Wedding Dresses, What To Expect and How To Alter

Wedding days are happy, stressful, joyous, hard, and probably one of the most important days of your life.

This guide is for those who would like to make at least one of the processes easier, and more affordable to your pocketbook. In my over 30 years of experience in alterations, I have seen almost everything and had to fix and repair many of these issues.  I will also provide basic universal costs from the Boutiques and independent seamstresses, so you can budget accordingly.

First, buy your dress early.  When you wait till the last minute its very hard to get the alterations you need and deserve without extra cost due to time constraints.  It is recommended that you purchase your dress 6 – 10 months in advance of your wonderful day.

Keep in mind, almost all dresses will need some alterations, it is very rare to find one perfect right off the rack, but if you can that is great.

When shopping for a dress keep in mind bigger is better than smaller.  Do not buy a dress with the expectations that you are going to lose weight, most brides think this, but it rarely happens.  Try to find a dress 1 dress size larger, or 2 at the most.  It is much cheaper to alter a larger dress than a smaller dress, I will discuss this more in detail later.

Before you buy your dress, set your budget.  Remember, the bridal store does not really have your interests in mind, they want to sell you a dress.  Most salespeople in Wedding Boutiques’ are paid on commission and as in any business, they often tell you what you want to hear, not tell you what you need.  I often alter dresses 4-6 sizes too small because the customer was talked into it, and then had huge sticker shock when they gave quotes to alter the dress.

Keep in mind, you still want the dress of your dreams, and you should always choose the dress YOU want, not what others want.

Dresses can have one layer of fabric, or many layers of fabric.  This affects the alterations price; multiple layers of fabric do take extra time so keep this in mind when you shop.  If you budget accordingly you can still have any dress you desire and have it altered to fit perfectly.

Beaded dresses are beautiful, but they are also time consuming to alter.  Beads have to be done by hand, not by machine, so its labor intensive.  Removing beads is not very difficult but moving them around or adding beads can be expensive.  Often it is very difficult to find beads that match exactly.  Most dresses are now made in China or other Asian countries where they have cheap labor to sew beaded dresses, and since they use products that are supplied to them, America does not usually stock the same beads, however if your lucky to find beads that match, remember that it is time that is required to put them on and that gets reflected in the price.

If you are buying a used dress, or a dress passed down to you, always have it cleaned before taking it in to be altered.  Sometimes cleaning will shrink or cause areas of concern that the seamstress will address and fix while altering your beloved dress.

Sometimes, dresses need to be altered for religious reasons, or to cover up tattoos and other body areas.  Often it is best to start with a sleeveless dress and then add to it for your requirements.  You can add cap sleeves, which is a short sleeve that hands over the edge of the shoulder without extending along the underside of the arms.  You can then add lace to the length you desire.  You can also add full arm sleeves to this as well.  The other approach many brides select are a topper, which is a small coat, jacket, shawl or bridal wrap.  The topper can be removed for the reception if desired.

What can I expect from a bridal store or boutique?

First remember they are expensive, so make sure you have your budget in hand and an idea of what you desire for your dress.

If you decide you want the store to alter your dress, keep in mind a few things.

First, expect at least 3 fittings, again I will go over this and explain more in detail later in the guide.

Second, salespeople are paid on commission for most stores.  It is in their interest to sell you a dress that they want, not what you want.  Be prepared to be talked into something that is not in your best interest.  They make money on alterations as well as the dress so often they will sell you something that will require lots of alterations to make additional money.

Third, very few stores have in store alterations.  Most contract the work out to independent seamstresses.  The store gets half of the alteration money and the seamstress get the other half.  So its important that you decide who will do your alterations according to your budget.  Since they get paid for alterations, for doing pretty much nothing, it’s in their interest to sell something that needs lots of alterations.  I see this daily and I can see the frustration in the bride’s eyes of the costs involved. I always suggest that people find an independent seamstress that has experience with wedding dresses, in advance, so you can have these altered for a much lower cost than the bridal store without sacrificing quality alterations.

Finally, look at reviews, if its not a store with good reviews, skip it, there is a reason they have lower reviews.  It is important to research the store, because it is a huge cost of the wedding budget.  Again, its important to remember that its your day, and what you want is the most important thing.

What to expect from your seamstress?

Find your seamstress before shopping for your dress, this way you already know their qualifications and experience as opposed to the store where they mostly use independent seamstresses that you do not really know the experience and qualifications.

Always look at the reviews of the seamstress.  Keep in mind its impossible to make everyone happy, but most reviews should be good for the person you want working on your dress.

Shoes:  Bring your shoes that you will wear for the wedding.  Not just your heals, but also your flats, if you desire to remove them after the wedding for the reception.  The seamstress will need to measure how you expect your dress to fit not only for the wedding itself, but also for the reception.  I have seen brides ruin their dress at the reception because they did not plan on removing their heals and tripping over the dress due to it being to long, or someone stepping on the train.  Some brides want their dress to barely touch the floor while in heals while others prefer to have it toe level, again it is a preference the bride will have to decide and the seamstress will make it to your preference.

