LIKE MOST BRIDES-TO-BE,
Melissa Reeves wanted the perfect wedding dress. She dreamed of floating down the aisle in a designer gown. Unfortunately, that dream didn't fit with her budget. "I had fallen in love with the beautiful lines and fabrics of Monique Lhuillier, but not her price tag," she says. "I don't feel like I should spend $5,000 on a dress I'll wear for one day."
So when the 24-year-old technical writer from Seneca, S.C., saw a post on the discussion boards at wedding web site The Knot from a bride selling her once-worn Monique Lhuillier, she emailed her immediately. After two weeks of exchanging pictures, measurements and wear-and-tear details, Reeves received her used gown. At $500, the cost was a far cry from the nearly $4,000 she would have paid retail.
The average wedding dress now retails for $887, according to the Conde Nast Bridal Group. Designer gowns, meanwhile, easily exceed the several-thousand-dollar mark. "We've seen the range [for bridal gowns] be somewhere between $700 and $10,000," says Theresa DiMasi, editor in chief of Brides.com, the web site for Brides, Modern Bride and Elegant Bride magazines.
With the average wedding running a $26,000 price tag across the country and double in the big cities, according to the Knot, spending thousands on the dress alone isn't an option for many brides. That's where other brides come in: in a survey conducted by the Knot for SmartMoney.com, 10% of the brides who responded said they had bought a second-hand dress.
"This is definitely a way to save money and thanks to the Internet, a lot more people are considering it than 10 years ago," says Alan Fields, co-author of the book "Bridal Bargains." With the markdown on once-worn dresses easily around 50% or more, they're saving "hundreds, if not thousands of dollars" compared to retail, he says.
The variety of web sites featuring wedding-gown sales, from eBay and Craigslist to the message boards on bridal sites like The Knot allows brides-to-be to cast a wide net in search for their dream gown. Many consignment stores and bridal outlets have also taken their business online, including established names like Vows Bridal Outlet in Newton, Mass., which started as a consignment shop almost 15 years ago and now sells discounted designer gowns through its web site, BridalPower.com.
Needless to say, buying a wedding dress online is an experience completely different from buying your gown in a bridal salon or even a consignment store. After all, you're buying what is arguably the most attention-grabbing piece of clothing you'll ever wear sight unseen, and most likely from someone you've never met.
"Buying a second-hand dress, you're getting it as is," says Kathleen Murray, senior editor at The Knot. A crucial issue is making sure you get a dress in a size that can be altered to fit your body.
That was the case for 28-year-old Dr. Sarah Manongdo-Joya in Chicago, Ill., who was still in optometry school while planning her May 2005 wedding, and on a limited budget. On eBay she found a Winnie Couture gown, originally retailing for $2,000, for only $109. Before bidding, she got measured at her seamstress to make sure the dress could be altered to fit her small five-foot frame.
Dr. Manongdo-Joya, who later co-wrote "How to Buy Everything for Your Wedding on eBay" based on her experience, also made sure the seller had a positive eBay rating and a good return policy in that case, 14 days. (She bought from a "mass" re-seller as opposed to a bride selling her own wedding gown.) It even turned out her Winnie Couture gown was never worn: It was a close-out sale item from the previous year, still in its manufacturer packaging.
Believe it or not, finding a never-worn gown at a once-worn price isn't all that uncommon thanks to the phenomenon known as a "two-dress" bride. "We see a lot of brides having a change of heart about their dress," says The Knot's Murray. "A lot of times the dress is the first thing you buy and then seven months later you don't like it anymore." The solution for many brides: Buy your new dream dress and sell the first one, often at a massive discount.
And then there are brides like 36-year-old Tonya Gilbert of Los Banos, Calif., who ended up with four wedding dresses for the big day: three from eBay and one bought from a bride on The Knot. "My fiance thought I was crazy," Gilbert laughs. "And I'm not an indecisive person! I knew what I wanted and I was trying to save money... but [buying multiple dresses] is so easy to do when you're not spending $1,000 on a dress."
In all, Gilbert spent roughly $400 on her four dresses. She sold two dresses before the wedding and is now planning to sell a third.
Looking back, Gilbert concedes that the quest for the perfect dress can make many a bride a little loopy. "It's a dress," she says. "You think it's such a big deal before you get married and it's what so many girls focus on." The day of her wedding, she realized how she and her husband felt about each other was much more important than how she felt about her dress. She's still keeping the dress she wore, though: too sentimental to sell it.
Buyer's & Seller's Guide
Buyers: Looking for a once-worn wedding gown? Here's how to score a bargain.
1. Find a good fit. Wedding dress sizes run small, says "Bridal Bargains" author Alan Fields, so don't rely on size alone to determine if the dress is right for you. Get yourself measured by the seamstress who will do the alterations. Once you have the dress measurements from the seller, consult with the seamstress if the dress will be a good fit.
2. Be ready to alter. Alterations are not cheap and will most likely be necessary since you are buying a dress that wasn't made to fit your body. Budget in cleaning as well, in the event that the dress was worn and not cleaned. That could cost you another $100 or so, according to Fields. (The seller should tell you up front whether it's been cleaned or not.)
3. Protect yourself. If you're buying online, pay with a credit card so you can dispute the charges in case the seller doesn't deliver. If dealing with an individual seller, use PayPal, which has a "dispute resolution center" to help you resolve problems like paying for merchandise that was never received or significantly different than what was described.
4. Don't overpay. Just because a dress is advertised as a bargain doesn't mean it is. "We have seen people advertise dresses online that they bought at David's Bridal for $700 and they try to resell for $650, claiming it was originally $1,000," Fields says. Compare the requested price with retail and be comfortable with the discount.
Sellers: Here's how to fetch a nice price.
1. Have good photos. If you know you'll sell your dress in advance, ask your wedding photographer to take lots of pictures of the dress itself, says Dr. Manongdo-Joya. Be sure to include details, different angles, as well as pictures of the dress and price tag, and even your sales receipt.
2. Be honest. The more detailed description of the dress you give along with information (and possibly pictures) of any marks or spots on the dress the more other brides will be willing to trust you.
3. Offer a refund option. If it isn't possible for the buyer to see and try the dress before you sell it to her, offer to give her a refund within a reasonable amount of time in the event she is not happy with how the dress actually looks. Seven to 14 days should be fair for both buyer and seller, according to Dr. Manongdo-Joya.
4. Get help. If you have no success with eBay, Craigslist or The Knot, consider working with someone who resells wedding gowns for a living. That includes bricks-and-mortar consignment shops (just keep in mind they will typically keep a hefty portion of the resale price), as well as online resellers. Consider web sites like SellYourWeddingDress.com, which charges a $29 fee to advertise your dress online and on eBay for six months and keeps no other commission when the dress sells.
5. Donate. Charitable organizations like Making Memories accept donated once-worn wedding gowns, which they resell to brides at special Brides Against Breast Cancer Events held at various locations in the country. The proceeds go to women with advanced breast cancer and you get to deduct the cost of the gown from your taxes.