The Ultimate Bridesmaid Dress Manual

Bridals by Lori owner, Lori Allen, poses with bridesmaids consultants Krystle, Courtney and Brandon. See more pictures of bridesmaid dresses.
Image courtesy DCL

Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids consultants Krystle and Courtney know there's more to being a bridesmaid than wearing the dress. But the dress will make a huge visual impact on wedding guests, so it's important to look your best while you're standing by your friend at the altar.

Because bridesmaid gowns are nothing like your standard LBD (little black dress) or go-to cocktail dress, all too often, Krystle and Courtney see bridesmaids' confidence shaken by size tags, unfamiliar fabrics and shocking colors. And even the most unflappable bridesmaid can have a wedding day meltdown when wrinkles and stains appear on her dress.

These consultants have plenty of advice to get bridesmaids all the way through shopping and fittings to the big day. Read on for the ultimate bridesmaid dress manual!

Your Best Fit

Courtney models a short and chic bridesmaid dress.
Courtney models a short and chic bridesmaid dress.
Image courtesy Bridals by Lori

"Bridesmaid dresses do not run true to size," Krystle explains. Courtney adds, "In department stores, there's a lot of vanity sizing. But in bridesmaids, size is based on proportion." And what's more, each designer's size scale is different.

When you're shopping for a bridesmaid dress, anticipate that you'll wear a dress about two sizes larger than you're used to. And that's just an average -- the size really depends on the cut of the dress.

Keep in mind that not every cut will work for every body type. "Girls who are short-waisted or have a short torso will have a hard time wearing a dropped waist style," Krystle says. "It'll bunch through their waist because the fabric has nowhere to go."

If there were two universal styles for every body type, they'd probably be empire and modified A-line. "Dresses that hit at the natural waist look great on most body types, too," Courtney says. A true A-line will make curvy girls look hippy, and a tight dress doesn't do the figure any favors, either. But the flattering forgiveness of a modified A-line will please practically every bridesmaid.

The Size Tag Is Just a Number

The best option? Try it on. The second best? Visualize yourself in the dress and order it in your exact measurements.
The best option? Try it on. The second best? Visualize yourself in the dress and order it in your exact measurements.
Image courtesy DCL

Even after the consultants have found a style that looks great on everyone in the bridal party, there's still one hoop to jump through: overcoming fear of the size tag. "We rarely hear, 'I don't care what size the dress is -- it's just a number,' " Krystle says.

Krystle and Courtney prepare bridesmaids with a spiel about sizing. "Otherwise, they might freak out about the size tag," Courtney says. The consultants explain that bridesmaids will have to order up a few sizes based on the pattern of the dress.

Plus-size bridesmaids might be frustrated when they go shopping with the bride. At most bridal stores, the selections available are standard samples from the designers. "At Bridals by Lori, we don't get to choose what sizes we want," Krystle explains. "Typically, the dresses sent over are sizes 8 to 12 -- that's standard. We have to buy plus-size samples out of pocket."

The consultants advise plus-size bridesmaids to be prepared for a small selection of dresses. It's possible that you'll have to be measured and order the dress without trying it on at all. "We try to be really sensitive about it," Courtney says. It's not ideal to pay for a dress without seeing it on, but sometimes, it's the only choice.

Getting Measured

Courtney's being measured at her natural waist.
Courtney's being measured at her natural waist.
Image courtesy Bridals by Lori

When you're measured for a bridesmaid dress, you should wear undergarments similar to what you'll be wearing on the wedding day. No thickly padded bras, Krystle and Courtney advise! The consultant will measure across your bust, around your natural waist (not your belly button) and around the fullest part of your hips (that's code for "the biggest part of your butt," according to Krystle).

In special cases, a bridesmaids consultant will advise you to order a tall or plus-size gown. If you're taller than 5'10 -- or you're right at the cusp and will be wearing 2-inch heels on the wedding day -- you should order extra length on your gown. "The typical cost for extra length is around $20 or $30," Krystle says.

Plus-size dresses usually include size 16 and up. "For every size you go up, designers have a flat rate or they'll charge you a percentage," Courtney explains. She estimates the plus-size cost around $10 to $20 for each size above the designer's size chart cut-off. "It's a cost for extra fabric," Krystle says. "And sometimes, it's the cost of creating a new pattern for the dress."

"The smaller the size doesn't mean the better you look," Krystle emphasizes. "Would you rather be stuffed into a dress or have a bigger dress that you can take in?"

