Searching for The One

by Amy Chovan

Rachel Kress’ search for the perfect wedding dress started in central Illinois, but it didn’t end there. Having come up empty-handed locally, she traveled to Chicago and St. Louis before finding a classic, ivory Amsale gown with a high neck and crystal belt at a trunk show in the Windy City. Its clean lines and simple styling convinced Kress that she would still love it in 20 years. It was this experience that eventually led her to open her own bridal boutique right here in Peoria.

While Kress didn’t experience it herself, she thinks most brides expect to have an “emotional epiphany” when trying on the dress they’ll wear on their wedding day. “They’re looking for that wow factor. They want to put a dress on and just be blown away.” She attributes this to the TV shows and movies that emphasize the revolutionary moment brides-to-be have when they find The Dress. But for Kress, that moment never happened. She knew her dress was The One because she simply loved it.

Movie brides and celebrities have not only influenced the search for the perfect gown, but also what that gown should look like. In the 1970s and ‘80s, dresses were grand, with puffy sleeves—“very Princess Diana,” Kress remarked. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s brought beading and lots of crystal embellishments, and today, dresses are reverting to classic designs, but with a modern twist. Ball gowns are big, and lace is making a comeback. Jeannie Mulligan, a local seamstress who makes custom gowns and offers alteration services, cited Kate Middleton’s lacey stride down the aisle as one reason for this resurgence.

While some brides are tempted to take the Cinderella route, dressing up in gowns that completely transform them, Kress prefers a more classic approach. “I think on your wedding day, you should look like you, just a prettier you—a more dressed-up you.”

Finding The Dress
Most girls who go shopping for a bridal gown have an idea of what they’re looking for before even setting foot in a store. They’ve searched online, through magazines, and maybe even attended a bridal expo or two. And yet, nearly four out of five will walk down the aisle in something completely different from what they anticipated.

“A lot of girls have a vision of what they want by seeing a picture in a magazine, but until they put it on, they have no idea how the cut will fit their body, how the fabric will feel, or if the style of the dress fits the style of the wedding,” noted Sara O’Shea of Behind Every Bride and So Chic Events. “I’ve had brides who say they want something simple and ‘definitely not strapless’—and they end up with a huge, strapless ball gown with crystals and beading.” 

At Kress’ boutique, Cloud Nine, you’ll find classic gowns of silk, satin and lace—from little white dresses to ornate ball gowns. She said she usually knows exactly what type of dress will look great on each girl as soon as she walks in the door. From there, her job is to help the bride stay on track and, in the end, find the dress that’s her.

Janice Yoder of Adore Bridal and Specialty in Morton said that she and her staff are often able to pick which dress a girl will choose before she’s even seen it. The fact that they’ve seen every dress in the store on people—not just on hangers and in pictures—puts them at an advantage. And after getting to know each girl’s personality, it becomes easier to hone in on The Dress.

Adore dares to offer gowns other local shops won’t carry. You’ll find a black wedding dress in their window, and will soon see other non-traditional colors on their racks. “It’s about what looks best on you—with your skin, your hair,” she said. “You don’t have to wear a certain color because that’s what you’re supposed to wear.”

Other rules are being broken as well. While brides weren’t historically allowed to get married in a church with bare shoulders, policies have become more relaxed. Many churches now accept veils as shoulder coverage, and some even allow strapless dresses. Still, some cultures and religions continue to require modesty from brides, and both Cloud Nine and Adore Bridal can help with that.

Those brides in search of the wow factor often find it when the veil is placed upon their heads. “That makes them feel like this is actually happening,” explained Kress. “That’s usually when tears are shed, or she knows for sure that that’s her dress.” Another clue: if a bride-to-be “pets” a dress or dances in it, said Yoder, it’s a sure bet she’s found The One.

The Two-Dress Trend
Many of today’s brides go out in search of not only their bridal gown, but a second dress to change into for the reception. “The big Hollywood trend right now would be to have two dresses…which is not realistic for most people,” said Yoder. Not only is it unaffordable for most, but to Kress’ point, it may not be the best choice. “In my opinion, I don’t think you should do that, because who wants to take their wedding dress off?” she asked. “If you love it that much, you shouldn’t want to.” Both women suggest adding jewelry, a fun color, a belt or a headpiece to change up the look of a dress.

