New York Buying a wedding gown is usually No. 3 on a bride's to-do list, right after putting the engagement ring on her finger and setting a date.
Many women, however, think about the dress long before No. 1 and No. 2 are in place.
A bride's dream dress might be a blend of her favorite fairy tale, happy memories of ballet class, celebrity styles and current fashion trends.
When a woman begins to shop for a wedding dress, she usually is armed with ideas clippings from magazines, online quizzes or family photos, says Mara Urshel, president of Kleinfeld, a bridal shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., and co-author of "How to Buy Your Perfect Wedding Dress" (Simon & Schuster).
Sometimes those ideas make for the perfect match; other times they don't take into consideration the style of the wedding or the size and shape of the bride's body.
"A bride is older now 27 on the average so she has her own sense of style but she doesn't know her bridal style," observes Millie Martini Bratten, editor in chief of Bride's magazine.
Most of all, a bride wants to look like herself, says Bratten, but there are other factors: She also wants to be beautiful, appropriate, confident and fulfill the "bride's role," which is to be a symbol of joy and hope.
She wants her gown to be unlike something she's ever worn before, while it also has to have a timeless quality so she doesn't look back at photos and say, "What was I thinking?"
And, for better or worse, a bride knows she and her dress will be topics of discussion, and she's influenced by what she wants people to say.
"When the bride walks in, all conversation stops, every head turns and all eyes are on her," Bratten says.
Mom is optional
One of the most important things toward making gown-shopping and gown-wearing pleasant experiences is to start shopping on time, according to Urshel.
In her book, co-written with Ronald Rothstein, Urshel advises the bride begin shopping about a year before the wedding. As the bride browses, she should keep in mind budget and religious requirements.
Nine months before the wedding date, a bride should be ready to choose the gown and be prepared to make a 50 to 60 percent deposit. The process can begin as late as six months before the wedding, but, Urshel says, that's cutting it close for made-to-order gowns (the majority of wedding dresses) or for the alterations needed for vintage or off-the-rack gowns.
Urshel reminds brides that bringing their mother along is optional. "There is always the question 'Do I shop with mom?' and the answer is, it depends on your relationship."
Urshel says a bride should shop with two or three close, trusted advisers one of whom might be her mother but if there is a larger entourage then the group ends up collectively voting on the dresses, and the bride ends up wearing a compromise.
If a daughter doesn't think she can take her mother in the close quarters of a bridal salon for many hours but still wants to share the experience, the bride can narrow her selection down to two or three dresses, then invite the mother to the store to help make the final choice.
"The nicest situation is when a mother and a future mother-in-law go with the bride. Both moms are trying to make the bride happy, which works out well for the bride," adds Urshel.
Lace, no straps are in
No matter what ideas they came in with, most brides emerge from the dressing room in strapless gowns, says Urshel, probably because they're usually pretty, feminine and flattering.
"The No. 1 gown is still strapless and it will continue to be for a long time. It offers mobility so the bride can dance all night. If she's wearing sleeves, sometimes she can't raise her arms."
Lace is another popular option. "It's hot now but it's never 'out,"' Urshel says. Ruffles, but just a few at the edge not a pouf, also are showing up on many 2002 gowns, as are angel sleeves, which are narrow at the top and flow into a wide opening at the wrist.
Romantic gowns are the top trend in some years but right now a lot of women are favoring sexy gowns, particularly "double-cleavage" dresses, with plunging necks and backs. For women who want to be sexy but not bare, there are several "illusion" styles, which feature sheer fabric on the chest, back or arms.
But every bride ends up with a unique look.
"The right dress is when her eyes sparkle; the bride cries then her mom cries," says Urshel. "Then stop. Don't try on any more."
Months later, when a bride shows up at the store for her first fitting, her choice is usually confirmed.
The bride looks around the shop, sees countless other women doing the same thing she did only three months earlier, Urshel explains, then she asks for "her dress," puts it on and wears it like no one else could.