Next, Krystle and Courtney demystify alterations.

Understanding Why Your Dress Needs to Be Altered

Courtney knows that no dress fits perfectly off the rack -- 90 percent of the time, it will need alterations.
Courtney knows that no dress fits perfectly off the rack -- 90 percent of the time, it will need alterations.
Image courtesy DCL

"I don't care what your body looks like," Courtney says. "I guarantee that 90 percent of the time, you'll have to get the dress altered to fit better."

The most common alterations in the bridesmaid department are raising a hem, taking in a dress on the sides or adjusting a strap. Even if you're measured perfectly, you'll likely need one or more of these basic alterations.

It's always better to order bigger than smaller. It's far easier to take in a dress than to let it out. Even if the style is form-fitting or a little slinky, never have the dress altered too tightly. You're going to be sitting and getting in and out of cars, and the fabric will wrinkle. Think about celebrities you've seen on the red carpet with creases across their laps -- not a good look, and it can be easily avoided!

In some special cases, you might want a few custom alterations. Maybe you're adding straps to a strapless dress to support your bust, or you might be adding cups to a dress that's impossible to pair with a bra. Some brides request belts or brooches sewn onto the dress. And some bridesmaids like to order matching shawls at an additional cost or request a jacket, shawl or bolero from the alterations specialist. "Remember, these cost extra for supplies and labor," Krystle says.

"More than anything," she adds, "alterations is a labor cost. People think it takes two minutes to take in a dress. But a seamstress actually has to take apart a dress and put it back together. "

Speaking of labor, the consultants explain bump-friendly bridesmaid dresses next.

Maternity Alterations

Dresses with simple skirts and empire waists are the easiest to alter for maternity needs.
Dresses with simple skirts and empire waists are the easiest to alter for maternity needs.
Image courtesy DCL

And speaking of labor, maternity alterations are another special-case scenario. The dress has to accommodate a growing bust and belly. "It helps to start by picking the right dress," Krystle says. "It's always best to get a maternity dress for a girl who's pregnant; if she finds out later [that she's pregnant], it's a bit of a guessing game."

A woman doesn't know how her body will change during pregnancy, but a good seamstress can help a bridesmaid fit comfortably into her gown. At Bridals by Lori, the consultants usually advise ordering 2 yards of fabric with the dress. They'll replace the skirt with an empire waist. Of course, this works best for a simple dress without ruching or pleating on the bottom.

On average, Krystle and Courtney estimate that the cost of upgrading a regular bridesmaid dress to a maternity one will run about $80, plus the cost of fabric.

Dressing for the Big Day

It's the big day! Your No. 1 priority is helping the bride get ready, but you've made an investment in your dress, shoes and accessories and want to look your best, too.

You should ensure that your dress is wrinkle-free before slipping it on. Most bridesmaids dresses are delivered to the store where they're ordered steamed and pressed, but they'll likely get a little rumpled when they're altered. At Bridals by Lori, you can pay for a press package, but Krystle and Courtney advise against spending the extra money if you'll be traveling for the wedding and the dress will be in a car or plane for several hours.

"Research dry cleaners in the area where the wedding is," Krystle says. "Or, ask the concierge at the hotel where you're staying if he or she can recommend a place." Be sure you know what kind of fabric you're dealing with before handing over your dress. Satin will have to be treated very delicately, and wrinkles in it are the hardest to get out. Taffeta is a little hardier and has a natural wrinkle to its style. Some fabrics melt when they're exposed to heat. Call the store where you bought your dress and inquire about the fabric if you can't remember -- your consultants will help you get the details you need to have the job done well.

Never attempt DIY steaming. You risk damaging the dress with water spots if you hang it in the bathroom to steam while you're taking a shower.

Minimize risks to your dress by washing your hands before touching it. The oil on your fingertips can stain some fabrics. And perfume, lotion and deodorant can take a toll, too. Give your skin time to absorb fragrance and moisturizer before slipping on your dress. And Krystle has a tip for avoiding pesky deodorant marks. "I swipe it on, then massage it into my armpits. It prevents those nasty crumbles and marks." Courtney advises experimenting with antiperspirants before the big day. "Find out what gets on your clothes and what keeps you dry."

Now, take a deep breath and get ready to walk down the aisle. You're dressed to impress!

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  • Personal interview with Krystle Arnold and Courtney Means. Conducted by Candace Keener. Telephone. June 30, 2011.