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Cheap Wedding Dress Buying Guide

Certainly all the excitement and fantasy surrounding a wedding isn't lost on the bridal industry. But retailers have become highly attuned to the new frugal zeitgeist.

Our research found several national apparel chains that feature lines of cheap wedding dresses or collections of evening gowns that could easily pass for wedding attire. Even Costco, the discount mass merchandiser, has crashed the wedding party, as has Urban Outfitters, with its BHLDN line. Both retailers, however, showcase wedding dresses at prices that surpass our definition of "cheap."

Wedding Dress Reviews: Customer Service
Best Wedding Dress Selection and Quality
Wedding Dresses Online
Wedding Dress Alterations, Used Wedding Dresses

So what does qualify as cheap? A long silk chiffon or tricotine gown for $425 at J. Crew, for example, or a one-shoulder satin gown for $288 at Nordstrom. These aren't upmarket designer duds, mind you. At this price point, you'll be shopping by store or vendor, rather than searching for specific dresses by big-name designers. Unless you wear a size 6, 8, or 10 and can score a high-end gown from a sample sale (which normally happens only a couple of times a year, when bridal salons look to clear their racks to make room for a new season's stock), you'll be looking at cheap wedding dresses from retailers including department stores, mass-market apparel brands, and, of course, David's Bridal.

There are also scads of independent wedding boutiques and online-only vendors that sell cheap wedding gowns, most showcasing lines designed specifically for the budget end of the market. Other sources of cheap wedding gowns are wholesale warehouses located abroad (usually in China) that sell through the web and ship gowns and accessories at cut-rate prices; AphroBridal.com is one example. Comments on Wedding Wire and elsewhere suggest that such sites do have some satisfied customers. However, complaints abound from brides whose dresses didn't match online photos or never arrived at all. Others don't like that many of the dresses are replicas, for which the original designer gets no credit or compensation.

Instead, we recommend embracing one of the many stylish and well-made wedding dresses available at reputable retailers. We found Nordstrom and J. Crew to be the best sources of cheap wedding dresses, followed by Bloomingdale's, which aggregates wedding apparel on its website and sells bridal dresses in stores but doesn't offer the same specialized service. Ann Taylor's wedding line just missed our list because it carries only a few dresses under $500 -- although many for $550 -- and most of the few reviews we found concern bridesmaids' dresses rather than bridal gowns. We walked away from David's Bridal because reviews indicate it comes up short on customer service.

The trick to finding the perfect cheap wedding dress is to spend time shopping and learning about gowns, rather than make a snap decision. Bridal sales associates are notorious for aggressive selling. Try to keep your emotions at bay and focus on the practical -- you'll have a much better chance of loving the dress you choose.

Wedding Dress Reviews: Customer Service

Shopping for a wedding gown is such an individual experience that even retailers and dress lines that garner strongly positive reviews are also subject to criticism. There also isn't an abundance of wedding dress reviews online, nor is there much feedback on the vendors that sell them. However, we found enough reviews to draw some conclusions that should help frugal brides-to-be find their match.

Based on the wedding dress reviews we read, brides on a budget are not inclined to lower their standards. They still want quality fabric and construction, service that's attentive without being pushy, and clean gowns to try on if they venture into a store. They are wary of retailers who sell good-quality gowns at budget prices but then compensate by charging high fees for alterations (ahem, David's Bridal).

Customer Service.

Wedding dress reviews indicate that brides expect courteous and respectful service, especially from retailers who require appointments. Customers who shop at Nordstrom, J. Crew, or David's Bridal have access to a personal wedding consultant; Nordstrom also offers personalized service through live chat or by phone. Unlike bridal salons, where dresses are special-ordered, take months to come in, and cannot be returned, all the retailers on our list promise snappy service (some dresses arrive in less than a week) and the possibility to return a bargain wedding gown if you come down with a case of buyer's remorse. Brides who order a dress online expect prompt delivery (or at least delivery within the time specified on the site) and packaging that minimizes wrinkling or flattening, according to wedding dress reviews.

Nordstrom is credited for its helpful sales associates in wedding dress reviews posted on Yelp. Brides say store employees are patient and cheery and have followed up via email to see if an accessory that was ordered fit well. Shoppers commenting on Wedding Wire laud Nordstrom's informative website, generous return policy, and prompt shipping.

