Wedding Dress Shopping: A Love Letter to the Bridal Industry

Putting the lack of ethnic diversity issue to one side for a moment,  I’ve seen a side to the wedding industry I hadn’t seen before and I can’t say I am a fan.

Now, I’m not naive. I went through the bridal shopping experience myself and it was nothing like the movies, or those reality wedding shows that like to grace our screens. My mum didn’t cry, neither did I and after about 50 dresses later I wanted to throw in the towel. lol! Luckily I didn’t and found my dress at brilliant BOA Boutique, which made up for all the prior bizarre ongoings and despair previously.

What I can say is this, the wedding dress experience is not the same for everyone.

Sometimes its magical, sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes its great fun, others times disappointing. Sometimes it brings out a number of insecurities, but more recently I’m hearing it’s pretty poor and worst still,  soul-destroying for some and that to me is completely unacceptable.

I recorded an episode for Bridechlla Podcast which highlights a few more terrors.

A newlywed contacted me recounting being a size 12 and being made to feel like a hippo when she started her dress search, standing half-naked in the boutique because she wasn’t able to do the zip up and being pushed to make a decision on a dress she couldn’t even get past her hips.

More wedding dress disappointments if you don’t conform to the standard sample dress size were also highlighted with a real bride on Smashing the Glass!

Lorena San JoseLorena San Jose

A friend, due to marry next week, contacted me in a state left without a wedding dress due to the company going into liquidation and not having the decency to contact brides with outstanding orders to let them know they would not be able to fulfil their orders.

And then take my lovely cousin for instance.

Her planning was all plain sailing until 5 weeks before she was due to get married, she went to pick up her wedding dress from someone who claimed to be a couture designer…

It was a disaster.

So many mistakes. The wrong colour, it didn’t fit, one cup was bigger than the other. Yellow instead of ivory. Cheap lace. No structure. No toile fittings,  dress made in China.

Hideous. But that’s a whole other article.

Needless to say, my cousins experience left her in bits and with an unfinished dress just 5 weeks away from the wedding, in a real panic and had to start her search from scratch.

So I stepped in to do what I could to help…

Four weeks before your wedding day in the middle of peak season and starting your dress search from scratch, is nowhere near ideal. Especially as we soon learned if you are a gorgeous curvy size 14 with shapely hips and generous boobs! Unless a designer is able to work exceptionally quickly, your only real options are to buy something off the peg, so I soon discovered this limits your choices even further. My cousin had a solid idea of the dress she wanted which is why she originally wanted a bespoke design. However, she found a potential dress online she loved the look of and with that in mind, I specifically searched for bridal boutiques who stocked this particular designer.

Jay&James060Victoria Mitchell Photography

Now it’s worth mentioning again, my cousin is a size 14. The AVERAGE size of a UK woman. Even so, because I knew we were looking for a particular design, I called the boutique which until then, I hadn’t heard of. I gave them her measurements and asked them to confirm if they had a number of designs to try on in the boutique. They said “absolutely YES come on in, we are sure we can help”.

So when we entered their London boutique, with an extensive array of dresses on display, we were hopeful. But it didn’t take long to realise  they didn’t have one single dress in a size for her to try on. I was a little perplexed. Especially after the “absolutely yes” comment.

I sat in horror as I watched them try to squeeze her gorgeous curvaceous body into a size 10 sample dress. Why on earth were they doing this??

It then got worse.

When they realised they didn’t have a single dress in their entire store for her to try on, they then made her stand half-naked in a dressing room with a dress held up against her body and proceeded to tell her how gorgeous it was and that they could order one in her nearest size… but she would have to pay for it in full, NOW.

I’m sorry, what?

I watched in amazement and utter embarrassment. I had taken my cousin to this boutique. I felt 100% responsible for what was unfolding. Had I have known they would treat her in this way, I would never have taken her.

This “stand and hold the dress up against your body” tactic reduced my cousin to tears, so much so she seriously contemplated buying a smaller size and going on a liquid diet in an attempt to fast and fit into it in a few weeks time.

sarah&wayne-weddingLR-0033Fiona Kelly Photography

That I found totally unacceptable.

1. Because she is gorgeous and one of the things she wanted to do was show off her beautiful curvaceous figure.

2. Because one of the things her husband loves about her is her curves!

What a sad state of affairs that this size-ism indirectly or otherwise, exists within our industry and it is contributing to women feeling their size is inadequate. It’s no wonder we have problems with bridalrexia and a multitude of weight loss hashtags like #sheddingforthewedding continuing to pop up.

