During I became engaged last year, I knew what wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t want a ‘venue’ with those awful conference centre chairs covered in some white muslin and a lilac organza bow; I had no interest in creating a Pinterest mood board; there would be no baskets of flip-flops, nor overgrown bridesmaids in creepy matching dresses. Moreover, crucially, I wasn’t going near a bridal shop.
My wedding ideas have always been that they’re inescapably naff, and not something I especially aspired to. I’ve watched friends marry, with varying degrees of bridezilla rearing through. However I’d also seen them let down by the supposed ‘magical’ process they’d been willing to sign up to: if you’re over a size 12, trying on dress samples – while the sales assistant wrenches the two sides of the dress together behind you so you can try and imagine what it would look like if your hips weren’t getting in the way – is depressing.
Being directed by a bored jeweller to the small corner of their wedding ring tray featuring the meek-looking diamonds in your budget is unnecessarily patronising. Being quoted over £1,000 for a regional hairdresser to come and blow-dry your hair? That’s just offensive.
However you know what I learnt? You don’t have to play their game. The traditional wedding market is an overpriced taste crisis. As that old sage Frank Underwood in House of Cards says, ‘If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.’ I feel this is particularly applicable when discussing any occasion featuring table ornamentation.
Shopping for a non-bridal wedding dress, however, did not come without its challenges. My mother asked me several times if I was sure I didn’t want a wedding dress, before pleading that ‘it would be pale, wouldn’t it?’. Even though I fell in love with a black tulle Simone Rocha dress, I felt a nagging obligation to choose something softer.
But in a heady winter fashion season, it was tricky to find things that weren’t dark or in heavy damask materials. Plus, wearing a ready-to-wear gown runs the risk of a red-carpet gazumping before ‘your’ day. I tried on an Erdem dress that Kate Middleton was later photographed wearing. Thankfully I didn’t buy it, but it was quite chilling.
If you’re willing to spend £2,000 or upwards, there are many gorgeous choices – the current spring/summer collections from Erdem, Giambattista Valli, Alexander McQueen, Roksanda, Balenciaga and Oscar de la Renta all have exquisite gowns with a modern edge in white or cream. Net-A-Porter even has a dedicated ‘wedding’ section for designers who include bridal-appropriate dresses in their collections.
Ready-to-wear designer is much better value and better crafted than similarly priced bridal dresses, and there’s no reason why a good seamstress can’t alter it if you find you fall between sizes. And, obviously, there’s the keener financial point: you’re more likely to wear it again.
I wasn’t going to spend more than £1,500, which is, bizarrely, a wasteland price bracket with not a huge amount of options. In the end, I found an empire-line gem by Giles, covered in a pinky-chestnut mushroom print, which fanned out dramatically.
“Ready-to-wear offers brilliant alternatives and you don’t need to order months in advance or go to multiple fittings”
I tried it on at matchesfashion.com’s lovely Marylebone private shopping townhouse (open to all). It was about six foot too long, so I had it shortened by the very good Design and Alter. My shoes were pale-pink Prada Mary Janes (which I wear now with everything); plus, my one bridal moment: a veil.
Initially my mother suggested, sweetly, that I could wear hers. She unearthed it and, somewhat ceremoniously, unfolded the strip of 1970s lace from its tissue paper. Our eyes met over the era-appropriate red-wine stains and cigarette burn-holes that punctuated the thing. It wasn’t quite the heirloom piece I’d imagined. I politely declined, and borrowed my best friend’s (pristine) Jenny Packham veil.
For her wedding last summer, PR director Susan Wylie Roberts, 32, wore a beautiful (white) woven silk-jacquard Alexander McQueen gown, purchased – with champagne – at Selfridges’ private shopping. ‘The bridal shops just didn’t offer anything that remotely appealed to me,’ she says. ‘I wanted something modern, and I couldn’t find that. But ready-to-wear offers many brilliant alternatives and you don’t need to order months in advance or go to multiple fittings.’