J. Crew offers in-store shopping at only a few locations, and most reviews that mention service praise the consultants' professionalism and relaxed demeanor. One saleswoman went out of her way to get "the" dress shipped to a Chicago store's wedding boutique, according to a wedding dress review on Yelp. However, we did come across a few comments about negative experiences in the Manhattan boutique with staff who struck some shoppers as snooty and indifferent. Two brides interviewed for a Wall Street Journal article, on the other hand, were thrilled at how quickly their online orders showed up on their doorsteps.

You won't find specialized wedding stylists at Bloomingdale's. Brides who have posted wedding dress reviews at Wedding Wire say the in-store service doesn't match what you would expect from a bridal salon, but the sales associates are helpful. Most wedding-related reviews of the customer service at Bloomingdale's center on its registry service and other merchandise such as invitations and jewelry.

Reading through wedding dress reviews, it was hard not to notice the many negative comments about customer service at David's Bridal. Shoppers posting on Complaints Board say the sales staff is inattentive, and an impersonal air permeates the store, making what should be a thrilling and intimate experience seem very cold. More than one bride commenting on Yelp compares her experience at the store in Milpitas, Calif., to buying a used car. Wedding dress reviews posted on Yelp about other stores in the chain gripe about dirty samples and smelly facilities. The price of alterations is another target of customers' ire, with many suggesting fellow brides turn to an independent seamstress. Several brides-to-be also report agonizing moments when an altered dress was not ready for a scheduled pick-up.

Review continues below

The return policy at David's Bridal is relatively strict. According to the website, dresses purchased at the store cannot be returned or exchanged, although customers posting reviews on Brides.com report that the chain sometimes makes exceptions. David's Bridal accepts returns of online merchandise within 14 days, and only when sent via snail mail; dresses can't be returned to a store.

Best Wedding Dress Selection and Quality

Our picks for the best cheap wedding dresses -- Nordstrom and J. Crew -- are noted for high-quality gowns at affordable prices and for styles that are elegant and modern. The downside is the relatively small sizes of these standout collections: Under-$500 gowns currently number 14 at Nordstrom and 10 at J. Crew. The entire J. Crew line includes more than 50 different styles, but prices reach $3,000. Other budget vendors, such as Jessica McClintock, carry no more than a dozen wedding dresses in total.

And yet, brides seem quite satisfied with the choices. Nordstrom earns praise for the look and fit of its dresses in bridal gown reviews on the company's website. Nearly 50 brides favor a flowy, empire-waisted gown with beading and sequins, especially for a destination or second wedding. They note that the $178 dress is lined and the material produces a slimming effect.

Bridal gown reviews on Project Wedding are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the J. Crew line. Customers comment on the luxurious feel of the material, quality construction, and flattering fit. The unpretentious styling draws in brides who disdain the frou-frou look of many more traditional wedding gowns, according to reviews on Yelp, and the limited range of offerings appeals to some shoppers because it's not overwhelming. But be forewarned: Some shoppers say the fabrics and designs tend to show off whatever pudge you may have and seem geared toward women with toned bodies.

Bloomingdale's carries 61 bridal dresses, including 28 under $500 and a few of the same styles as Nordstrom. Some may not fit many brides' vision of wedding gown, though. For instance, on the company's website, a couple of customers applaud a Sue Wong dress with a short petal skirt and beading detail, but one wore it as a guest at a wedding, not as a bride. There are also almost no other reviews of current designs. However, we found very positive reviews of discontinued styles at Bloomingdale's. Brides rave about a silk jacquard beaded gown, which delivered a show-stopping look that could easily be trotted out again for a future event. A tea-length dress with a black sash was even more beautiful in person than in the picture, according to brides who wore it in their weddings and posted reviews on the Bloomingdale's site.

Jessica McClintock offers a limited bridal line made of taffeta, satin, and charmeuse. The gowns are described by some shoppers as worth their low prices (which start at $190) even if they're not the best wedding dresses in terms of quality. Many are more typically "bridal," with fuller skirts and other architectural features, although most have no train. These might appeal to frugal brides who can't find what they're looking for among all the sheath dresses at other budget outfitters.