After this boutique experience, I made so many phone-calls and social media callouts thereafter to try to find other boutiques and we kept stumbling across the same hurdle;

“Yes we’d love to help, lets book an appointment”

Quickly turned into,

“Sorry we don’t actually have any sample dresses to try on above a size 10/12”.

Being a skinny mini, I guess I have always taken it for granted that I would be able to have a basic need met; to be able to try on a garment before purchasing it. ESPECIALLY a wedding dress. Yes on the flip side, the wedding dresses were falling off of me, so they ALWAYS  had to use bull-dog clips to secure me, meaning I had a nice Quasimodo effect going on at the back, but at least I could get the bloody thing on to gauge some form of an idea as to whether the style suited me or not.

But if you can’t even try a dress on?

Wedding-Photography-Cain-Manor-Hertfordshire-Photographer-116Babb Photo

I mentioned earlier, at the start, I had a pretty underwhelming wedding dress shopping experience. Being put into dresses that did not suit my body shape, purely for the purposes of trying to push a designer that needed selling.

Being asked to wear gloves as if I was some kind of dirty fiend.

Not being allowed to look or choose the dresses I wanted as they were all in plastic sleeves and having styles picked out for me.

To pushy and uninviting sales calls.

One sales assistant felt the need to offer unwanted advice whilst standing in the dressing room with me, with nothing but my underwear. She told me I was too skinny and would need to put weight on. Well gee, thank you my love. I didn’t take her lack of common decency to heart, instead let my feet and mouth do the talking, that boutique in particular I am happy to say not long after closed down.

The point is, my experience was not isolated and I am hearing from more and more people who are still having a less than positive experiences wedding dress shopping, 4.5 years later.

I know the ‘holding the dress up in front of you’ sales technique is not isolated to this particular bridal boutique my cousin and I visited either. I discovered through colleagues the lack of diverse sizes may be due to the fact that for a boutique to buy a smaller sample size from a designer, it may cost them considerably less than buying a size 18 for example. OR more commonly, simply not feeling like they can afford to invest in a number of designs in a variety of sizes.

I understand the barriers and potential financial business constraints, but regardless, it does not feel good being part of an industry that can make women feel so inadequate about their body shape.

So how do we move forward? How do we improve this little situation?

Look_01Jenny Packham

I thought we were taking a positive leap forward, when Jenny Packham rocked her 2014 catwalk show and included plus-sized (and ethnic diverse) models. I hoped it would be repeated and also catch on with other designers. Sadly it didn’t and here I am 2016 writing yet another blog post about the lack of inclusive diversity in the industry.

I opened up this conversation on social and it was like Pandora’s box. So many stories of others having poor experiences; from sales assistants either with no tact, or just a real difficulty getting wedding / bridesmaids sample dresses to fit both curvy and petite women and feeling humiliated in public.

Some also recounting that this happened 15 years ago when they were getting married. So why have we not moved further forward?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand there are many intricate layers of running a mainstream business. We cannot always include everyone, let’s be realistic, that’s not what the mainstream is for. Plus if purchasing a designer sample dress in a larger size truly does come at a premium in comparison to smaller sizes, then of course that adds another unhelpful dimension. However, weddings are universal and everyone has the right to be able to try on a wedding dress / outfit and not be labelled as plus size when they really are far from it.  Of course it is impossible to accommodate every dress size on the rack in every boutique, but, at the bare minimum shouldn’t we be able to accommodate for the average size woman in the UK?

danaechris0212Burks Photography

It also poses the question, do boutique owners and sales consultants need to be mindful of the fact that not everyone is confident about their body shape and image? Do we need to think more about the psychology of buying a wedding dress. About our role in this? About the overall experience. About hiring staff who are able to deploy some level of tact and thinking about the language we choose and how we communicate with brides who don’t currently fit into a standard size dress? Do we need to be respectfully managing expectations before an appointment to avoid disappointment or during a shopping experience itself? Absolutely yes! If it means we are not contributing to making  gorgeous women feel like they are inadequate, when they are not.

Beatrici PhotographyBeatrici Photography | My gorgeous cousin Rochelle and handsome hubby Kyle

To end on a positive,  so I’m happy to say, thanks to the power of the internet, some resilience and my industry friends; my cousin did find another dress that she felt gorgeous in and that she did not have to diet for! So many designer friends and boutiques bent over backwards to offer to help (including Ritva Westenius, Ian Stuart, BOA Boutique, Rita Colson, Olga Andersen, Courtyard Bridal, Kate Edmondson and many, many more) to swoop into the rescue and redeem the bridal industries reputation. Their kindness put a huge smile on my cousins face and mine also.

