Find the perfect dress


— To find the perfect dress for the big day, you need to shop in Seattle, right?

Wrong. Before risking I-5 traffic, consider local options. Besides stunning gowns in every price range, you'll also find the kind of wedding know-how that every bride needs.

First, check out a few bridal magazines to eye what you like and don't like, but don't limit yourself too much. "Someone will say, 'I can't wear that style,' but then comes into the store, tries it on and is surprised to see that it looks just fine," says Tiffany Sheakley of Alicia's Bridal Shoppe in Bellingham. She notes that happens most frequently with strapless gowns, a look that has been popular for years and is still going strong.

Stay open to new styles, but resist the urge to try on every gown in sight. It's easy to hit satin-tulle-and-lace overwhelm. "We invite people to look through the gowns, then pick three to five to try on, to start with," says Elaine Wood, owner of Belle Bridal and Formal Shoppe, which has been in downtown Bellingham for more than 40 years. "Then we can see how you're reacting to the different styles and we can show you something that you might have missed."

Wood suggests shopping with only one person, like a mother, sister or close friend. Bring someone who knows you well and with whom you can comfortably disagree. Otherwise, their influence can pre-empt your instincts, leading to self-doubt, even when you find a gown you love.

"Look for a dress that complements your skin tone," advises Jennifer Leigh of Jennifer Leigh Bridal Couture in Fairhaven. She carries gowns made from silk, which naturally ranges in tone from a diamond-white to ivory, as well as polyester.

While silk is more luxurious and tends to sew up into a better-constructed, better-fitting garment, according to Leigh, it can add as much as 30 percent to the gown's cost. Polyester makes a beautiful gown, as well; Leigh especially likes the drape and luster of Japanese satin.

Start looking for your gown early. Ideally, you should order your dress about eight months in advance, especially for a summer wedding, say local experts.

Whirlwind romance? Buying right off the rack can work well, too.

Either way, most gowns will need at least some altering to get a perfect fit. Make sure your wedding budget allows for both the time and expense of alterations, which can run as high as $300, depending on the complexity.

Ready to shop? Here's what's hot this season in bridal wear:

Strapless gowns are still on top -- and they're easier to wear than you might think. Some brides worry that they'll be tugging up their neckline all evening, but the gowns are structured with support sewn into the garment to prevent slippage. Xiaoli DeScioli of Bellingham, featured on the Whatcom Weddings cover, wore one at her November 2005 wedding. "It was so pretty in the photographs," she says. "Lots of people loved it."

Another major trend is the corset back, popularized by Australian label Maggie Sottero, whose line is carried by Belle Bridal and Formal Shoppe. It's both flirtatious and practical because the lace-up style keeps alterations to a minimum (and adjusts easily to any last-minute weight fluctuations). All corset-style gowns come with a modesty panel, so you stay well covered.

Destination weddings are big news -- and so are destination gowns. Designed for the bride who's traveling to her wedding locale, whether its a Hawaiian beach or a Scottish castle, these gowns are lighter, simpler in style and made from soft, flowing fabrics, like chiffon, that resist wrinkling and are easy to pack. Though only embellished with touches of delicate beadwork and without a formal train that would trail through sand or grass, these dresses still look beautifully bridal.

One of the biggest looks this season is the ruched skirt, which is gathered or caught up at numerous points over its surface, creating a formal, opulent look reminiscent of an 18th-century ballgown. Brides are also choosing tiered skirts, with a light, airy fabric over a heavier one, such as lace or chiffon over taffeta, or organza over mikado, a heavy silk fabric.

Colorwise, the standard white dress is being replaced with cream, light gold and taupe. "Twenty years ago, 98 percent of dresses were white," says Wood of Belle Bridal. "Now less than 10 percent are truly white."

The new off-whites can look white but they aren't a bright white, so they're kinder to the skin." Bridesmaids' colors are following suit, with soft brights like coral, butter and celadon complementing the warm undertones.

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