The other side of the veil: one bridal shop employee shares her perspective

March 18 2010 | Guest post by Danielle
the dress from another century
Photo courtesy of Romana Klee.

One of the things I love about Ariel's vision for Offbeat Bride is her effort to make it a "snark-free" zone. I love all the positive energy, all the everyone is accepted vibe. Well, everyone but one person, I've noticed. There is one person its okay to snark about, one person who is simply contemptible. Don't know who I'm talking about?

Why, it's that lady in the bridal salon! You know, that symbol of everything that's wrong with the whole wedding industrial complex. The one who, it seems, does nothing but make brides feel bad the moment they step in the door. That horrible person who tries to sell you an overpriced white frou-frou dress when all you wanted was a simple dress in your price range. They're evil, evil people right?

The only problem I have with that is that I used to be sales person in bridal salon.

For four summers during my college years, I worked the busy season (May – August) at a bridal and formal dress salon. It was one of my favorite jobs — helping women find that perfect dress. I really hope that I wasn't evil, that I never sent women home in tears. At least that's not how I remember it. I remember arranging to add black lace accents to a dress for a lovely Goth bride. There was the medieval bride who I helped pore through catalogs to find the perfect dress, tracked down a sample at another salon so she could try it on, and made sure to offer to go 10% less whatever their lowest price was. There was the tattooed biker bride who wanted a simple dress with a low back to show off her awesome ink. And how can I forget the bride who wanted a red dress for whom I gleefully pulled out the prom/formal catalogs to help her find the perfect one.

Oh, and did mention that this was back in the late-'90s? Pre-Offbeat Bride, back when the wedding industrial complex was at its height. I've watched things change. Back then The Knot was about how to make your wedding just like everyone else, with its lists of must haves. While, still traditionally oriented, its focus has shifted to more about how to make your wedding your own. It even has an "offbeat" option as a label for your wedding.

But I'm just one person, right? I must be the exception to the rule. But then how do you explain that really sweet girl I worked with when I bought my wedding dress at another salon since the one I worked at had closed? Or the great lady who helped my new sister in-law only a few months ago? I have the feeling that we hear about the evil ones and the horror stories because those are the ones that are interesting, the ones that let us feel righteous anger at the wedding industrial complex. It's hard to hate a nebulous industry, the sales person gives us a face to hate. There are lots of other vendors out there who do similar things: photographers who do nothing but canned poses, halls that overcharge for rubbery chicken, or florists who make you pick from a set catalog. But let's face it, the dress has become the symbol of the wedding. And even though like every other vendor, most bridal stores also do business in other areas (I have some great prom dress stories too). But for some reason, we overlook that and they become the symbol for everything wrong with the wedding industrial complex.

And while it's true that most salons get their dresses from major manufacturers, keep in mind that most salons are local, mom and pop operations. Like any local service, you're going to get a lot of variation. But, by and large, I believe that you'll get a much more personal experience with a local store than you would with a big chain or an internet seller. You should get a sales person who's knowledgeable about formal wear. Someone who knows that "Brand X" runs small in the bust or that there is a dress similar to that $5000 dress you love that is only $500. A good bridal sales person should be asking you tons of questions to help you find what you want, the first of which should be "What's your budget?" They'll pull out the size chart for the dress, show you your measurements, and help you figure out where you fit.

Are there bad eggs out there? Of course. But you've never had bad service at restaurant? Never had to deal with an irate sales person at another store? If bridal store (or any other business) is treating you badly then vote with your dollar. Go somewhere else. Either the store will learn and adjust their practices or they'll go out of business. But don't write off all bridal stores, just because you think they are all evil. After all, they are run by real people who, like the rest of us, are trying to make a living. And yes, you may get the evil bridal harpy who will try to force her vision of bridal on you. But I hope you'll get me, the person who's going to bend over backwards to help you get what you want while working in your budget.

  1. I was nervous about my DB appointment, with all the horror stories and my short, chubby frame, but I really wanted to at least see the couple dresses I had lusted over for a while.

    My experience was amazing. I scheduled an appointment for a Tuesday morning. My mom is currently stationed in another country, so FMIL skyped her in, and the consultant jumped through hoops to help us with the wifi and to find a charger when the battery began to die!
    I had really liked the fit of one of the dresses, and when both moms got kind of harsh, she helped me change out of it and quietly reminded me that, at the end of the day, it was about how I felt in the dress and to ignore the mean comments.
    When I found THE dress and was getting ready to say good bye to my mom, we both began sobbing hysterically. The consultant brought me tissues and gave us some privacy, giving me a (asked for) hug when she returned, teary herself.
    Sometimes, it's just about timing and planning, but in any case, if you're willing to give your consultant a chance at any salon (bearing in mind stressors like unplanned consultations or accidental double bookings), the consultant can be one of those special people in the wedding process.

