Ah “The Dress”. For the majority of married women it is the most important, expensive, outrageous garment they will ever wear…for half a day. And yet, most of us will never regret it. Everyone deserves a chance a feel absolutely beautiful on their wedding day. But sadly, some people don’t understand why a wedding dress costs more than your average cocktail dress. Rumors swirl (as they do regarding every facet of the wedding industry) that the price is marked up simply because it has the word “wedding” attached to it. And like all those other things, that simply is not true. A wedding dress is far more than a typical dress. Deep down I feel like every bride is aware of this because it’s pretty much the only detail that nobody is jumping to DIY. So why aren’t they willing to pay for that reality?
Equipment and Materials: Anyone who has ever sewn knows that a cheap machine will drive you crazy. There are certainly specialty tools involved like expensive sewing machines, sergers, specialty scissors and cutters, rotary mats, professional irons, dress mannequins, steamers, etc. Good fabric, crystals, and lace are incredibly expensive. A beautiful lace can cost upwards of $100/yd! Good gowns have extra features like built in support and exceptional materials that you won’t find in the cheapest dresses on the market. Worse yet, if you are having your dress custom made, the materials cannot be purchased in bulk so the cost will be similar to what you would pay in a fabric store.
Expertise: My mother sewed and I can say from the experience of watching her that it is not easy to make clothing. Darts in the wrong place….wonky boobs. Draped poorly…makes you look fat. Bad choice of fabric…snags, flat, frumpy, inappropriate sheen, hangs terribly, and so on so on so on. If you have a dress maker create a dress from a pattern, it will require a ton of skill and know-how. That levels up considerably when you enlist the help of a designer.
To me, the real value of a designer (not to be confused with a seamstress) is their special talent. They have an incredible artistic vision and can parlay that into a stunning dress that drapes perfectly and lasts for generations. They know how to read a woman’s body and make a magical dress that catches the light in all the right places to flatter. Many dress designers have degrees from art institutes for good reason. It is an art form, a special skill, and requires tremendous knowledge of materials. Many women have ordered a cheapo dress from overseas and have been devastated by the poor materials and execution. But worst of all, most of those women chose to have a seamstress rip off the work of a designer who poured their heart into their work.
Time Investment: Designers spend hours designing gowns and sometimes hundreds of hours sewing them. And that is just the original. Many more hours are put into each dress after that. (The next post will talk about what happens when a custom dress is made.) No matter where your dress comes from, beading is done by hand. There is no other way.
Why It’s Worth It:
Please don’t think that I am saying that everyone should buy a $20,000 gown. But it is important to understand that you get what you pay for and to understand what goes into a dress. Very good gowns can be purchased for a reasonable price. But if you are getting a $200 dress, you know something is wrong. Here are a few things to consider that make a wedding dress costly:
- “Mass Production” is a relative term – There are only about 2-2.5 million marriages each year in the US. Of those, only a percentage will include a bridal dress. And every dress designer from J-Crew to Reem Acra wants in on that action. The actual number of dresses any producer makes is actually pretty limited and any given style within that line is even more limited. Therefore, they are never really mass produced and the price reflects the usual economies of scale.
- Higher Quality – Without exception, the materials used to make a bridal gown are superior to your every day wear from Target. Even a cotton gown tends to be high quality cotton. Your good designer gowns have a lot of interior architecture, design savvy, and perfect fabrics to make sure that you look damn good in that dress.
- Design – Even your mainstream producers like David’s Bridal have designers who pour a lot of time and talent into creating the initial garment. As you go up the line, even more energy is put into a dress with fewer end wearers of that style (possibly even one if it is a custom design). Have you ever had any other clothing that was created from scratch and only available to a few hundred (or far fewer) people? That effort is rewarded in the cost of the garment because their time is not divided over a large number of finished products, just like their materials. In reality, a dress maker will get paid less than minimum wage based on their hours of work. And that doesn’t include the cost of rent, materials, promoting, etc. The cost of creating shows for a designer is tremendous but they don’t get sold if they don’t get picked up by a bridal shop. (PS – there is a huge markup at the bridal shop level because the owners and staff need to make a living off selling only a few garments a month.)
- Hands-On – Chances are that every piece of clothing you have worn in your life has involved hand sewing. I know that I thought there were machines somewhere in a factory capable of making a pair of pants from start to finish. That is so not true. Somewhere there is a person handling that delicate fabric, beading, lace, etc. on your dress to make it beautiful. That is tedious work. Sadly, even major brands like Vera Wang are being produced in China by workers who probably aren’t getting the kickbacks they deserve for the blinding detail work they are doing. But if you want something produced locally, you will have to pay the price. And I hope you do for an heirloom piece.
First you need to decide what kind of priority the dress will have in your budget. If you aren’t that into the gown, there are certainly ways to save. I wouldn’t really condone going for a cheaper fabric in a dress. Quality fabrics are used in special ways to drape properly, hide trouble areas, support, etc. and that is important. A cheap lace can be stiff and ruin the overall look. And when your partner puts their hands on you for the first dance you will feel like sandpaper!
- Remove the frills (in some cases literally). The more fabric, lace, beading, crystals, and embroidery you have, the more expensive the dress will be. This is in part because of the cost of materials but also the cost of labor. Opt for a simple, figure flattering design and you can look amazing on your wedding day without breaking the bank. Maybe even consider going short!
- Consider adding a few fantastic accessories like a sash, capelet, shoes, or statement jewelry to take the look up a notch without overdoing it. They needn’t even be blingy if the color pops. A bright cardigan over a simple gown is very in right now. You may find you like the look more than a fully bedazzled ball gown!
- Re-use. Weddings are a perfect time to appreciate heirlooms. Consider wearing a vintage dress or accessories. But if you find (as many do) that vintage dresses are made for some kind of tiny race of human that you are not, consider simply recycling some of your favorite bits. If your mom’s dress had beautiful lace, harvest it for your own gown. You won’t have to pay for new materials it will be very special to you both.
- Rent. There are great sites out there that let you rent crazy expensive jewelry, accessories, and even wedding dresses.
- Discount Sales and sample sales can be a real life saver for those who want a fancy dress. And look into great causes like Brides Against Breast Cancer who have heavily discounted dresses with proceeds going to charity!
So many brides place a lot of emphasis on the dress but don’t want to pay for it. Then they get really upset when they have to shell out or don’t get the quality they wanted. Some cheap dresses may look like a fancy dress, but if you try them on you will find that on the nicer dress the fabric is better, the support on the inside prevents underarm flab, etc. Again, there is no need to lose your whole life savings on the dress. But it is important to understand what you want, what is invested to achieve that, and why it deserves just payment.
This post is part of a series:
For What It’s Worth: Letterpress
For What It’s Worth: Photography
For What It’s Worth: Flowers
For What It’s Worth: The Dress
For What It’s Worth: Cakes