Susan Wylie Roberts in Alexander McQueen for her wedding to Luke
Susan Wylie Roberts in Alexander McQueen for her wedding to Luke Credit: Bradley Quinn
For second weddings these days, anything seems to go – if you want more of a cocktail dress (à la Jerry Hall), then there are plenty of great options beyond a plain shift dress. Charlie Brear, who creates a fashion-led bridal line (as well as eveningwear), explains, ‘Our client is anywhere from 25 through to mid to late 40s and, while there are no rules, our 35-plus brides are often more body confident and relaxed. Compared to our 20-something brides, they’re less influenced by convention and tend to choose the more fashion-led, directional pieces in the collection.’
Nonetheless, a writer friend, Elizabeth Leighton, 49, gave up on ready-to-wear after not finding anything she liked, but still wanted to avoid the bridal circus. ‘At my first wedding, aged 33, I wore an Elspeth Gibson oyster-coloured sequin skirt and a cashmere top, and the ceremony was in a London register office. This time I was 47, had three children and was having an English country wedding,’ she says.
“I think that people would rather spend their money on the party”
‘I was anxious about looking appropriate – it wasn’t even really that it was a second time, more about my age. A friend recommended Joanne Fleming, who makes gowns based on vintage designs. I tried on one that was an off-the-shoulder ’50s/Dior New Look-style with full skirt for around £800. I was still worried about the fabric.
‘At first I was going to have a pale eau de nil. But then I went to another second wedding and the bride had really gone for it – a white floor-length gown and veil. I thought, “If she can wear white, so can I.” I went for ivory and it was a great decision.’
Having something made can be a canny option. My cousin had her wedding dress made for around £1,000 by a local seamstress, following a design from a notable bridal designer. Meanwhile fashion PR, Lucy Hemelryk, 30, commissioned her dress for £2,000 after failing to find a ready-to-wear or bridal option that worked for her.
‘I don’t ordinarily wear dresses. I’m happiest in jeans. I’m very petite and quite particular so it was easier to commission someone than buy from a designer.’ She does, however, add, ‘Although it’s a little cheaper, it is a lot more stressful.’
If you google ‘seamstress’ you’ll find lots, so check for references and ask to see work or speak to previous clients about their experience before committing. Offer clear direction, and have them come with you to choose fabrics, as they will know how things hang.
What to do if you want a wedding dress without breaking the bank or affronting reasonable levels of taste? Thankfully the high street has finally fixed its sights on giving bridal a makeover. Monsoon has stocked very pretty bridal options for a while now, and recently Asos and H&M both launched dedicated bridal collections, offering classic and trend-led pieces. Vanessa Spence, design director at Asos, says, ‘I think people would rather spend the money on the party. Our customer is really into fashion, but she just doesn’t want to spend that much.’
Also, she might want more than one option on the day – Asos’s elegant jumpsuit would make a great evening look if you wanted to de-dress (very Solange Knowles). The dresses are delivered in a posher box than usual, and come in petite and ‘curve’ sizes.
At a slightly higher price point, Self-Portrait, the London-based brand making occasionwear current with its signature lace cut-out dresses, has also branched out into bridal. Designer Han Chong explains that, ‘I noticed that there aren’t many brands offering cool dresses that aren’t too over-the-top. We want to take the stress out of bridal shopping to the point where brides can skip bridal boutiques altogether. My friends don’t want a typical wedding and find it too stressful to go gown shopping. They want a dress that is fuss-free and versatile.’
Also worth a look is Needle and Thread, which offers chic separates as well as princess-ish long embroidered dresses from £150 to £850 on Net-A-Porter.
Other system-beating ideas: why not try second-hand? At gillianmillion.com, pre-worn dresses from all the fancy bridal names are on sale for a fraction of the price. One friend got her dress – which had been only worn for two hours at the evening reception of its original owner – for £4,000 less than its original price. She later sold it back to the site. Now that’s a shrewd bridal move.
There are also, certainly, sample sales. Interesting fact: most of these dresses are remnants from cancelled weddings. Whether to take on that karma is something every woman must decide for herself.