Bra: Not all dresses need a bra, some dresses already have bra cups built in or can be added.  If you already know the dress you want and know if it has bra cups or can be added, you don’t need to worry about bringing your bra, however, when you see the dresses you might change your mind, so its good practice to bring one just in case.  Adding and removing bra cups are usually pretty easy alteration and are not real expensive.

Support Garments:  Some people want to wear spandex, or shapeware, if you are planning on wearing these bring them with you, so the seamstress can alter your dress accordingly.

I have worked at wedding stores as an independent seamstress and have seen everything involved.  I recommend you find a seamstress outside of the store that you have spoken to and researched, so at least you know who can do the alterations for you at a much lower cost, and most of the time with better quality work.  I have seen so many people frustrated over a $600 dollar alteration, that I could have done for them for under $200 dollars.  Remember most stores charge double for alterations, they keep half and the seamstress gets the other half.

It is much easier to alter a bigger dress than a smaller dress.  There are still limitations, if you get a dress too big, much of the dress needs to be altered.  The sleeves, the shoulders, and the sides.  If you can help it only go 1 to 2 sizes larger than you normally wear if you cannot find a dress you like in the exact size.  Even with exact sizes, every person’s body type is different and it more than likely will needed to be altered to perfectly fit your body.

Strapless or sleeveless dress are much easier to reduce in size because they lack shoulders and sleeves that need to be adjusted.  Again, remember its your dress and your preferences.  We only inform and help you decide through the process and most seamstresses will be able to fit your dress to your specifications.

Many brides do not like the bra or breast area of a dress.  They are either to revealing for their tastes, or not revealing enough.  It is not a difficult task to add lace or fabric to help these areas, so the dress will fit perfectly, or to remove some material to meet your expectations.

Remember, most dresses are made in China or other Asian countries, even brand name dresses.  They may be designed by famous people, but they are still mass produced in Asian countries.

If you choose a dress that is smaller, try not to get a dress more than 1 size smaller. Sometimes there is enough material around the zipper area to adjust the size, but most of the time adding material will be required.  Again, remember its not easy to find matching material and lace, so choose carefully.  It also costs more to make a dress larger than smaller, there is more hours involved and the materials required can be expensive.

Here, again, strapless or sleeveless dress tend to be easier to alter when increasing the size of the dress.

Sleeves require more work on smaller dresses to be able to fit your body, other areas that will have to be addressed in the shoulder area and the sides.  Most of the time added material will need to be found and used to make it a perfect fit.  Don’t let the store talk you into something much smaller, because they assume you are using them for alterations, and they make money on this.  Most of the time with smaller dresses, the bust, bra area is too small, you can add material or lace to make this more fitting and to your expectations.

When a dress needs straps removed it is important that it will not infringe on the structure of the dress, the last thing you want when walking down the aisle is part of your body in this area to be exposed.  Usually adding straps, or larger straps is not difficult but will require material that matches.

Important reminder:  Make sure you have extra time planned, just to make sure you get the exact and perfect fit, with rush jobs, sometimes its impossible due to time limits to accomplish everything you want, so plan accordingly.

Costs and Time involved for fitting and altering:

Most of the time, there are main areas that need to be altered.  Not all dresses need to be altered to your body in these areas, but many times they do.

The areas that often need to be altered are the bustle, the sides, hem and length, any additions or removals and the zipper.

Plan for at least 3 fittings.  Most boutiques or stores try to make this only two fittings, but many times it is 3 and its important for all three if you plan correctly.

First Fitting:

The first fitting plan at least 30 – 60 minutes.  It should be at least 6 weeks before the event.  It would be a good idea to already have in mind the areas of the dress you would like changed.  This is the time to discuss with your seamstress your desire and expectations.

This is the fitting where you will have the dress on and it pinned to your body shape and what you have expressed as your desires for the dress.  Some people are scared that they have to undress in front of the seamstress, but we have seen it all, and you should not be afraid.  It is done in private and very discrete.  This is where we see the natural fit of the dress on your body, so we know what areas to address.

Always ask a lot of questions to make sure you express your requirements, and the seamstress will also be asking questions.  Every person wants things different, so the main areas are:

Hemline, do you want it to the floor with heals, or do you want to consider your flat shoes for the reception. Decide if you want the hem to the floor or across the toes.

Tightness of the dress, some people want a fitted dress to their body and tight all around, others want a little extra room to move around, this is where you should let your seamstress know what you want so she can pin it accordingly.

Being Comfortable in your dress, it is important that you are comfortable, for many people this is one of the most important days of your life and it can be a long day.  So, a dress that is not comfortable can be a nightmare for hours of wearing.