After my amazing cousin Nova swooping to the rescue, we did face some unexpected problems! But I cannot thank the staff at the shops at Ian stuart bridal (if a woman wants to feel like a special bride definitely visit this shop) and Ritva Westenius absolute dream designer! I wish I had contacted her sooner after the supposed bespoke dressmaker i went to royally cocked up! But its true when buying a wedding dress the experience of finding “the” dress sometimes isn’t the dream experience you expect” Rochelle

So how do we forward? How do we improve this little situation and make the wedding dress shopping experience far more positive and inclusive for women of a wider range of body shapes?

To all my colleagues in boutiques and designers who are already doing a great job to be inclusive where possible, who are mindful and respectful, giving women a positive shopping experience, popping the champagne, making sure brides have their modesty before bringing them onto a shop floor, ensuring dresses in stock are in a wide variety of sizes, and ultimately making your customers feel like human beings rather than a commodity, I salute you and I truly hope more will follow in your footsteps!

I would love to hear more from both boutiques and brides about your experiences!

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11 Responses to “Wedding Dress Shopping: A Love Letter to the Bridal Industry”

  1. Julie Michaelsen Photography
    August 22, 2016 at 9:58 am #

    Hi Nova,
    Thank you for writing about this, I was shocked at how badly a lot of bridal shops treated me when I started looking. I decided that going forward I would call the stores before going in, telling them exactly which dresses I wanted to try on (sometimes they get sent out to shoots and then you can’t try them on!) and that if any of my chosen dresses where smaller than a 10/12 I wouldn’t be trying them on. I saw this as their loss of a sale, not my problem just their bad foresight and business planning….

    • Nu Bride
      August 22, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

      Julie I am gutted to hear you’ve had a negative experience wedding dress shopping. But as you can see you are not alone. It it such a great shame especially when some boutiques are out their doing great jobs, it can such a poor taste in your mouth, and in an ideal world you shouldn’t have to “ring” ahead. Really hope things improve for you and that you get to experience some of the great boutiques out there doing a good job! Let me know if you would like any recommendations!

  2. Laura Daly
    August 22, 2016 at 12:47 pm #

    Hello Nova – what an interesting article. Your poor cousin really sounds like she had some bad luck there! What a pity she got ripped off by a Chinese copy merchant – there’s far more about than you’d think – and so sad for us ‘proper shops’ when we have to pick up the pieces and try to find a dress at short notice for a distraught bride???? Of course I can’t speak for every shop in the UK as each shop will buy for their target market – or buy sizes and styles that their designers do the best – but I do know that statistically more size 14 samples are purchased by us shops than any other size . If you think about it logically – we are in the business of selling dresses and trying to pay the wages and bills – so why would we purposefully only buy things that customers couldn’t try on! Part of the problem may be that even tho’ there are are hundreds of different labels out catering to all shapes and sizes – sometimes not enough research is done by the customer ( and yes also not enough info always provided by some shops) before booking appointments to make sure that there’s a good shop/customer match – I totally agree with the comment above – call up and ask what the shop has – if they haven’t got what you’d like to see move on! I do need to say something about size tho’ – a size 14 is smaller than you think! We’re not talking about a high street size in a stretchy pair of leggings – we are talking about fitted boned corseted gowns with little or no give – if you call a shop and ask ‘ do you have plenty of 14’s’ the answer will be ‘ yes we do’ – but if really you need an 18 or a 20 then the answer won’t necessarily be the same. Some designers and styles don’t work as well in a larger size and some work a hell of a lot better – bridal gowns – their fit and their construction are on another planet.Smaller shops may well only cater to one type of customer or ‘look’ – but checking them out first should help identify if they are ‘you’ or not! Personally my shop carries a range of all sizes but I’m lucky enough to carry a large range of designers and I’ve got a bigger shop! If as a bride you’re in doubt about what size you are and don’t want to risk feeling uncomfortable – get the tape measure out and measure your bust waist and hip – on the widest points of all 3 – then when you call the shop up instead of asking for a specific to size – give them your measurements and ask if they have gowns to suit X go on friends recommendations, look at the shops website and FB – if you like the tone of their ‘voice’ and their designers and you liked them on the phone when you booked – you’ll be fine! Wedding dress shopping should be fun – and I honestly don’t know of one bridal shop owner who would knowingly want anything other than the best for their customers! X

    • Nu Bride
      August 22, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

      Laura. What a delight to hear from you!
      You are right, my cousin was very unlucky and lots of lessons were learned.
      You share some BRILLIANT advice, thank you.
      You’re right about an element of responsibility lying with the client to do their research AND the boutique to manage expectations. I agree, it’s not fair that decent boutiques are left to pick up the pieces for those falling short, and giving those who are doing a great job in the industry a bad name. It’s a shame the industry is not regulated in that sense, so we could all work to the same foundation of standards.