While Ann Taylor offers only a few wedding dresses in our range, eight fall just outside it, at $550, and no gown commands more than three figures. Many are made of silk, and bridal gown reviews dub the line attractive and affordable. On Wedding Wire, a couple of brides find the customer service lacking, but others say the gowns are well-made and pretty in their simple elegance. An editor at Brides magazine lauds the spring 2012 collection for its range and value. Several bridal gown reviews note that Ann Taylor dresses are unfussy and practical.

David's Bridal claims about one-third of the U.S. market, and some of those many customers talk up the selection, quality, and value of the mega-chain's dresses, most of which sell for less than $1,000. However, some brides posting wedding dress reviews on sites such as Wedding Wire say the dresses are made from low-quality fabric and lack any design panache. You can buy an off-the-rack dress at David's Bridal stores, but it's likely to have been tried on by many other shoppers and may be torn or dirty.

Wedding Dress Fabrics.

Before committing to a gown, be sure to feel the fabric and read the label. The best wedding dresses in any price range are made from quality fabric. There are dozens of options, from lightweight chiffon to luxurious lace. Don't be afraid to question a fabric. Italian satin is not silk, for example -- it might be a fancy name for Chinese polyester. If you have your heart set on silk, be on the lookout for fabric nubs -- these are natural, but there should be very few. A quality satin is smooth and flexible. Chiffon should be soft and free-flowing. Gowns made from chiffon, organza, or tulle should have thick layers -- you certainly don't want to parade around in a see-through dress. The best wedding dresses are beautiful but also sturdy. Your gown shouldn't snag, run, or tear as you walk down the aisle or dance with your groom.

Wedding Dress Details.

For a gown to lie properly, the seams must be precise. Be sure to inspect a dress for seams that are straight and evenly spaced, especially if it's lightweight or form-fitting. If you're shopping for an off-the-rack or sample-sale dress, be on the lookout for pulled threads or ripped seams.

For some women, a wedding is not complete without something in the way of sequins, beads, ribbons, or rhinestones. But that doesn't mean you have to go over your $500 budget. We looked at plenty of inexpensive wedding gowns online that feature at least some decorative detail, be it beading, appliques, ruffles, or embroidery. On cheaper gowns, the detailing is stitched by machine rather than by hand.

Wedding Dresses Online

Real Simple reports that most brides still purchase their gowns at a physical store, according to a fashion editor at The Knot. Not surprisingly, many women prefer to try on a gown before purchasing to get a feel for the material and see whether the look and fit are right. And for some the in-store experience is integral to the wedding romance. But shopping for a cheap wedding dress online has grown in popularity, perhaps because consumers are making more and more online purchases in general, lured by the web's convenience and boundless selection (and perhaps because some women just don't want to deal with the whole bride thing). Shopping for a cheap wedding dress online also seems to appeal to brides who prefer something less formal or simply need a dress on short notice.

Whatever the reason, some retailers, including all those on our list, are hedging their bets by offering cheap wedding dresses online as well as in their stores. J. Crew, for instance, features 10 cheap wedding dresses online (starting at $298 for a knee-length lace dress). Most of the cheapest styles are available only online or in the catalog; only a couple are carried by the 11 stores with the wedding collection. The store has a $175 threshold for free shipping, so all the wedding dresses qualify. Gowns bought online or through the catalog can be returned to any J. Crew store for a refund or exchange within 60 days.

Nordstrom features 14 gowns for less than $500 on its website (the cheapest priced at $178), as well as a wide selection of "little white dresses." It operates wedding suites at 18 locations. Nordstrom provides free shipping and free returns and exchanges by mail. Brides who buy a cheap wedding dress online can also return it to a store. Both Nordstrom and J. Crew require an appointment if you want to physically inspect the goods; don't count on a walk-in unless the shop is not busy and you can sweet-talk the staff into cutting you some slack.

The Bloomingdale's website houses 28 long and short low-cost wedding dresses, starting at $248. All styles qualify for the company's free standard shipping on orders of at least $150. The store will accept returns or exchanges but does not pay for shipping on returns by mail, except in case of an error on its part. Dresses purchased online can also be returned to most of the more than 40 brick-and-mortar stores.

