BEHIND THE VEIL: a bridal experience

Many of us dream of the day we finally get to (legitimately) step into a bridal boutique and search for the perfect dress. As our Chief Editor, Rhiannon D’Averc, prepares to get married in May 2020, she went on the hunt for a gown – and a story…

I stepped into the first boutique not at all knowing what to expect.

This was going to be a bit of a hectic day: between me and my Mum, an essential partner in crime for this process, we’d only managed to find one day we could both do for the next couple of months. It was a Saturday… and it was tomorrow.

Normally you need to book into the good boutiques in advance, and a lot of the ones I was potentially interested in warned that you wouldn’t be able to turn up at all without an appointment. Given the nature of the situation, there was only one thing we could do: find an area with a high proliferation of boutiques, jump in, and go door to door trying to get an appointment.

So, that’s how I ended up visiting three shops in particular: one high-end, one that was lower-priced and very popular, and another that was within the mid-priced range with a lot of different options on display. I won’t name the shops, but will give them code-names so you can figure out which is which: Elegance, Prom Night, and Choices. Now, step behind the dressing-room curtains with me as I try on as many dresses as a girl can manage in a single day…

CHOICES

Our first appointment of the day was at the shop I’m calling ‘Choices’. Here, they were able to fit us in only by diverting the receptionist away from her station. Anyone else who wanted to come in, or give them a call, was out of luck. We essentially shut down their whole operation. Now, that’s power.

Joking aside, it definitely made us feel valued as customers that they would do anything possible to get us that appointment. We didn’t feel rushed, either; we were given as much time as we liked to pick out dresses, to try them on and look in the mirrors, and to come to a decision. I had no idea at this stage what kind of dress I was going to go for. Instead, I figured I would just go for whatever looked nice to me and start narrowing it down by eliminating anything that didn’t suit me. Going to a boutique that had literally hundreds of dresses on the racks really helped in this regard.

The attendant ushered me into one of the private, spacious dressing rooms and began to help me getting into the first dress. She was very respectful and made me feel comfortable despite the fact that this required me stripping down to my underwear in front of a stranger. She averted her eyes, and was very friendly and matter-of-fact – the perfect approach to put me at ease.

She instructed me fully on how to climb into – literally – each dress, did up all the snaps and zips and buttons, and led me out of the dressing room. Just past the curtain was a raised platform in front of a mirror, where I could stand and see the whole of the dress as well as the train.

We’d then have a discussion about how it looked, with the attendant leading us with some questions where we needed them: how did I feel? Could I move, could I dance? Did I like it more, or less, than the last one?

When we’d made our way through all of the dresses I’d picked out, she even helped me try a couple more, just in case. Sadly, we hadn’t found our number one here, even though the boutique was very helpful. The experience as a whole was enjoyable, and while there were other people trying on gowns in the same open space in front of their own mirrors, it never felt like we were anything but alone together.

The biggest downside? The amount of choice, ironically. It took us a very long time to make our way around the room, looking at everything, checking the sizing on each dress to see if it would be a realistic fit. They did reassure us that anything could be altered, but that doesn’t do much good if the dress is too small to begin with – though I wore my fair share of clips and safety pins holding in dresses that were too big.

ELEGANCE

We headed to Elegance next, walking in to find that the attendants had just finished with their last bride and, miraculously, had a spot open. They were waiting for someone, they told us; but if she didn’t show up – and she was already late – we could continue for a normal-length appointment.

We were never rushed here, and never given less than 100% of their attention, even though we weren’t booked in. We didn’t get a glass of champagne with our fittings (nor did we for the full day), as those are for pre-booked customers only (boo!), but we were offered as much tea or coffee as it is sensible for a person to drink. Elegance was a world away from any other boutique we even looked into. This was a high-class place, and they took only two appointments at a time: one upstairs, and one downstairs, for absolute privacy. We headed upstairs, which was fabulous because that’s where all the most expensive dresses were.

A large dressing room led out into a podium in the centre of the dress racks, where a full-length mirror reflected the glittering light. A shelf of tiaras with veils hanging below provided easy access to styling notes, something we hadn’t been given at Choices.

Here, the attendant was possibly the chattiest person I’ve ever met. She hit all the right notes, never faltering: talking to me in the changing room as we did the awkward dressing dance all over again, including Mum in the conversation so that she wouldn’t get bored on her own, and making us laugh as well as ensuring we felt at home.