  2. I'm not good at commenting on things however I figured I'd comment on this because I seemed to have different experiences.
    I went to David's Bridal while two of my friends were getting married and none of us had a problem either time. My one friend wanted a pink dress, they didn't question this at all and they took her right to one they could get in pink, when she decided she didn't want it to ALL be pink they showed her options where they could add pink. She didn't get a dress from there but they still tried to accommodate her. My other friend had a very low budget, as in not wanting to spend more than $200 and the sales lady showed her a couple options she really liked. One of them had a bow to tie in the back and she asked me to tie it, I however am not good with bows so I tied it like a tie. So she had a tie coming off her butt, the sales lady thought it was adorable and said she'd try using it as an option for other brides later. That friend did end up getting her dress there and she looked beautiful. Mind you both times I was dressed pretty ridiculous and looked like a punk kid. But we were treated no different than any of the other customers and they were very welcoming.
    The point I guess is that no matter what store you go to wether it be David's Bridal or a mom and pop store (because I've certainly had uncomfortable situations there as well) it's the individual people you deal with not the store or chain itself that are the problem.

  3. My experience with bridal shops have been excellent. The actual issue is the manufacturers and the way they cut corners. Overlock finish and Schiffli lace on a $1,600 dress? ICK.

    I actually felt bad when they tried so hard to find my perfect dress. I wanted something specific (blue with lace overlay AND straps).

    I ended up buying a sample silk dress on preownedweddingdresses.com. The salon owner in that transaction was super helpful even though it was just a sample dress!

  4. YES! I've been so heartbroken hearing the whole bridal fashion biz villainized, and not just here. There are a lot of things that could be done differently, but you know what? With every passing year, there are people (like myself) that take their experience in the mainstream biz and apply all the changes they think are needed, ever improving the climate for new brides! For me personally, this meant dropping plus size fees, using street sizing rather than traditional formal sizing, providing near limitless customization options, manufacturing ethically, locally, and timely…and having fun. I love what I do, but the permeating idea that I'm the bad guy because my price is higher than David's is really tough.

  5. My dress shopping experience was pretty crappy. I had just moved to a new state and no one really seemed excited to do any of the bridal shopping with me so I went alone to most appointments. My sales lady, Jezelle was the most support I had in my shopping for dresses she turned my experience around. She treated me like a best friend and to top it off she picked out the dress I fell in love with. Definitely not evil in my book.

  6. The one and only place I did the "dress shopping" thing wasn't a "salon," it was a high-volume, cheap dress place ubiquitous in the wedding industry for inexpensive dresses and overpriced alterations. The people I know that run true Bridal Salons are a different kettle of fish than the folks I ran into at the chain store. And honestly, what turned me off to the chain store the most was how they acted toward each other. The manager of the franchise started checking us in until she heard the budget, and then decided that the two fitters standing around looking hopeful shouldn't have to help us, but dragged a third associate from her lunch break in the back. That associate didn't have acrylic nails (the other three women there did) and her hair was neat but not professionally cut/styled in a while (the other three were clearly more appearance-oriented). She was in business attire, simple accessories, no brand names… aka "the Poor People salesgirl" while the rest stood around watching and making comments to themselves about the fitting process.

    Making their Mean Girls clique that obvious in front of customers was a really stupid move, and no one has purchased anything from that entire chain for either of the weddings we were working on that day. So while I haven't been to a Bridal Salon, I also don't talk about them; I talk about the bad experience I had at a big bridal chain store that doesn't know how to treat its customers or its employees well. In my mind that's not just representative of an industry designed to make people think spending more money will make a very important day of their lives "perfect"; that's a problem with retail as a whole, and it's something I really can't stand about fashion/clothing retail period.

  7. As a bridal shop owner, I love this so much! I feel like we bridal consultants often do get a bad rap. Are there bad shops? Sure! Are there bad consultants? Of course! I could go on and on about the horrible stories I've heard from my brides about how they were treated elsewhere. BUT, there are so many independent shops out there who really do want to help you find your perfect dress within your budget! I and my staff work extremely hard at this, and from my perspective, it sucks that the bad behavior of a few hurts the reputation of many.

    One sidebar note that the author didn't mention and most wedding professionals don't want to admit, but this is a really tough business. It sucks to spend 2 hours trying to find a bride her perfect dress, just to hear that she's buying it on etsy. It sucks to do your best to find a gown that fits a bride's vision just to get a one star review because I don't have a huge selection of steam punk dresses. I'm not saying it's right, but I get why these sales ladies get jaded. This is an industry where you have to bring your A-game EVERY day, even though you don't make every sale. You have to make EVERY bride feel special, even though you know she isn't going to buy and is totally wasting your time. Not that is all about the money, most of us are in this industry because we love helping brides, but we have families to take care of too.