Kress also supports personalizing your bridal attire. “I see a lot of girls wanting to wear sneakers with their $5,000 dress.” One of her clients plans to walk down the aisle in Chuck Taylors; others will accessorize with feathers in their hair, or wear bright-red lipstick—something to really stand out. “I think you should have something that makes it different and unique,” said Kress. “Why not bring out your personality on your wedding day?”

Going Custom
When you can’t find the gown of your dreams in a store, you can call on someone like Mulligan, who makes custom gowns. She uses photographs of designer dresses as a foundation, altering the details to suit her clients’ needs. It used to be less expensive to order handmade dresses than to buy them from stores, but that’s no longer the case. These days, Mulligan says she even has trouble finding fabric for her dresses, especially lace. The woman who used to sell her fabric retired, and now she must buy her material from shops in Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

Need Some Advice?
Rachel Kress of Cloud Nine Bridal Boutique offers her advice to girls searching for their perfect wedding dress. Here are her top five tips:

  1. NEVER BRING AN ENTOURAGE. Stick to one person. If you have to bring someone else, bring someone who’s going to be very honest.
  2. THINK ABOUT LOOKING BACK. I wanted to be able to look back in 20 years and still love my dress as much as I did that day. Think about looking back in 20 years at your pictures and not saying, “Oh gosh, why did I go with that all-beaded dress that just wasn’t me?”
  3. GO PREPARED TO BUY. So many brides come in and say, “Oh I love this; it’s the one!” But they are scared to purchase it because they’re afraid they’ll find something better. Never second-guess yourself. Always go with your gut feeling. 
  4. STAY TRUE TO YOURSELF. Don’t try on dresses that aren’t you. 
  5. BUT, BE OPEN. Try on different dresses, because you never know what will spark your interest, especially when it comes to style.

Before she will even meet with potential clients, Mulligan insists they try on different styles at bridal stores. “I always ask them to go out and try on dresses first,” she said. “Picking something out of a magazine just doesn’t work if you haven’t tried that shape on to see what you like.” From there, she’ll talk with girls about shapes, colors, fabrics and styles, before getting to work.

Mulligan also alters dresses for the traditional bride who wants to wear her mother’s or grandmother’s gown. She altered her own mother’s wedding dress to fit herself, and then again when her sister wanted to wear the same dress for her wedding. She continues to offer the service, but says that not too many girls take that route today.
If you are going custom, Mulligan cautions that you consider your timing. “What I have trouble with is girls who come in too early and decide they’re going to go on one of those crash diets…and they lose weight, and they gain weight.”

Kress agreed. She knows that brides tend to lose a few pounds from all the stresses of wedding planning, but it’s more difficult when girls order a dress and then lose a lot of weight. Because the dresses at Cloud Nine are all made in the U.S., the designers are able to make a nearly custom dress for each girl. Rather than ordering a dress to fit someone’s biggest feature—requiring lots of alterations later—Kress’ designers tailor each dress to its owners’ specific measurements.

Whether you go store-bought or custom-made, both Kress and O’Shea advise brides to find their gowns before planning other elements of their wedding. “Your dress can really set the tone of your wedding,” said Kress, “so go with your dress before going with anything else.” O’Shea’s words of advice were nearly identical.

Kress and Yoder are both honest with brides about how dresses look on them. “I’ll never say to her, ‘This dress isn’t right for you,’” says Kress, “but I always try to make sure that she’s in the best possible style for her. It’s important to me that every bride looks really, really perfect.”

“Shopping for a bridal gown is unlike shopping for any other piece of apparel,” added O’Shea. “Not only is it an emotional purchase, it’s a monumental purchase—something you’ll always look back and reflect on.” Just be sure you begin your search as soon as possible, as dresses take between four and seven months to come in after placing your order. You could get lucky and have your dress in a week, but it’s better to be on the safe side and plan for a longer wait. a&s

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