wedding dress selections

Shop for Your Wedding Dress Like a Software Engineer

I work for a software company, and regularly we ask, “What customer problems are we trying to solve?” Since I am the target customer in this exercise, and the wedding dress is my solution, let’s take an Agile approach here:

Customer Problems:
– I don’t have a wedding dress.
– I’m a 4 on top and a 10 on the bottom (small boobs, great booty).
– It may be as hot as 90 degrees with 100% humidity.

User Story: I am an off-beat bride and need a wedding dress that will make me feel beautiful without killing me in the Florida heat.

– allows legs to breathe
– suits my back tattoo
– is lightweight
– takes advantage of breeze with flowing fabric
– will not fall off me (small boobs)
– is not super traditional
– feels nice to the touch (lace looks nicer than it feels)
– $3000 or less

Stretch Goals:
– No bra needed
– Shows off my legs (for the husband-to-be)

Online Research: Unsure of what I would actually like versus what will actually look good on me, I turned to Pinterest for guidance. Creating my first EVER wedding board (I freaked out about this), I dug into visual searches for anything and everything that struck my fancy.

Three patterns emerged: Romanesque, High-Low, and Pin-Up

My casual or going-out fashion choices usually fit into these three categories, and while this wasn’t much of a surprise, I’ve learned not to trust how clothing looks on a model or hanger for that matter. I must therefore seek them out in person and prepare for the almighty sweat-laden try-on-athon.

Shop Early, Stress Less: As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not a typical woman when it comes to all things wedding, and I’m also one to keep “big deal things” to myself for fear of unwanted and opinionated crowd sourcing. In the instance of shopping for The Dress, most women take their mothers and a bridesmaid or three. My mom lives in Florida and I wasn’t sure if we were going to even have a bridal party, but I did know that it was nearing July and bridal dresses can take up to 6 months to come in or more (our wedding was to be in the beginning of May). Additionally, I’m an avid TJMaxx-onista/Marshalls shopper who has been burned by the need to find a specific item in a sea of mediocre choices. If I was to find THE ONE, it would take more time and patience than standard fashion expeditions. So, my mantra was: Screw it — let’s get on it and get it out of the way. There are plenty of other details to stress about!

I did some local research, mostly on Yelp, to find the best shops (for my very specific taste) in the Boston area. I talked with one of my closest and most fashion-forward friends about the challenges I was facing and asked her to join me on this journey to the ivory aisles.

I made appointments at two major shops on a sticky July morning. (The weather was felicitous, simulating the heat and humidity of our location quite well.) We met up for brunch and had ourselves a mimosa for strategic nerve-removal on my part (I’d never done this before, never thought I would, nor had I ever been in anyone’s wedding). I prepared for this all week, and with a little help from Agile, I created a…

Definition of Ready:
– Shave ALL THE THINGS (a courtesy due to an assumption that friend and the shop attendants would see most of me)
– Pasties on aforementioned small boobs (thank you Target)
– Beige thong that flatters (not too tight, not too loose, hides well under white fabric)
– A sassy satchel filled with: Strapless padded bra (when in need of bigger boobs), a pair of heels at my desired height (2 inches and under), deodorant, my phone with a cleared camera roll cache for taking try-on pics.
– Hair in a similar style to how I envision it (mermaid/fishtail braid off to one side)
– Earrings in envisioned style (dangley in this case)

I was grateful for the above preparation because the following things actually happened:
– I basically was naked with friend and attendants in very small spaces.
– They have shoes there, but I’m not going to wear a 4″ spiked heel! Not realistic ladies. I was glad to have my 1.5″ sandal for reference.
– Testing dresses after walking in the heat of July was the key to knocking off heavy satin, full length, and mermaid gowns without a question in my mind. “They just zipped me up and I’m overheating… this is a definite no.”
– Photos of the try-on-athon were especially impactful thanks to my hair style and earrings; I could see myself in my future photos.

