Much Ado About Alterations

"Say Yes to the Dress" fans can't get enough of Randy Fenoli. And it's no wonder why -- Kleinfeld Bridal's fashion director always finds the right dress for a bride, even if it's the last style she would've picked herself. What does Randy know that brides don't?

Decades of working in the fashion industry have taught Randy all about fit. The ideal fit is achieved through alterations. "[The] alterations, "Randy says, "[are] one of the most important factors in purchasing a wedding dress." After all, a wedding gown is "the most photographed dress [of a girl's] entire life," so it must lay perfectly against her every curve.


As Randy explains, every wedding dress has its own distinct shape, and every woman's body does, too. The purpose of alterations is to make the gown fit the bride's unique figure. When alterations are done well, the gown will move with the bride's body.

And if alterations aren't done well (or done at all)? Imagine pulling on your strapless dress all night. Tripping on your hem as you walk down the aisle. Struggling to dance, eat or breathe because your bodice is too tight.

These worst-case scenarios can be prevented! Here's what you need to know so you're prepared for the alterations process.

Wedding gowns can have as many as six layers -- each of which will have to be adjusted during alterations.
Wedding gowns can have as many as six layers -- each of which will have to be adjusted during alterations.
Image Courtesy Kleinfeld Bridal

Who needs alterations? Almost everybody. Randy estimates that 98 percent of the time, a wedding gown must be altered in some way. Three of the most common alterations are having the gown fitted to your body, hemmed and made to bustle.

"A wedding gown," Randy explains, "is the closest-fitting garment you'll ever wear that doesn't stretch." Take swimsuits, for instance. They hug your body like a second skin because they're made with materials that stretch, like nylon, polyester and spandex. Even your favorite pair of skinny jeans might have a little bit of spandex in them that helps you pull the pants over your hips. But unless yours is a charmeuse or satin gown that's been cut on the bias (picture Carolyn Bessette's clingy white wedding dress), it's not going to have any give.

That's why it's so important to order a gown that's true to your size. Don't order one that's two sizes too small so you'll be motivated to lose 20 pounds. It's easier to take in a gown than to let it out because the garment is more complicated than an ordinary dress. That extra 2 inches you'll have to adjust requires working with a lot of fabric. A wedding dress might be constructed with an appliquéd layer of lace or beads, a layer of fabric, a layer of interfacing, a layer of lining and a layer -- or several -- of crinoline. At minimum, Randy says, you're looking at three to four layers of fabric, and sometimes there are as many as six. Matching up all of those patterns and layers for radical downsizing isn't particularly easy either. He cautions, "Every time you take the dress in on the side, patterns have to match!"

Most wedding gowns will be longer than you are tall, so hemlines will be raised during alterations. If there's a special detail at the hem, say, lace scallops or a pleated ruffle, the hem will have to be removed entirely and reattached at the right length for your height. For brides who are extra-tall or extra-petite, some designers will charge for a hollow-to-hem. This is a measurement that's taken from the hollow of the throat to the hem of the dress (Randy notes that you may pay 10 to 20 percent of the gown's cost for this consideration). The hollow-to-hem measurement ensures that a gown with a pattern down the front or with a special shape will be proportional to your body. For example, a gown that's got a beaded design from the neckline to the hem can't be lopped off at the bottom to fit a 4'10'' bride -- you'll lose the pattern! A gown measured for your frame will ensure the integrity of the design so it looks as beautiful on you as it does on the runway.

The gown fits your curves, it's not too long or too short -- what's left? The third most basic alteration you'll need is a bustle. A bustle is simply a way to gather up the train of your dress. Of course, you'll want the train to trail behind you as you walk down the aisle, but when it's time to dance and mingle at the reception, you'll be thankful for the convenience of a bustle. The style of your dress will influence which type you choose, but the most basic bustles are French (with the train tucked under the dress), traditional (over the dress), a hem bustle (the train is held up so the gown falls floor-length) or a side bustle (used only if the train is cut to flair out to the side). Bustles can be held up with ribbons or snaps, often dictated by the fabric of the gown. Sheer organza, for instance, requires clear plastic snaps.

A bustle will let you do the Hustle (sure, you can bring it back!), but you won't be able to dance if the girls don't stay in place. Next, Randy's best bust advice.

Strapless styles are held up by a tight fit around the waist.
Strapless styles are held up by a tight fit around the waist.
Scott Stulbery/Getty Images

According to Randy, "Dresses today are mostly strapless." Plenty of modern brides prefer a strapless style, but some are wary of it -- and for a good reason! "If [the dress] doesn't fit properly, you'll be tugging on it all night," Randy says.

Brides worried about going strapless generally fall into two camps. There are those who are small-chested and fret they won't fill out or hold up the top. And then there are large-busted brides who are concerned about keeping their cleavage under control. We've got good news and bad news for these brides.

