May 27, 2009 -- You've found true love, you've got the ring, now you need the dress, but it's going to cost you!
"I was doing a bit of research and I can not believe the prices," she said.
Heather is afraid she'll have to spend upwards of $5,000 and that's not so unusual. According to about.com the average designer dress costs about $3,000 and Brides.com says the average cost of a wedding dress (designer and off-label) is $1,075.
But as a thrift-store fashionista, I noticed a trend: almost every consignment, second hand or thrift store I shopped at had a wedding dress on sale. Some were older, others were out of style, but I wanted to see if I could find a dress for our bride that came in at a tenth of her budget. I set out to find the sub-$500 wedding dress.
Tip: Give Yourself Plenty of Time
Over the course of a month I scoured the second hand shops in the San Francisco Bay area and that's my first tip; give yourself a lot of time. I also recommend taking a pad of post-it notes with your name and contact information written down and giving one to the clerks at each store in case a dress comes in.
I went to upscale consignment boutiques like Labels in Walnut Creek, I went to charity donation stores like Next to New, the Junior League's second-hand shop in San Francisco.
I went to Goodwill, the Salvation Army Thrift Town, Out of the Closet, Seconds To Go, Main Street Rags, and the Alta Bates Thrift shop in Oakland.
And that's another tip; don't limit your searches. People drop off and donate wedding dresses to all kinds of places in all kinds of neighborhoods. The first day you go out looking, go everywhere.
At two of the thrift shops I didn't see any dresses, but when I asked about them, I hit the jackpot. Wedding dresses are big and often difficult to arrange on a hanger, so stores often keep them off the floor. At one thrift store, they pointed me to an upstairs area where I found two dresses each priced at $20.
In the end I purchased seven dresses. The headliners are a never worn Vera Wang valued in the thousands that I got for $375, a Beautiful jewel encrusted Lazaro dress for $275, a Jim Hjelm off-white stunner for $108, and a no name dress with a gorgeous modern back that cost $20.
Tip: Don't Judge a Dress by its Condition
Many of the dresses I found had not been properly cleaned. Most of the stains were aggregated on the hems where shoe marks and dirt had discolored the dresses. I took them to Peninou cleaners in San Francisco, a dry cleaner that specializes in wedding dress cleaning.
Weddings are parties and party dresses get dirty. According to the dry-cleaning technicians at Peninou the good news is that dirt and most stains can be removed or minimized by a good cleaner. The basic guide- dirt comes out, but anything yellowed like food that's caramelized or perspiration is tough to clean.
Of the dresses I bought, five needed a good hem cleaning, and one had perspiration stains in the arm pits. All seven were cleanable with the perspiration dress needing an alteration to cut out the stains and remake the arm holes; an alteration that would cost about $100.
Wedding dress expert and seamstress Lynn Gallagher of Wee Scotty in San Francisco helped Heather with her fitting.
First we looked at the simple Jim Hjelm dresser. It fits Heather well, and it only needs moderate alterations.
Lynn explains how to budget for alterations, "Minor alterations like taking a dress in slightly, altering the hem, or adjusting straps can cost $200-$300. But you would probably also have to do that with a dress you bought new. It's a part of the process."
Lynn suggests a subtle alteration for the Hjelm, a drop-waist dress.
"You can add embellishments to personalize this: add rosettes, ribbons, sequins. Sewing something on to make the dress feel like you," she said.
Two other dresses don't fit heather well, but the Lazaro is a classic princess dress, with a jewel- edged neckline.
Lynn advises, "If you are buying a dress with lots of bead work look closely to see if there are any major areas where the embellishments have fallen off. It can be tough to match them exactly."
Heather tries on the rest of the dresses: some are nice, others don't fit right and unfortunately my $20 dress is way too small.
Dress for Less
But when Heather tries on the Vera Wang, I can tell from the minute she walks out that she loves it.
"This is just my style," she says, "This is classic."
The cut on the Vera Wang is exquisite. Lynn Estimates the dress costs $3,000-$5,000 new — it still has the hem guard attached that prevents the dress from getting dirty when brides-to-be are trying it on in a bridal salon. And for $375 the dress, which I found at the Junior League thrift store; was more than a 90 percent off.
The Vera Wang is two to three sizes too small for Heather, but Lynn, our seamstress is not deterred.
"It's easy to take a dress in a few sizes, but making it bigger can also be done," she said.
Lynn shows Heather some matching fabric and says the alteration costs would be serious; giving us a rough estimate of up to $1,000 for a possible 40 hours of sewing.
But when Heather compares her original budget of $5,000 to the finished cost of the remade Vera Wang $375 plus $1,000, she's thrilled to come in so far under budget.
"Why pay thousands of dollars when you can get it at a fraction of the price?" Heather said.