    My best advice for brides shopping for a gown, is to just be honest. Tell your consultant your actual budget, and precisely what your vision is for your dress. A good consultant will listen, and do their best to find exactly what you want. If they're trying to force you to buy something that isn't your vision, leave! Not every shop is the right shop for you, and acting like that, they don't deserve your business anyway. Bridal shops are like shoes, you need to find the one that's the perfect fit.

  8. I had three dresses and three very different experiences.(Because I had three weddings to the same man in the same year in different states)

    I was only engaged for 3 weeks so I stopped in David's near when I worked on Long Island and walked out with a $199 dress. They were nice enough, but I regretted the purchase. The dress looked fine in photos but the fabric was ick, and alterations were hard due to the poor construction. (It was an eggshell MOB dress.) I did dress it up with some nice jewelry.

    I got a second dress from a family owned shop in the Bronx. It was the most off-beat, it was short and flirty and they made me a wrist corsage. They were fun to deal with, but kind of over promised what they could do on alterations. Also they made me pay for my dress twice! I had to ask for a refund which they gave me.

    Finally the third dress, an Alfred Angelo that I loved came from RK Bridal in NYC. The store has no atmosphere and not a lot of pampering but they have dresses in stock in all sizes. I tried on and walked out with my 16. Boom. 1/3 off the list price and I had alterations done elsewhere.

    So each setting had its pros and cons. When I bought the first dress at David's I thought that was the only option for the cash and carry, need a dress now bride. I wish I had known about RK.

    I did shop at a few other places. I had my veil done at Kleinfeld and that department was super, but the dress salesperson was pushy, and not helpful. I shopped at Vera Wang for accessories, they were amazing, and made me feel special even though I was just buying a brooch. I stopped at their bridesmaid store and they were awful.

  9. I have a story of the most selfless bridal shop attendant who saved my wedding. It was about 2 months before my wedding and the bridal shop owner decided to close her doors without any notification to her staff or customers. This ended up on the local news and sent me into a complete panic. I drove down to the shop to get more information. Outside there was a crowd of upset brides, mothers, and the attendants who just lost their jobs without warning. My dress and many of the other brides'dresses were locked inside. Later we would discover that the dresses partially paid for/awaiting alterations were stolen/sold off by the bridal shop owner as well. The owner wasn't taking any calls, emails, etc. It seemed hopeless.

    Thankfully, one of the attendants took down the phone numbers of everyone who showed up at the shop that day and went about trying to find another way into the store. She managed to convince the owner that it was bad form to continue to literally steal the dresses awaiting alterations, gained access to the keys, and rescued my dress and the dresses of at least 20 other brides (including one getting married in less than a week). On a day that she literally lost her job with absolutely no warning, this person went above and beyond to save my dress and the dresses of so many others. I never really felt like I was able to thank her properly, although I did give her a big bear hug when she delivered my dress. She really made me believe there were good people out there.

    On top of that I worked with 2 other local bridal shops to get all the bridesmaid dresses delivered properly and alterations completed in time for the wedding. Typically stores won't take on outside alterations but these 2 shops and their staffs were incredibly accommodating and even offered discounts since we had already been through so much.

  10. In experience, I have found two things helpful when purchasing any fashion, beauty, home ware, or cars: 1) Do not base your self esteem or human validity on the opinion or comments of salespeople; 2) Do not expect the impossible or an unprofitable business model from a business.

    That seems to spare me the amount of stress others have posted about.

    If your self worth is a crater (as mine has been), it is a lot to ask of a low paid sales assistant to fill it up or be a therapist. For my business I insist on professional conduct, good listening, tact, and helpfulness. Loving yourself is an inside job. I have a number of genetic anomalies ( really! mosaic hair! I have two textures of hair! I love it!) and outlier measurements 5'10" tall and 34 DDD bra size on a size 10. My narrative to sales assistants is: "I love "X" feature of my body, I'm just shopping for garment proportions that maintain the line of my proportions (or care for my extremely rare and insubordinate hair texture)." e.g. most jackets and tops are designed to "balance the proportions" (or create an optical illusion) that a pear shaped figure is hour-glass by exaggerating the appearance of the shoulder. Well, I'm a hourglass with a DDD bust, so exaggerating my shoulders is not a good look at all. There is nothing wrong with my body. Certain design elements are just not included in the artistic direction of my wardrobe choices. Value, cherish, respect, care and protect you and your body: every freckle, curl of hair, big nose and every crooked toe, scar and muffin top. Enjoy it. Above all be compassionate to yourself. Perfection is not what humans are for. When you love, accept and care for yourself and do what is best for yourself when you need it, fewer people have the ability to hurt your feelings either intentionally or by accident.