The good news is that the size of your bust has nothing to do with holding up the dress. As Randy explains, "The dress is held up from the waist and by a lot of inner construction, including boning." This is why the gown is fitted so tightly around your waist; that's the brace that supports the top of the dress. "If you're tugging on the dress," Randy says, "That's the first sign it's not fitted properly." The fit can be altered to ensure your comfort on the big day.

Now for the bad news. Randy notes that most bridal gowns are cut to fit a B cup. If your bust runs smaller than a B, it's not too difficult to add some padding to fill it out. But for those women who are larger than a B (and who don't want their cups to runneth over), they'll have to have the neckline raised, the cup opened to a larger size, or both options. The dress makers who are generally willing to do so are the couture designers, so you'll be paying handsomely for modesty. For instance, designer Pnina Tornai makes her dresses in different cup sizes, and her collection starts at $5,000.

If you like the way you look in the strapless style but want something a little more conservative for the ceremony, consider wearing a shrug, bolero jacket or long mantilla when you walk down the aisle. You can have these accessories made in fabric to match the gown, or you can choose complementary lace, fur or beaded styles.

You've ordered your gown, and now it's time to try it on. On the next page, we'll walk you through the first fitting.

During your bridal gown fitting, the seamstress will determine the length your hem should be.
During your bridal gown fitting, the seamstress will determine the length your hem should be.
Image Courtesy Kleinfeld Bridal

Who among us doesn't love shoes? We give you permission -- no, we command you -- to go buy your wedding shoes before you slip into the gown at your first fitting. In order to hem your dress to the perfect length, the seamstress needs to account for the height of your shoes. You'll also need to bring along the lingerie you want to wear on your wedding day. Trying on your lingerie with your dress helps ensure your undergarments don't create unsightly bulges or lines under the fabric.

Show up with an open mind. It may take more than one appointment to get a perfect fit, so don't despair if the dress puckers or pinches. At some salons, such as Kleinfeld, you'll pay a flat fee for any and all alterations ($595 to be exact). Other salons will charge per alteration. If you've purchased your dress from a boutique that doesn't have an on-site alterations department, you'll want to find a reputable seamstress.

There's no need to panic if you're less than thrilled with the appearance of the dress (after all, it's probably been a few months since you've seen yourself in the design). "Alterations is the time to change a dress," Randy says. "You can add on a brooch, a sash around the waist, beading under the neckline or under the bust to give the dress a different look." You can dip the neckline or back a little lower, too.

Many consultants will recommend ordering some extra fabric when you place the order for your dress so that you can create other accents for the gown. You should order the fabric when you're ordering the dress because every batch of fabric comes from a particular dye lot, and the color will have unique characteristics. With that extra material, you can add straps or detachable sleeves to the dress, or even bows and roses.

Wait to make these aesthetic alterations until you've seen what you look like in your new, custom-made dress -- not the sample you tried on in the salon. For instance, if you want a ball gown and the sample you've tried on needs just a little more volume in the skirt, hold on to those pouf dreams. Remember that the sample has been hanging inside a bag for months and has been tried on dozens of times. Poufy skirts deflate. When you get your gown, you might be surprised by how perky the petticoats are. You might even have more pouf on your hands than you can handle! During alterations, petticoats can be removed layer by layer until you've got the shape you want.

Here's the bottom line. Any changes you make to the appearance of the dress should wait until you know exactly what you're working with. It's easier to make a plunging neckline than to bring it up 3 inches.

To quote the inimitable Heidi Klum, "In fashion, one day you're in, and the next day you're out." But you won't look fashionable on your wedding day if you can't get into the dress. And you'll have an unhappy groom on your hands if you can't get out of it. We explain the ins and outs next.

Wedding dresses go over your head. It will take your mother and at least three bridesmaids to accomplish this feat without mussing your updo. But trust us -- it's the way to get dressed!

And even if you've got the most gorgeous dress in the world, it doesn't mean a thing if you can't get it on. Randy puts it simply: "You gotta get into the dress!" The best location for the dress's closure is on the back. Closures on the side make alterations challenging, since they begin on the side seams of the dress.

Plenty of dresses have zippers that are hidden by fabric or disguised by a row of covered buttons. "I love buttons down the back of a dress!" Randy says. "[F]ew garments [have] covered buttons -- they say 'bridal gown'!" If you're a purist and want real buttons and loops, be mindful that it's time-consuming to get into and out of the dress. Randy advises starting at the bottom and working your way up.

Another popular type of closure is the corset. This elegant lace-up look can spare you a few alterations since a corset can be cinched tightly to fit your body.

Randy offers one final piece of advice for "altering" the gown. Any accessories you choose will "elevate or depreciate the dress," he says. Style your bridal look wisely by choosing timeless pieces that complete the gown, not ones that compete with it. A little sparkle on the ears and fingers might be all a bride needs to finish off her fabulous and flawlessly fitted gown!

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  • Fenoli, Randy. Fashion Director at Kleinfeld Bridal. Personal interview conducted by Candace Keener. July 27, 2010.