101 wedding dresses

In pursuit of the wedding gown of my dreams, I found myself incapable of making a decision.

Danil Nevsky | Stocksy

I got engaged on a beautiful August evening along the shore in Connecticut. It was quiet and perfect: my closest friend, sitting with me on a dock, our legs dangling over the water below, as he carefully reached into his jeans pocket and presented me with his great-grandmother’s ring. I didn’t feel like I was making a decision. It was as simple as yes.

When it came time to select my wedding dress a few months later, however, my ability to make decisions sprinted away from me faster than Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. I was shocked. After all, wedding dress shopping was the thing for which I believed I was most prepared. I had dutifully earmarked pages of magazines; my Pinterest page, which had long stood dormant, was revived with pretty pictures of wedding dresses; I bombarded my younger sister (my maid of honor) with texts and emails saying, “Ooh, what about something like this?” I was undaunted by the task ahead.

Once the hunt actually began, however, dress paralysis set in. I share my journey with you here.

SHOP No. 1:
Pronovias

Pronovias is a design house I’ve loved for years—their dresses have charm and drama, with a distinctly elegant Spanish vibe. I had a sneaking suspicion that their unique cuts (far from the generic strapless ball gown) would be flattering.

On a chic white couch in their flagship store, I showed the attendant photos of the dresses I wanted to try on, and I was specific: “I don’t like too much lace or tulle,” I told her. “I don’t want a strapless cut. I like A-lines with low backs. I like beading, but only if done tastefully.” I certainly sounded like a woman who knew what she wanted.

Pronovias wedding dress and long veil

Courtesy of Pronovias

The first dress I tried on—one I had been obsessed with on the Pronovias site—was stunning. A full-skirted masterpiece with cap sleeves called the Barcaza. I felt like Grace Kelly at a ball in Monaco. It was so … ME. When I called my mother and sister into the dressing room, their faces confirmed it. Neither are the type to get sentimental, but I swear my mother had tears in her eyes. “How funny it would be,” I mused aloud, “if the first wedding dress I ever tried on was the one,” feeling pretty confident that I had conquered the wedding dress challenge. I was just that good.

But then I tried on the next dress (a glamorous mermaid gown with a gemstone embroidered square back called Vanila) and suddenly I was Bette Davis. It was s so … ME. And then came the next (a simple crepe dress with an open back called Valeria) and I was Carolyn Besette. Perfection!

I began to wonder just how many me’s were there? With each new gown, my latest persona risked being unseated. A feeling began to creep up: this purchase wasn’t going to be as easy as I had once thought.

SHOP No. 2:
Mark Ingram Atelier

As you walk into the Mark Ingram Atelier you can’t help but get excited. It’s brimming with stunning gowns by the best designers. I tried on dresses by Lela Rose, Monique Lhullier, Vera Wang, and more. Some were breath-taking. Others were not so successful: one draped, long-sleeved gown, my mother joked, made me look like Morticia Addams.

Lela Rose wedding dress

Lela Rose

At the end of our hour-long appointment at the store, and with a new favorite—a demurely shining Lela Rose dress—our very patient attendant asked me how many dresses I thought I’d tried on. “15,” I said confidently.

“No, probably more like 18,” my mother chimed in.

The attendant laughed. “27,” she said.

Our jaws dropped. We were only two shops into this adventure, and I had already tried on 42 dresses. It was no wonder my head was starting to spin. The trouble was, with every dress that I stepped into, the possibilities grew.

Was I a demure bride with high neck and long sleeves? Or a sexy bride with a form fitting dress? The options were endless and no decision was in sight.

SHOP No. 3:
Kleinfeld Bridal

The next day my sister poked fun at me as we entered the third store—the shop famous for Say Yes to the Dress on TV—Kleinfeld Bridal. “Don’t forget that also means saying NO to some dresses,” she half-joked.

I took what she said to heart. I had not been discerning enough. I had politely considered every dress shown to me. It was time to get tough. I walked into the dressing room with my game face on, ready to be picky.