    In business, I have delt with bridal shops, designer stockists and wedding vendors at various times when I was full blown bulimic (type II), overweight, clinically depressed, and unemployed or underemployed. While my feelings were miffed a few times over the years, I am genuinely surprised by the responses here to sample sizes in bridal. I do not expect bridal stores to carry every dress in 10 sizes. That level of service and business risk would make the dresses purchased there considerably more expensive. Are you willing to pay more for that level of service when their stock is already more expensive than David's Bridal to begin with? Is there a stockist who can accommodate that request?

    Even buying J Crew suiting , I made the conscious decision to order from too small samples rather than drive out of state to try on my size and save the gas money. It worked. In contrast, I agree that it is worth it to research and travel to stockists resplendent with sample dresses size 14 through 30; designers who do pattern changes, for my fellow super busty and super tall ladies; custom hollow to hem included for petite lovelies or the wonder woman in search of size 4 or size 11 or extra narrow super pretty shoes. Even Walmart doesn't stock everything. Identify your needs, find the suppliers to cater their stock to it and make decisions as money and sanity allow. Find the business model or merchandise that suit your needs, no business can cater to everyone.

    P.S. That awkward moment when I complete the post and realize the whole essay is an applied scenario of healing the broken world though compassion for the self and compassion for others. Well played Lubavitcher Rebbe, well played. Happy Passover Everybody!

  11. I was nervous about buying my dress. I was going to order a dress off of one of those Chinese dress websites until I read the reviews. My wedding was 8 months away and I needed a dress, so I went to my local Davids Bridal.
    I was pretty intimidated when I walked in. It was white wedding perfection when I walked in. I'm not a typical bride.. at the time I had pastel pink hair and I'm covered head to toe in tattoos. The receptionist was super nice, but the stylists weren't so friendly. They all kind of leered and passed me off on other stylists because the were "busy". Finally they decided to give me to Jessica. I think they did, because she was new.
    Honestly, I'm glad the other stylists were busy pretending to be busy. Jessica was amazing. She was upbeat and on a mission to make me the most beautiful bride of all the brides that ever were. ..lol. I told her my price range and we picked out some dresses. The entire time I was trying on dresses we talked and laughed and shared stories about our favorite movies, etc.
    When I found my dress, we both cheered with joy and she found me a veil to complete the look and we even took pictures with me posing in silly poses. She stayed with me every step of the way through the paperwork, fitting appointment set-up and financing.
    Jessica was my best friend for those 2 hours, and made me feel special and beautiful. I made sure she took a picture with me before I left. I posted that picture to my Facebook and I also recommend her to anyone talking about buying a wedding dress.
    Thank you, Jessica!

  12. I think this is totally luck of the draw. I went to a chain store and felt rushed / didn't feel like they put in the effort to find what I wanted (for instance I told them I didn't want a train, and all the dresses they brought out had crazy long trains). But I went to a small boutique and felt unsatisfied with the customer service also.

    However, I lucked out and found a store (Vows in Watertown, MA for you New England brides!) that was HUGE, with a giant selection of discount sample dresses. The size of their inventory was a little overwhelming, but when I described what I was looking for, my price range, and my size to the consultant, she brought out a ton of dresses that fit what I was looking for exactly. In the end there were three similar dresses that I really loved, and it was hard to choose between the three! Honestly I think I could have gone with any of them and been happy.

    Cannot recommend this store, their service, and their selection enough!!

  13. I am in my early 30s and worked in a bridal shop for almost 10 years and it was quite an experience!Most of the brides to be were nice and cooperative,but there were those who wanted 'just certain way' with there gown so it was deal with them the best you know how.In the last few years,the 'bridal diaper craze' hit and i was having brides ask me if we carried 'bridal diapers'-for brides to wear with their big poofy gowns with lots of crinolines under them making it hard to use the restroom!We also sold confirmation and First Communion and Baptism dresses and all the accessories to go with them.I found it more difficult to deal with the older girls who were being baptized,making First Communion,or being confirmed.There were two catholic parishes within a few miles of each other and both parishes required the all white outfits for the girls.It was the baptism outfit requirements at both parishes that i found was the hardest part of my job having to deal with the teen girls being baptized and their moms.Both parishes required the girls to wear a poofy,white,sleeveless,top of the knees,baptism dress and matching bonnet,lace anklets or tights,and white shoes.We carried the white poofy dresses and bonnets in all sizes fro little girls all the way up to teen sizes as well as the lace anklets and the tights.The little girls and preteen girls and their moms were fairly easy to deal with,but id was the teen girls who made it hard and were very picky about their baptism dresses! Some teen girls would try on a dozen or more baptism dresses and bonnets before deciding on one! The moms would ask me if we carried the required cloth diapers and plastic pants that both parishes required under the baptism dresses and i would tell them no,that we only carried a few bridal diapers for brides and that was it.I am glad i got out of the bridal shop now and feel much more relaxed!

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