Other things they don’t tell you about wedding dress shopping:

  • Be prepared to allow the dress shop attendants to do their thing. If they’re good, they understand it’s not about price, it’s about finding a style and shape that fits you. You may initially feel like they’re not listening, but the attendant will make sure you try on any and nearly all applicable options.
  • That said, speak up and ask for what you REALLY want. I had to dig around for some courage to ask, “Can I try on some of your bridesmaid dresses? None of the traditional gowns are working for me.” It sounded so crazy in my head, but made sense after reminding the shop that this was for a destination wedding.
  • Some shops have bustiers and other types of “upper management systems” at the ready. Alfred Angelo snapped the hook and eyes of a full coverage bustier before dresses were even brought to me. I was honestly shocked! But I chose to ride that wave for the whole experience in the store, and in turn ordered one for my big day. I would have never known had they not stuffed me into one of those things.

back of wedding dress with binder clips

Hair in braids. Earrings dangling. Giant binder clips for the sizing win!

  • Since dress purchases are non-refundable, you want to feel confident in what you order. You should see that dress on your person and say, “I can stare at photos of me in this for the rest of my life.” Therefore, when making appointments to visit a dress shop, ask if they have “real sizes to try on.” We ran into this issue at Vera Wang. If you’re a size 2 and under, you can try on all the dresses you want! Otherwise hold the dresses against yourself, curiously gaze in a mirror, and wonder what it might look like on your body. I attempted to step into one gown, but my size 10 hips wouldn’t allow it, and so we left the store within 5 minutes of arriving. On the other hand, Flair Brides & Maids has larger sizes for all their gowns and bridesmaid dresses, and uses GIANT binder clips to cinch the gowns in the back to show the future fit (see above). This not only made me feel far less fat (thanks Vera), it gave me confidence in the store as well as my future purchase.

Speaking of stores, here’s a run down of all the stores I visited, the experience of the staff and atmosphere, as well as the quality of workmanship for the gowns offered:

Store Experience: Beautiful hall of dresses, but intimidating. Staff member was sweet but did not understand why it was such a big deal that I could not actually try on any of the dresses.
Staff Experience: Very sweet, but terribly foreign girl (incredibly strong accent with little English speaking ability).
Wedding Dress Experience:
Incredible works of sewn art, but sizes of samples were too small for trying on.

wedding dress choice number 1

Store Experience: Approachable, upscale home-like vibe. Did not make me feel out of place or that I did not belong. Very welcoming!
Staff Experience: Jamie was awesome, hands down. Listened, gave great advice, and did not push to purchase right away. Flexible and down to earth.
Dress Experience: The workmanship of the dresses offered was fabulous. Tons of colors, styles, and sizes that could fit just about any bride. I bought my ceremony dress from Flair; a lightweight bridesmaid dress from The Dessy Collection line.

Store Experience: The rumors are true — it was kind of a shit show. Older construction, slightly warehousey vibe, and aged carpet with dust bunnies and stains from the years. The dressing room was akin to a hall of mirrors with Sad Eeyore Gray for accents.
Staff Experience: While each bride had a dedicated staff person, you were shit out of luck if you hadn’t done any research on their website and written down the item number. I was left to my own devices to search through their numbered racks to find what I was looking for. And when it came down to writing up items that seemed promising, there was pressure to purchase, in a Bob’s Discount Furniture kind of way.
Wedding Dress Experience: As an amateur tailor and avid quilter I can tell you this with confidence: DON’T BUY ANYTHING. Every dress I tried on felt like it would have been better made if it came from Deb or Fashion Bug. Craptastic linings, loose finishing stitches and seams all made me wonder if this one day dress would last a few hours.

wedding dress choice number 2

Store Experience: I was hesitant considering my experience at David’s but I have to say, Alfred Angelo really surprised me. Inviting store atmosphere that while not as at-home as Flair, but they really encouraged you to explore and dare to try dresses you may not have otherwise.
Staff Experience: The gal who helped me in the dressing room didn’t listen at first. She popped me into that bustier and had me in three poofy princess gowns within ten minutes. They had just launched a new Fairy Tale Wedding line so perhaps she needed to do this to meet a store quota, but either way, this was absolutely NOT what this off-beat bride was into.
Dress Experience: All the dresses I tried that day were of fine construction and seemed very well made. After gathering up a handful of bridesmaid gowns, we finally narrowed things down. And, I ended up ordering a short and breezy dress for the welcome reception (see above).