My attendant, Jackie, quickly picked up on my vibe. The dress would barely be sitting on my shoulders before I jumped back out of it. “Not me,” I’d declare. “On to the next!” I felt I was regaining my sense of self. I managed to try on 30 dresses while the deft (and strong!) Jackie speedily swept heavy gowns in and out of my dressing room.

Le Spose di Gio wedding dress with gloves and beads

Le Spose Di Gio

And then there it was: my new favorite of the day, a form-fitting Spose di Gio gown miraculously formed from a puddle of silk. Wehn I twirled, it made me feel like The Little Mermaid when she slinks out of the water and steps up the shore to her Prince at the end. (And who doesn’t want to feel like THAT?)

So, is this the one?” they asked. My mind went blank. I loved it, but how could I say no to all of those other dresses like the Barcaza, the Lela Rose gown, and tomorrow’s dresses, too. I couldn’t commit.

“I need to sleep on it,” was my meek reply. I was quickly finding out exactly what kind of bride I was: an indecisive one.

SHOP No. 4:
The Bridal Garden

A few days into the shopping marathon, we walked into The Bridal Garden: a magical place, where brides can find their dream dresses for a deep discount because the gowns are donated to the shop directly by designers and others; all the money from the sales go to education for disadvantaged children. Plus, they allow you to look through the racks of dresses for yourself, and try on as many as you like.

I took them at their word; I tried on 24. And for those of you who are still counting, we’re at 96 now. I was more confused than ever.

“Any winners here?” my ever-patient family members asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted, biting my lip. “Show me a picture of yesterday’s dress again?” We looked. I hemmed. I hawed. I tried on four more dresses. The mirror, unlike the one in Snow White, was mute. I had no idea which dress was the fairest of them all.

About to pull my jeans back on and admit defeat, my sister came doggedly back from the racks, struggling to hoist a dress up high on its hanger.

Anne Barge wedding dress

Anne Barge

“This one,” she announced firmly. “Just one more.”

It was beautiful … but not a style I’d pictured in my wedding fantasies. It had a full tulle skirt with horse hair detail that fell in flower-petal-like waves to the floor. The V-neck bodice was expertly beaded. I looked at the tag. Anne Barge. I gamely stepped into it and the back closed with ease. It fit me like a glove without clamps or pins or half-done zippers. The plunging open back was stunning. The dress took me by surprise. I loved it. Everyone in the shop loved it. We took pictures of it. There were no bad angles.

But is it me? I asked aloud.

There it was again—that question no one else could answer for me. My family left me alone in the dressing room to think it over. I mentally flipped through all the dresses I’d tried on, but it didn’t help. I felt close to tears with the weight of the impending decision. Alone and gazing in the mirror, I whispered: “Are you my dress?” (Admittedly, at this stage, I was going a bit nuts.)

Why all the drama for a dress? It felt akin to having a serious identity crisis. I was trying to find a dress to be my ambassador to the world. One that would stand in front of all my closest friends and family, and say, “This is the man I choose. This is the life I choose. This is the dress I choose. This is my style. This is me.”

That’s a lot of philosophical weight to put on a few yards of fabric! Suddenly, I realized I had been putting impossible expectations on these dresses. The fact that I loved the way this dress looked, and wanted to wear it on my wedding day was enough. It didn’t need to define me or my marriage. The pressure began to melt away, and the answer, once more, was as simple as yes. I was done. It turned out that the gown of my dreams was the last one I would try on: number 101.

Later, as my fiancé and I laughed over the tale of my search, he gave me a little unexpected pearl of wedding planning wisdom. Telling him about my moment in the dressing room, I said: “I think I was scared that all these decisions about the wedding day—the venue, the cake, the dress—would add up to something that wasn’t true to me, or to us.”

He shook his head at me. “Will you be there?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I’ll be there, too,” he said. “That sounds like us to me.”

Pronovias wedding dress in New York City

Courtesy of Pronovias

Natalie van der Meer
Natalie van der Meer
Senior Editor Natalie van der Meer is a former editor for Redbook, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest and Allure, covering fashion, beauty, travel, family, book reviews, and much more. She lives in New York City.