      I have always thought it makes no business sense to me to not cater for more, or at least to the average size of a UK woman, but in our experience and many recounting in this post and social media that doesn’t seem to be the case across the board which is a shame.
      You share some great advice too about sizing – I made a point of calling and giving my cousins actual measurements as soon as I had them, as I know a UK dress size on the high street does not translate in the same way as bridal. Nevertheless, sadly that didn’t stop us running into difficulty.
      Thank you again for you sound advice.
      Absolutely thrilled by your response and that you carry a range of sizes to suit a number of body shapes. Bravo. Thank YOU Laura!

  3. Maddy
    August 22, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

    Ooh you’ve got a good topic here lovely Nova. Sadly I had the same experience when I was shopping for my wedding dress 5 years ago. I’m a curvy size 14 and I was being stuffed into size 10 sample dresses and felt disgusting. A fairytale it was not! I tried a few different boutiques (including very well known ones which will go unnamed!) but sadly it was all the same. In the end I had a dress made to measure based on a designer dress I loved, and when the seamstress came to my home to fit it, I felt so much better about myself. I cannot fault this sort of service. All we want as brides, (as humans!) is love, care and attention. To have our needs met. I don’t think this should be such an issue and I find it weird that it is. Thanks for speaking up about it and hopefully your words will attract some worthy attention because it needs to be addressed!

    • Nu Bride
      August 24, 2016 at 10:19 pm #

      Thank you for sharing Maddy! I am sad to hear you also had a less than positive experience and truly hope by having a conversation to highlight some of the difficulties a number of women seem to face in this industry to this day, hopefully we can start improving the situation. Glad you had a dress made that you loved in the end and were treated like a human being and not a sales target. xx

  4. Jo/Joasis Photography
    August 24, 2016 at 9:18 pm #

    Excellent article. I think the issue with sizes is a serious one. It starts at difference between sizes at high street shops where size 12 in one is not nowhere near 12 at another. I feel very frustrated and hate shopping as it always bring my self esteem down. For brides this must be truly challenging experience! As you rightly said average size in the UK is 14 so each bridal should be stocked up on these!

  5. Nathalie - Buttercup Bus
    September 2, 2016 at 4:51 pm #

    Whilst it would be good to have a broader range of sizes in stock, perhaps an alternative to complement existing stock could be a “virtual” experience. There are magic mirrors often used in the photobooth industry which have retail programmes where garments can be digitally selected and worn in the mirror.
    Not the same as the real thing – but a credible option for smaller shops, to augment the wedding dress boutique experience….

  6. liz inigo jones
    September 7, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

    Brilliant piece – this is a truncated comment as I don’t want to be timed out again! it is such a shame that the wonder experience of choosing your wedding dress is reduced to a sad and sorry occasion so often BRAVO x

  7. Shay
    October 18, 2016 at 9:22 am #

    I could write pages on the sizing issue! I feel, with over 20 years pattern cutting experience and 17 yrs in bridal specifically, that the problem is at point of manufacture and then the communication of fit to the shops.

    They start at the pattern cutting table/computer with standard industry measurement, they then add ease or negative ease. During production they can allow for ‘human error’ some up to 1/2 inch either way. I know of an American label with nearly another inch! Vanity sizing huh?! The shops are often poorly aware of the relationship between the manufacturer/designers measurement chart and the actual dress. There’s often small print for ease/human error which can seem at times to have been ignored.

    A shop may well be ordering in size 14 samples across 5 different designers and they’ll all be slightly or wildly different! It’s difficult for the shops to police these sizing issues. I would recommmemd shops to measure their actual dresses and label accordingly. I feel that size labelling e.g. 10, 12 etc. Should be banned at point of retail in bridal and instead bust waist hip measurements put on labels by the shop or during quality control by production/quality control.

    If the bride, as your cousin did, measures these 3 points and the shops knew their dresses actual measurements a lot of the distress could be avoided.

    I design/manufacture a petite bridal collection, (another area not catered for) our dresses have bust waist and hip measurements on the swing tag :). Small steps but it only takes a few to do this and it’ll soon be the norm.

    • Nu Bride
      October 18, 2016 at 6:55 pm #

      Great feedback and refreshing to have a new perspective. Thank you so much for sharing Shay

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