Online Wedding & Bridesmaid Dress Stores

Online Store Experience: Pretty standard e-commerce experience. I was surprised how many dresses had limited colors whereas others had tons. Return policy was also super friendly and was put to the test.
Dress Experience: I’m sad to say that the construction was sub-par for the styles I ordered. Near David’s Bridal quality.

Online Store Experience: This site is hooked up when it comes to introductory user experience. They help you dive right in to colors, styles, and lengths and give not only a large variety of color options BUT real life photos from other customers. I was super impressed by that last point because of my distrust in photos of dresses versus on real people.
Dress Experience: I didn’t end up ordering from these lovely people but I have shared the link with lots of others because the online experience was so damn good. They also sell some of the same brands as other places including the designers that Flair offered.

wedding dress choice number 3

Online Store Experience: Classy, simple Ann Taylor. Easy to navigate and a limited offering that does not overwhelm. By the time I landed on Ann Taylor’s website, I was at a level of shopping anxiety that I assume all brides encounter after two months of non-stop searching. I was therefore intensely grateful for the small selection of gowns available and found an amazing second dress option!
Dress Experience: Ann Taylor’s dresses are made like iron. There are secret panels with adjustable bust cinchers, extra hook and eye enclosures to ensure a secure fit, and functional linings that feel lovely on the skin. It takes some serious time to make these dresses and I have always had such respect for their construction.

And now for the Great Dress Conundrum: WHICH DRESS?!

Flair and Ann Taylor were at war with each other in my mind. The floor length ceremony dress was perfect for walking down the aisle with my father and conservative enough for me to dance with him as well. The short sparkly number from Ann Taylor embodied my personality and really showed off my legs in an amazing way. One was best for dad, the other best for husband. WHICH DO I CHOOSE?!

I was texting back and forth with one of the bridesmaids about the insurmountable pressure of this decision. “Do both. I’ve been to lots of weddings where brides change into something different for the reception.”

Jenn, you are a genius.


The more I thought about it this made a ton of sense. The Ann Taylor dress was very much a “night dress”, reflecting the lights hung between the trees and around the resort, and the flowy floor length option would be far better suited for daytime photos.

I’m doing this marriage thing once, and I’m under budget with nearly every one flying in from the bridesmaid category, so why not buy multiple dresses? BUY ALL THE DRESSES!

And here is the final Wedding Dress Round-up:
1) Welcome Reception (night before the big day): Alfred Angelo
2) Ceremony: Flair/Dessy Collection
3) Dinner & Dancing Reception: Ann Taylor

In Conclusion:

  1. Understand your problems and potential solutions. Outline what your personal requirements are for happiness, style, weather, and sex appeal.
  2. Rock your online research with the help of things like Pinterest.
  3. Acknowledge and honor the patterns that emerge. It means something!
  4. Shop early, like 9 months ahead early, so you have time to find the perfect dress when it doesn’t find you.
  5. Establish your Definition of Ready for shopping day. Make a to-do list with all the items and actions to prepare for an intense day of wedding dress shopping. Remember: SHAVE ALL THE THINGS (just in case)
  6. Speak up and tell them what you want.
  7. But be sure to listen too and ride the wave of service — you may learn great lessons for the big day!
  8. If you can’t decide between two dresses, chances are you can have your cake and eat it too. Ask for a second opinion with your closest friends. Because, if your wallet is happy, if your family is happy, if your husband-to-be will be happy, AND if you are happy, DO IT! GET ALL THE DRESSES.

wedding dress selection in action

Welcome Reception Dress by Alfred Angelo, Ceremony Dress by Dessy Collection, Dinner Reception Dress by Ann Taylor. Photos by Sandra Costello.

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