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While I believe that bridal & formal store chains have their value, it has been my personal experience that there are many things they won’t tell you or explain to you until it is too late. This means you will need to know enough on your own to work “around” them.
Over the years, after examining & fitting so many wedding & bridesmaid dresses from chain stores, I have made an interesting observation – one that almost always guarantees the customer will need alterations. The sales clerks will convince you that you need a dress at least one size bigger than you actually do. When they determine your size, they only measure bust, waist, and hips. Then they refer to a size chart that shows the standard body measurements that are used by the company to make the dresses they carry in the store. In most cases, your bust & waist measurements will fall into one size, while your hips will be in the next size or two up. So you are told to order the size that fits your hips, since “you can always have the rest taken in.”
Unless the skirt is a form-fitting pencil style, the hips should not determine the size you order. It is always best to use your bust measurement when ordering your size because it’s the part of the dress with the most fit. Formal dresses typically have extra-large seam allowances, and can be let out an inch or two if there is an area that fits a little too tightly – provided there is no beadwork in the area that needs to be let out. Straps and hems almost always need to be shortened no matter how well the rest of the dress fits. (And if the sample you’re trying on fits, don’t let anyone convince you to buy a bigger size!)
I consulted with one bride who had tried on a spaghetti-strap dress at a chain store and it fit her almost perfectly. Then they measured her and told her she needed one size larger according to her measurements. She questioned them about it since the sample had fit so well. They told her the sample was probably “stretched-out” from being tried on by so many people.
Trusting their advice, she ultimately had them order the larger size, and it wound up being about two sizes too big in the bust – the only part of the dress that was supposed to be tight! She didn’t learn how expensive the alterations would be until she had paid for the dress, and then it couldn’t be returned or exchanged.
She learned that many of the clerks at chain stores do not know much about the construction of dresses and are only following the company procedures when helping you choose your size. Unfortunately for you, this almost always guarantees the store makes a profit from alterations in addition to the sale. By the time you have your heart set on your dream dress, you have to be willing to pay for the necessary alterations – which can often cost as much as the gown itself.
I was like many a bride-to-be and did not know what style gown I wanted to wear on the Big Day. I decided to go to a chain store, but only because there was no charge to try on dresses. I had a general list of styles I knew I did not want, so I suspected many of the dresses I took into the fitting room probably wouldn’t thrill me. Because I am so small, all of the dresses available were one size too large. So I knew that no matter what, any dress would require alterations.
The night I tried on wedding gowns was during the week, so it was a very light customer night with only one other betrothed in the store with me. The sales floor associate would only pause for a few seconds to tell me that I looked “beautiful” each time I emerged in a new dress to consult the mirror. It seemed she was only out to make a sale and really didn’t care which one I chose. A few times I tried to tell her why a style was “wrong” for my body, at which she would disagree with a quizzical look on her face. She apparently had little to no training on how to dress different body-types.
After analyzing the different dress styles on my body, I was able to decide which looked best on me. While the cut & silhouette of the off-the-rack dress was great – despite being too big on me – there were other things I didn’t like about it. Mainly, the cheap, scratchy tulle (or net) on the outside felt horrible when I put my arms down at my sides. I also noticed many of the fake pearl beads covering the bodice & scattered over the rest of the dress were loose – I had already seen a few roll away as I stood there. The dress had not even left the store and it was already losing beads! The materials were cheap, and the machine-sewn beadwork was poorly done.
There was only one thing I could do. I decided to make my own dress in the same style, but with a sheer organza overlay instead of scratchy tulle, and with prettier & more secure hand-sewn beadwork. It fit me perfectly, and it was the first of many other wedding dresses I have constructed. I also made my veil.
After learning of the plight of so many women in their dealings with bridal chain stores, I realized there were many who would appreciate all that is a custom dress.