Why Wedding Dress Shopping is so Horrible

By Alyssa Rosenberg November 4 at 1:45 PM

Every person who decides to have a wedding has his or her own encounters with the irrationalities and unfairness of the various industries dedicated to selling expensive white dresses, arranging flowers, catering dinners and selling monogrammed paper napkins and fans. When my colleague Catherine Rampell was a reporter at the New York Times, she launched an economics-minded investigation and concluded that “Bridezillas keep prices high for the rest of us,” their convictions that their marriages cannot be legal without Mason jars or Vera Wang dresses eliminating price elasticity and transparency.

We cannot all have Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, but we definitely deserve a better shopping experience. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

For me, the part of wedding planning that has made me feel most like an insane person (thus far) is shopping for a wedding dress. Even if you do not buy the idea that a wedding dress is the most important piece of clothing a woman will ever purchase, it is certainly likely to be among the most expensive. So why is every facet of the traditional wedding dress shopping process set up to make it incredibly difficult for women to make the decisions that are right for them?

Some of the ways in which wedding dress shopping is different from other retail experiences are petty. Certain salons, though not all of them, ban shoppers from taking pictures of themselves in dresses. I suppose I understand why an industry that sells extremely expensive, single-use items with a value that is hugely dependent on perception and sentiment would do this. If I were a bridal designer or retailer, I would be terrified that my potential clients were going to take pictures of my wares and combine practicality with fluttery feelings by asking a seamstress to recreate a dress at a more sensible price point.

But in more consequential ways, bridal retailers often seem to fail at being, well, retailers. I had two appointments with traditional bridal salons earlier this year. And while both had carpeted private changing rooms with boxes for me to stand on so I could pretend I was wearing high heels, and both had saleswomen assigned to me, neither store had the actual dresses I visited them to look at.

On the first trip, I made an appointment at a trunk show (for the uninitiated, an event where designers who do not normally stock their wares in stores bring samples to different cities) at a bridal salon that is part of a larger Washington clothing store. When I made the appointment, I asked specifically about trying on a certain design and was assured it would be available.

But when I showed up and stripped down to my Spanx, the designer’s representative told me that the dress was not available for sale anymore. Which would have been awesome to know before I stuck it on a Pinterest board, much less took off from work early and planned an additional trip to New York to try to track it down.

I tried another traditional bridal salon in Virginia on the strength of the pitch on its Web site: the store is the only local retailer that stocks a couple of brands of dresses that caught my eye. Only, when we got there, the saleswoman tartly informed me that they did not have a single dress from one designer in stock and that they only had a few by the others. Maybe, she suggested, I could come back in a few months when they got the new line in.

This lack of transparency — and why not be honest? — and concern for customers is not just a waste of our time and research energy. It is in direct contradiction with the idea that a wedding dress is important and special.

Apparently, when we show up with pages ripped out of bridal magazines and carefully curated Pin boards, we then are supposed to abandon all of our preferences and research and just fall in love with something else. This is your very special day! But your opinions do not really matter, and because you are a woman, you can be distracted by something else! Wheeee! Cosmos for everyone!

The best wedding dress shopping experiences I had occurred in more-crowded dressing rooms, where I had to share mirrors with other women who are getting married, and my friends had to wait for their entourages to vacate the few available seats. Unlike their snazzier counterparts, J.Crew and Anthropologie — which are relatively new entrants in the wedding dress game — sell dresses at price points that feel only marginally rather than seriously deranged. And when you go to their stores, they actually have the dresses that appear on their Web sites available for you to try on.

When H&M debuted a wedding line that consists of a single $99 dress earlier this year, Caitlin Dewey wrote that the offering “promotes — on a massive, mainstream scale — values that run opposite absolutely everything the wedding industry stands for. H&M is essentially telling brides that what they wear on their wedding day has no bearing on how much they love their spouse-to-be.”

Or maybe it is telling them that no matter what they spend, they deserve clarity about the potential selection and a decent return for what they are willing to shell out. It says a lot about the wedding industry’s failures that this still feels like a radical idea.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.