Wedding Dress Shopping: What I Learned In My Search For 'The One'

Wedding Dress Shopping: What I Learned In My Search For 'The One'
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It's the first thing you think about when planning a wedding, but when it comes to finding the right bridal gown even the best shoppers need a little help. Features writer Lucy Pavia tells us what she learned in the hunt for her own wedding dress.

‘Miz Parrrvia,’ a boutique assistant purred at my very first bridal appointment. ‘Shall we try you first in the Rebecca and then maybe move on to the Elise?’

Is it just me or are all wedding dresses named after girls you went to school with? I don’t know who decided this, but in my six-month hunt for 'The One' I’ve been through Elizabeths, Sophias, Georgias, Hannahs (though no one ever invited me to try on a Pam). My final choice? A lovely little lady called Rachelle, who I wore when my wedding day finally arrived on the 2nd May this year.

Finding Rachelle was not straight-forward. The search for a wedding dress is surely one of the most emotional, surreal, fun and expensive shopping trips you will ever have. A time when logic flies out of the window and it seems perfectly reasonable to spend thousands of pounds (the average wedding dress costs £1,400) on something you’ll wear for no more than 12 hours. It is also one of the few times you’ll have something made especially for you. It is the ordinary woman’s red-carpet moment. When I interviewed Emma Stone, she described the process of creating the bespoke Calvin Klein dress she wore to the Golden Globes as ‘the closest thing to choosing a wedding dress I can think of’. Celebrities might get to do this sort of thing every time awards season rolls around, but for the rest of us there’s only one shot – or eight if you’re Elizabeth Taylor – at getting it just right.

I got engaged to Will in May last year and enjoyed a blissful, champagne-soaked month before I started to think about what I was going to wear. Like a lot of brides, I came to the process with a list of ‘absolutely nots’: no strapless, no sequins, nothing full-skirted. I also had a Pinterest mood board filled with lacy Valentino couture and frothy Marchesas. ‘Don’t rule anything out,’ said my married friends. ‘You don’t know how something will look until it’s on.’ I agree, though the one strapless dress I did try 
on made me look like a blancmange stuffed into a tube. Sometimes it’s best to go with your instincts.

My first appointment happened quite spontaneously at a boutique in Edinburgh when I was visiting a friend. I was hungover and could not have felt any less bridal, but we were passing and they happened to have an appointment. I never got one so easily after that – word to the wise to anyone getting married, it is easier to get a private audience with Barack Obama than a last-minute Saturday bridal appointment in London. One woman actually tittered down the phone when I rang on a Friday, ‘The earliest slot we have is in six weeks.’   

Lucy in Jenny Packham

Starting off in a boutique that stocked a mix of styles was a good way to taste test a few designers at once and whittle down what I was looking for. I also discovered there’s a reason why most women don’t end up in one of those slinky, satin 20s numbers, which look so good on the models in bridal magazines – they tend to demand the wearer has matching slinky proportions and Margherita Missoni colouring. I also broke the no-big-skirts rule early with a puffy-sleeved number in a Kensington boutique. Sweeping around the shop in it, I finally understood why so many ladies go big. Those things are a LOT of fun to wear.

When you’re trying on six dresses in an hour-long appointment, the ‘no  photos’ rule can be quite annoying. A friend who works in the bridal world tells me it’s from the days pre-internet, when women used to take photos for dressmakers to copy on the cheap. But now, when detailed pictures of the dresses are all online, isn’t it a little pointless? Designers with successful mainline as well as bridal collections are the ones who understand this. Alice Temperley and Jenny Packham both let me take as many pictures as I wanted and the atmosphere was more relaxed because of it – bonus points to Jenny Packham for the macaroons and cucumber coolers. Similarly, laid-back designers like Belle & Bunty take the view that if someone really likes your design then they’ll buy your version, not a copy.  

Lucy in Belle and Bunty (above and top)

I felt the most out of place at the traditional, upmarket bridal boutiques. I had a Pretty Woman moment in a Kensington one, when I pointed to a dress and asked if I could try it on. ‘You know that is one of our more expensive styles, don’t you?’ the assistant sniffed. Obviously I responded with a cutting Julia Roberts put-down (later that day, in my head).  

Budget-wise, I didn’t feel comfortable spending much over £2,000. Some places tried to be flexible about the price, which at times felt more like buying a used car. When I accompanied a friend to one boutique she was told, ‘You can take the dress for £2,449, but we’d need a deposit by 4pm today.’ When she told them she wanted to bring her mum back on another day to see it, the shop assistant replied, ‘Can’t you just Skype her now?’

With a lot of money to be spent, there are subtle tricks shops employ to make you feel good in your dress: soft lighting, slimming mirrors and what I’ve dubbed ‘the box of lies’ – the little plinth you stand on while someone fluffs the skirts around you. ‘Don’t I look tall and slim in this!’ you think, forgetting it’s because you’ve been given the proportions of a supermodel.

A lot of people said I’d know ‘my’ dress the second I tried it on. This wasn’t the case with me. I tried on ‘The One’ in my second appointment – a French lace-topped, high-neck dress by Katya Shehurina, and for some reason ruled it out. When I went back for a second time it was to try on something else, but I threw in the Rachelle last minute as a ‘why not’.

When I emerged from the changing room, something just clicked. I could see myself in it on the day, could picture the tulle skirt sweeping across the grass of my parents’ garden, how I would have my hair, even what flowers would go with it. I mentally – and physically – breathed out. My mum and sister, sitting on a sofa in front of me, looked at each other and nodded.  
I asked to try it with a veil – bride speak for ‘I want to buy this dress’.

A final thing to remember: when it comes to wedding dresses, people are full of opinions – some useful, some not. Early on in the process I showed a picture of a dress I liked to a friend. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I pictured you in something totally different – that’s too fussy to me.’ I never asked her to a fitting. While you do need honest feedback,  you don’t want to be pressurised into wearing something someone else thinks looks best. As my friend Antonia pointed out: ‘People may be opinionated when you’re shopping for the dress, but no one ever looked at a woman on her wedding day and thought: “That would look better with slightly longer sleeves.” A bride is a bride.’ 

The final choice: Lucy on her wedding day to Will in May this year, wearing Katya Shehurina and Jimmy Choo

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