cheapism

Buy your wedding gown without breaking the bank

April 11, 2012 at 10:35 AM ET

This dress by Tadashi Shoji costs $468 at Nordstrom.

It used to be that bridal salons, in all their finery, stood alone on a pedestal. But in the past several years, bridal entourages have turned their attention to mass-market apparel chains, which show off more affordable styles. While American women spend an average of $1,121 on their wedding gowns, according to a recent survey by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com, elegant dresses go for less than half that amount at department stores and other off-the-rack retailers.

Below are Cheapism’s top picks for brides-to-be on a budget.

  • J. Crew wedding dresses (starting at $298) were among the first to attract frugal brides, who praise the sophisticated design and excellent quality. The line has expanded from only two styles in 2004 to more than 50 dresses available online. Brides can try on gowns in person at stores that carry the wedding collection. (Where to buy)
  • Nordstrom wedding dresses (starting at $178) receive glowing reviews for their flattering fit and design that commands the spotlight. The retailer’s customer service stands out both online and in-store, where brides can book appointments with wedding stylists at 18 locations. (Where to buy)
  • Bloomingdale's wedding dresses (starting at $248) generally have a less “bridal” look, attracting women who don’t see themselves in something from a traditional salon, according to reviews. The wedding section of the website is designed as a one-stop shop for everything from a dress for an engagement party to resort wear for the honeymoon. (Where to buy)

Price isn’t the only advantage of shopping at these stores. When you order a dress, it ships right away -- often arriving within a week -- instead of taking months to come in. And if you change your mind, you’re not stuck with a special-ordered dress. All our picks offer the option to return a gown to a store or by mail, if you order online. That’s one luxury a fancy salon doesn’t afford.

Before you commit to an off-the-rack gown, be sure to inspect it carefully. The seams should be straight and the fabric free of pulled threads. Be on the lookout for high-end material such as silk, which is uncommon but not unheard-of at this price point. You can also find intricate detail, although embellishment is sewn on by machine rather than by hand.

Opting for a less expensive dress doesn’t have to mean forgoing fashion-forward style. The collections on our list feature many of the season’s top wedding trends, as identified by The Knot. At Bloomingdale’s we saw slits and high-low hemlines, and Nordstrom features illusion necklines with jewels and beading atop sheer fabric.

Not all mass-market wedding collections offer the same level of savings. Much has been made of the Kirstie Kelly line at Costco, for instance, but those gowns start at about $700. That’s more than a majority of the dresses available at Ann Taylor, which has won favor for its affordable wedding collection. Designs by the Urban Outfitters brand BHLDN start at $600, but most fetch four figures.

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