If David's Bridal is on your list of preferred vendors, you can shop from the comfort of your couch or at one of its hundreds of retail locations (by appointment, please). Most of the stock at David's Bridal is designed in-house, and we counted nearly 200 styles with price tags of $500 or less featured on the website. For $99 there's a long, charmeuse dress with a halter neckline or a short, sleeveless, chiffon dress with ruffles in the front and tiered layers on the skirt. Sales bring even a few styles from the much-touted White by Vera Wang line into our price range. A good number of David's Bridal designs seem suited for larger women. Some gowns are available only online, some only in stores, and a few at either source.

Ann Taylor offers most of its cheap wedding dresses online only. Four of the 20 gowns in the line sell for less than $500 and eight others come in at $550, just beyond our budget range. Gowns ordered online can be returned by mail but not to Ann Taylor stores. A couple of moderately priced wedding dress labels, including Alfred Angelo and Casablanca, sell only through authorized retailers (and warn of the perils of buying online) but let brides search their websites and enter a ZIP code to find a nearby store. Unlike most designers, Alfred Angelo also lists prices online; they start as low as $259.

One factor to consider if you go the online route is whether you feel comfortable ordering a cheap wedding dress online without trying it on. Bear in mind that you typically have the option to return the dress for whatever reason, although you may have to pay for return shipping and wait for a replacement.

Wedding Dress Alterations, Used Wedding Dresses

Planning a wedding can be overwhelming, so many brides-to-be want to get everything in one spot. That means wedding dress alterations, cheap wedding accessories such as jewelry, and even gowns for bridesmaids and moms.

Most of the vendors we researched offer on-site alteration services. But beware: In-store alterations may cost more than having the work done on the outside. Indeed, despite the convenience of on-site wedding dress alterations, we found plenty of comments posted by David's Bridal customers complaining about the high fees charged for necessary adjustments.

For the most part, you're on your own when it comes to tucks, hems, and repairs, whether you're buying a budget wedding gown online or at a store. While J. Crew doesn't take care of wedding dress alterations, the retailer does carry petite sizes, which may save shorter brides from having to pay for hemming.

The wedding dress purveyors we researched stock all kinds of accessories, from shoes to veils to undergarments, although not every retailer carries them all. The selection seems relatively limited at Ann Taylor and most extensive at David's Bridal. Prices for any given accessory vary by vendor and appear to be highest at Nordstrom and J. Crew. Without passing any judgment on quality or aesthetics, we found floor-length veils for $464 at J. Crew and $69 at David's Bridal. By the way, brides say one advantage to working with a consultant at J. Crew, David's Bridal, or Nordstrom is getting tips on how to accessorize a dress.

If you're hoping to outfit the rest of your wedding party from the same source, it's relatively easy to do. Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, and J. Crew carry dresses, shoes, accessories, and gifts for bridesmaids, as well as the necessary duds for the groom and his posse. Flower girls and ring bearers can also be accommodated. Ann Taylor focuses on the bride and her attendants, and David's Bridal also sticks with the female gender but can cover them all, including special guests.

Used Wedding Dresses.

One last piece of advice: Don't limit your search to brand-new gowns. Used wedding dresses are often cheaper still, and may have originally come from a designer or upscale bridal boutique. They also may never have been worn before. We've seen "pre-owned" wedding gowns sold by brides who changed their wedding venue or their mind about a dress and couldn't return it to a salon.

Check out sites such as eBay and Craigslist, which might have listings for used wedding dresses in your locale. PreOwnedWeddingDresses.com, Recycled Bride, and Once Wed connect bridal gown buyers and sellers. Encore Bridal offers gently used wedding dresses through its "e-boutique" as well as a showroom in San Francisco. Don't forget vintage stores and local bridal consignment shops -- or borrowing from a relative, which may imbue your wedding dress with more meaning.

Brides Against Breast Cancer sells new and used wedding dresses at low prices and contributes part of the profit to cancer research. The group sometimes offers designer dresses from the prior season, which is another way to snag a gown fit for a princess at a pauper's price.

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