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Budget Bride II: Dress for a Mess

Something marked down, something askew, something old, something like-new--anything but a pretentious designer outfit you'll only wear once, with a four-figure price tag! Since my own wedding at age 24, I've attended many weddings of friends and family and seen many different styles of wedding dress--formal, casual, homemade, upcycled, discounted, and haute couture. At all of those different weddings, I have only ever heard family and friends of the bride throw shade on one gown--a very expensive, custom-made, imported piece of couture with a whole fussy and dramatic backstory. There was nothing objectionable about the dress per se, but the rumors of how much money, time, and effort it required sort of elicited snark and disgust among the practical Midwestern guests. Ouch! 

I don't recommend that anyone choose their wedding attire primarily to avoid criticism or to people-please the whole guest list. Your big-day drag should celebrate you and your partner, and it should reflect your own tastes and values and vibe. However, if you are throwing a whole wedding ceremony with a guest list, this day is also about interactive performance. It can be uncomfortable to project a strong message that you don't intend to communicate to your loved ones, so think of your attire as celebrating what everyone you've invited already loves about you. Lean into that rather than leaning into shock-and-awe, unless that's what you're known and loved for. Nobody is going to forget that you're the bride, regardless of how much your gown cost.

And this next tip shouldn't need to be said, but alas, it ever must be restated: Never, ever choose bridesmaid dresses that are intentionally less flattering than your own gown. For Friday's sake. 'Zilla is not a cute theme. If you're fearful of being upstaged, don't choose bridesmaids that you fear will upstage you. In fact, don't even be friends with anyone you trust so little--or for whom you drag around the cold, harsh shadow of envy. For best lighting, surround yourself with people who spark the kind of joy in you that makes you glow from within.

The most exquisitely graceful bride I've ever seen--who elicited gasps of awe and loving tears in the eyes of her guests--appeared as radiant as an immortal nymph in nothing but a slip of vintage ivory silk she'd found at a sidewalk sale or something. Anyway, the wedding vows that she and her groom exchanged were so moving that everyone was crying too lustily to be able to see whether her hem was even ironed. 

A wedding may include photo shoots, but it isn't just one big photo shoot. It's a real, juicy, visceral expression of love that will burn itself like a legend into the hearts of your witnesses, if you do it right.

But if even the magic of tear-jerking won't make you comfortable enough to wear a minimalist gown in front of a crowd, you can absolutely rule as belle of the ball in a fully maximalist ensemble. There are many ways to be a beautiful bride! Just match your clothing style to your personality style. A more colorful, complex outfit can help some brides to loosen up, embrace chaos, and party joyfully into the night. Nobody is going to notice a wine stain on a rainbow polka dot tutu.

Do wear a tidy, elegant gown if that's your jam. But also don't if it isn't.

When my daughter was in preschool, her teacher expressed deep regret that she had always taken care to dress her own young children in neat, clean, matching clothes. She sighed. "What fun is that?" She shook her head sadly at herself for missing out on what is now her favorite look on a child--free self-expression, the less sensible the better.

In my humble opinion, no wedding is complete without hours and hours spent playing with small children, romping outdoors (at least for photo ops), and tackling logistical challenges in public restrooms. It adds an unnecessary amount of struggle to wear something elaborate that you are hoping to keep immaculate.

So if someone in your life hasn't offered to make you a dress for free (without being too precious about it), grab something off a clearance rack or a thrift store mannequin and spend a few bucks on custom details and tailoring--nothing you'd need a magnifying glass to notice. If you're feeling mad body confident, consider a simple, body-con dress. If you desire structural enhancement of your body bits, spend a decent amount on (reusable!) flattering foundation garments, and sneak your cheap gown on over to a regular tailor (avoiding the "wedding tax") to have it molded to your swerves. You can look like a million bucks for only two or three figures, if you put it all together cleverly.

These concepts can be applied to any style or personality. There are no hard and fast rules to fashion, especially post-Covid. So go nuts! Just don't go for broke. Save your money for the honeymoon.

Dress for a Mess

Sometimes, having a low budget is more fun. If you can't simply purchase fabulousness, it forces you to become more creative and thoughtful about the significance of your big day and the true meaning of beauty. Also, wearing clothing that doesn't cost more than your car frees you to let loose and have fun with less worry and discomfort.

The most important garment is, of course, the bridal gown. There are many ways for a budget-strapped bride to obtain a beautiful gown--by altering a family heirloom dress, shopping second-hand bridal stores, or surfing eBay. Talented brides (or brides with talented family or friends) could opt to create a custom-made gown. Personally, I went with an affordable bridal chain store. What can I say? I saw the blood red (my power color) ribbon on the hemlines and back lacing in an advertisement and fell in love at first sight. I tried on lots of gowns and poked around in second-hand shops, but nothing spoke to my heart like this one.