She had her own ideas about what might suit me, but she was careful not to be pushy. It was more, ‘you don’t have to try this on if you don’t want to, and if it doesn’t work we’ll move on’. After hearing that I hadn’t decided on what kind of silhouette or detailing I wanted, she asked some quick elimination questions about what I didn’t like and then moved quickly to pick out a number of dresses in different styles.

Each fitting was used as a gauge for the next direction to go in. If we liked that skirt, there were two others with the same shape but different bodices. If we enjoyed the sparkle on that belt, she had some more belted dresses that had different silhouettes. Piece by piece, we put together a picture of a dress that was closer to being right. So many times, I looked in the mirror and saw a person I’d never seen before – and that was really exciting.

I put on the final dress of our session – one that had been sitting on a mannequin at the back of the room, until they spotted it while doing a final sweep (I was waiting on the podium, held still by the weight of another improbably heavy dress). The attendant stepped back, looked at me, and said: “I can tell by the look in your eyes, that’s The One.”

I wasn’t to be swayed yet, however. There was more exploration to be done. So, I gave the dress a final look, and stepped down. She allowed us to break the rules by taking a few quick snaps while her ‘back’ was ‘turned’, so we could reference them later, and sent us out the door with a reminder of their closing time that evening.

PROM NIGHT

Prom Night was actually the first boutique we visited that morning, but while they were able to fit us in, it wasn’t for a good couple of hours – allowing us to shop around in the meantime.

Despite the fact that this was the only place where we actually were booked in, it was the place where I felt like I had the least amount of focused attention. I didn’t feel special here, or looked after. I felt like a customer being given a hard sell.

The changing spaces were tiny, and the main area was filled with groups of loud girls and women, all of them trying on dresses and coming out to show them in a space that was smaller than the whole floor I had to myself at Elegance. When I looked in the (slim) mirror from above my (rickety) podium, I could see them over both shoulders. The attendant, too, was less than desired. She gave no respect and made no attempt to ensure I was comfortable. The others would help me into a gown, then tuck my bra straps away so that I was covered at all times, and would only actually suggest taking it off when we had a gown that felt like a winner. That was done under the privacy of the gown itself, with the bra extracted tastefully and no blushes required.

This woman walked into the dressing room, yanked the curtain shut behind her, and unhooked the back of my bra without even asking permission. Then she shoved me into a dress that was two sizes too small – which she had picked out, rather than letting me do it – and proceeded to do it up with force of willpower alone.

I had a red mark on my back from that dress for the next two days. There’s such a thing as being unrealistic, even if you will be able to squeeze someone’s body into a much smaller space with enough heaving and pulling.

By the time we had tried on two vastly different dresses – one of which was actually very flattering, despite not being what I had in mind for a wedding dress – I had had enough. When the attendant offered to go and find some more dresses that might work, I turned her down. And when she went and pulled some shimmering monstrosity from the rack anyway, I turned her down again.

Prom Night was a nightmare, and looking at the clientele with new eyes, I realised the red flags had been there. While downstairs might have appeared to be a classy bridal boutique, the actual fitting area was a mess of jumble-sale dresses and cawing teenagers caked in bronzer and thick mascara. I couldn’t leave that place quickly enough

THE TAKEAWAY (NO, NOT THE KIND YOU EAT)

After trying three vastly experiences, what advice do I have to give to you, dear reader, if you find yourself in the market for a wedding dress? My tips are as follows:

  • Just because a boutique is busy, doesn’t mean it’s good
  • Seek the shop with the most gorgeous dresses hanging on the rack, not the longest waiting line
  • Find an attendant who makes you feel comfortable and listens to your requests
  • Avoid any boutique where the customers look more like they are shopping for a prom than a wedding
  • Insist on absolute attention, or leave
  • Don’t be afraid to try a silhouette or style you have never worn before in your life
  • If you don’t get a tear in your eye looking at yourself, it’s not the right dress

I wasn’t actually supposed to buy a wedding dress on that day. It was more of an exploratory excursion, to work out what fitted me and suited me so that I could order it bespoke from a designer I had in mind. But somehow, thanks to the patience and attentiveness of the staff at Elegance, I had found The One.

We went back before it closed, snapped up the dress after trying it on one last time, and finally got a glass of pink strawberry-flavoured champagne for our troubles.

What does it look like? Well, I’ll tell you in May 2020… Read more from Rhiannon at twitter.com/rhiannondaverc

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