend’s) spend on their wedding dresses? What do you think is a reasonable cost to spend on a wedding dress without being “too cheap” for the big day?

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3 comments

  1. Mr. A says:

    Considering you write the Her Every Cents Count blog… and I assume that is a big part of you as a person, you should stay true to yourself and find a way that brings that out in you. I’d say 2-5k is too much. Find a way for under $1500. I’ve seen great dresses for $600-800. Find a unique way, whether it be a certain shopping store or method, changing from a conventional dress, etc.

  2. Henrietta Schermeier says:

    I spent $2k on my dress. And our wedding cost a little over $40k and had 150 people, but we did it up in Tahoe – didn’t really make things much cheaper though. $5k is a lot, but in the grand scheme of life, you’re only gonna do this once and the memories and pictures are something you will look back upon forever and when you have kids.

  3. Mrs. PoP says:

    Every time we hear friends stressing over wedding planning, we always mention that it doesn’t have to be that way. We very happily eloped while on vacation, and were wedded by a catamaran captain on a private snorkel/sunset cruise in the Gulf of California. All the costs were less than $250. My dress was a $35 sundress (white with gold accents from the Loft Outlet) and I still wear it at least once per year. It’s a nice reminder of our wedding day, but also a good use of the dress since 1 time wear items are so wasteful!

    My $0.02: If you want a big expensive wedding and a big expensive wedding dress, have it! But know that the stress and craziness was your choice (as a couple) and own that decision – because it really doesn’t have to be that complicated.

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