Another reason I chose the national chain route was for the convenience of the bridal party. Our bridesmaids and groomsmen are people of all different shapes, sizes, and personal styles who were living scattered throughout the country. When we registered, all our party members had to do was find their local branch and pick something out in our selected color. We were able to let everyone choose their own tux or dress from a wide selection.

People are most attractive when they FEEL attractive, confident, and comfortable. Every bride says she picks out a bridesmaid dress "that you can wear in real life!" But if you really want your bridal party to shine, let them have a say in how they look on the big day (and how much they pay for it). I loved letting each bridesmaid's and groomsman's personality shine through. Also, if there are any wardrobe issues, one mismatched piece on one person won't throw off the matchy perfection. (For example, check out the best man's skater sneaks! There was a shoe mishap at the tux place and he didn't get his fancy shiny shoes. But it totally works. I love it.)

OK, back to the bridal gown. Did I mention my gown cost less than my prom dress? At a big chain, you can usually find a wonderful dress at a reasonable price. And if you're not wearing an heirloom or an elaborately designed ensemble, you can be more relaxed and spontaneous on your wedding day. That translates to more fun, enjoyment, and happiness! People stepped on my floor-length gown on the dance floor. My groom and I tromped around in the spring mud outside all night getting into mischief, and we got sloppy with drinks and shenanigans at the reception. We gleefully smeared each other with buttercream frosting.

We got the formal pictures done first, of course, so who cares if the gown and tux survive the night? Laughter and love should take first priority on your wedding day, not taffeta. Fashion adjustments are easier with a lower-maintenance look, too. Just after the ceremony and before the party, a friend of the family gave me a beautiful white shawl she had knit herself. It was a lovely bit of serendipity--I was feeling a little chilly just then, so I put it on until the party moved inside.

My bridesmaids were also feeling good and relaxed in their personally-chosen budget gowns, so the finery did not inhibit the rowdiness that all good weddings must have! I love the throwing of the bouquet--it's lively, fun, and just a tad destructive. I love the symbolism of trashing a beautifully arranged bunch of fresh flowers, which are themselves symbols of impermanence. We know what really matters and what stands the test of time. Clue: it's not the centerpieces, silk skirts, or corsages.

I am proud to say that my ladies got into a knock-down, drag-out tussle on the lawn for that ragged bouquet. Priceless!

While beauty and presentation are of course important in a wedding, so is comfort--where you can get away with it. I would like to note that I did not waste any time, money, or pain on body waxing, spray tans, tanning booth frying, cosmetic procedures, laser tooth whitening, or whatever other nonsense modern brides are supposed to do, before my wedding day. Do the poodly-groomer things before the honeymoon if you must, so that if you turn out looking insane at least you won't run into anyone you know, but before the wedding, you have enough to deal with. I had no rhinestones or complex undergarments beneath my gown--just a plain white corset to hold the heavy thing up. I did not even wear fancy shoes. Now, all my friends know that I love me a pair of sexy, high heeled shoes. But in a full-length gown, no one would be able to see my lovely bridal shoes. So I didn't bother with them.

My bridal shoes were a pair of Skechers that I still wear with everything, from breezy skirts to lawn-mowing shorts.

If you're planning an outdoor wedding like mine, you must already be aware that you cannot, unfortunately, control the weather. My wedding day on May 5th happened to arrive with a decent temperature, but it was overcast, windy, and threatening to storm. Having on inexpensive clothing, makeup, and hairdos takes some of the stress out of unpredictable weather. It can also add drama and interest to the mood and photographs. My veil kept smacking the minister in the face and threatening to rip out of my hair, but it was just a cheap polyester thing anyway. The wind is what made my veil look beautiful in our wedding photos.

As I mentioned in "Budget Bride I," all of my jewelry came from my mother-in-law, including my wedding and engagement rings. Some of it was costume jewelry she had given me as fun gifts--the woman is an old pro at being poor and fabulous, and she knows how to buy and wear accessories! This cameo of the Muses, though, was my "something borrowed"--an antique family heirloom.

I would recommend to all young, fresh brides that you never purchase any jewelry for your wedding day--let people who love you decorate you with glitzy or meaningful pieces. It makes them feel good to play a part in the bride's beauty, and it makes the bride feel loved and valued like a Wal-Mart diamond tennis bracelet never could!

Unique and personal fashion does not need to be expensive. My groom, the love of my life, generally wears army surplus cut-off camouflage shorts. So I surprised him with a camo-patterned garter to find toward the end of the night. Infusing little touches of humor into your wedding fashion keeps things light and fun.

The memories of that night will outlast any saved pieces of fabric or dried boutonnieres. So embrace the chaos of authentic celebration on your big day and dress for a mess--everything will NOT go as planned. But one thing is certain: a relaxed, joyous, genuine smile is the most beautiful thing you can wear on your wedding day. Keep it real!

Happy dressing!


  1. You got married in a conservatory? That's pretty cool.

  2. Yeah! The wedding and reception were at Michigan State University's horticulture garden. Decor that is alive is the best.


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