Bustle, most wedding gowns have some type of a train.  A bustle is a set of hooks, buttons, and sometimes ribbons that can hold up the train and transform a dress with a train into a dress without a train without removing the train itself.  It pulls up to the rear of the dress and pulls the train off the ground. This allows movement without the train dragging behind yet can be undone to allow the train to flow behind you during the service. Make sure this is comfortable and conforms to your needs and wants. There are many different types of bustles.

Its always a good idea not to have an entourage of family and friends for the first 2 fittings, as there will be a lot of different opinions and the only opinion that matters is yours.  I have seen many brides talked out of things they want at this point due to parents, friends and others telling them what to do.  It is already a frustrating day for you with anxiety over the whole process and event, you do not need added stress.  Bring them to the third and final fitting.

Second Fitting:

Plan at least 30 minutes, this will be the first time you see the dress that shows your body and fit in the dress, it should be 3-4 weeks in advance, so small adjustments can be made. Sometimes you change your mind when you see certain areas, or the fit might be a little loose or tight.  This is the fitting you want to make sure all areas are what you want.  The dress at this time can still be tweaked and altered to adjust to your liking.

Third Fitting:

This fitting should be about 2 weeks before your event.  Most dresses will be perfect at this time, however, some will require some small quick modifications that can be done on the spot, you should plan at least 30 – 60 minutes for this fitting.

This fitting is when you should have your family, or friends that will help you at your wedding to put on your dress.  They can see what is needed to help you put this on during your event.

This is also the fitting where you take home your dress.

Alteration Time Needed:

When altering a wedding dress, it is very common that it takes the seamstress 10 – 20 hours or more to make it perfect for you.  If it is a beaded dress, you should expect it to be longer as it is very time consuming for the beads.

Hemming can take 2 – 6 or more hours depending on how many layers, type of material and with or without beads.

Bustle can take 1 – 2 or more hours depending on what you want different or the fit and dependent on the type of bustle you pick or want.

Sides and extras can take 6 – 10 or more hours, again depending on what you want and how you want it to fit.

At the boutique or store the price ranges from $200 to $600 dollars depending on the dress you pick out and the alterations needed.  The reason is that you are paying the store itself and paying the seamstress.  It is a very common practice to take the seamstress price and double it so the store makes money on the dress.  There are cases where the bride picks out a dress that requires very little modifications and the costs can be as low as $80 dollars, but that is rare, the stores make money the more alterations that are needed.

An independent experienced seamstress can do the same quality and same alterations for a fraction of the cost of the store.  So you can expect the alterations to be at least half or more than the store price in most cases.

One of the reasons that wedding, prom or formal gowns are expensive to alter is the equipment needed to alter these are very costly and there are a lot of hours put in each dress.

Experience is important, make sure that who you pick is experienced in formal wear and dresses.  Check reviews.

Some people want a custom dress, I have done many custom dresses for people, but you need to keep in mind it will cost more than a mass-produced store dress.  Materials in America are much more than where they are mass produced.

The benefits of a custom dress is you can express your individuality.  They tend to be very beautiful and unique, since no one else has the same dress.  You chose the style, material and your taste.

Here are some basic costs from a bridal store:

Note these are starting prices, they will vary depending on what is needed and the type of dress you have.

Lace Gown start at around $200 dollars

Satin Gown start around $130 dollars

Beaded Gowns start around $200 dollars

Letting in seams around the arms or bodice start around $150 dollars and more if beads and lace

Bra cups added start around $25 for the cups and $20 and more to put them in

Bra cups removed start around $20 or more

Tightening the bra area or adding materials to this area start around $60 and more if beading or lace in involved.

Sleeves that need to be adjusted start around $60 – $150 dollars.

Bustle adjustments start at around $80 – 100 dollars or more

If you want a corset added expect around $200 dollars.

Adding sleeves will cost starting around $100 dollars and often more.

Raising the waistline will start around $200 or more

If the seams need to be adjusted in or out expect a starting price of $50 – 200 and more if beads and lace are there.

Steaming the gown starts around $30 – 50 dollars.

As you can see it can be quite costly for these alterations, so its best to budget and plan in advance.

Dress Terminology:


If you wedding dress has a long train, or just a small train, it often adds elegance to the dress and your walk down the aisle. Before and after the wedding festivities, those extra train material usually will be in the way.  By adding a bustle to your gown will make walking, movement, and dancing much easier.  It will also help keep your dress hemline cleaner.

There are a few types of Bustles.

There is an Over Bustle that consists of multiple hooks and eyes, that lift your train off the floor.  These often have lace, bows, or rosettes that cover the hooks and eyes to keep the look and symmetry of the dress.

There is also an Under Bustle, sometimes called a French or Victorian bustle. With this type of bustle the hooks, or ribbons are inside the dress, and most often used in gowns without a waistline or an elegantly designed dress.  This type of bustle tends to be more secure than the Over Bustle.

Also, another type of bustle is called and Austrian Bustle.  It is designed by making a casing down the back seam and putting a ribbon through it.  When the ribbon is pulled it lifts the train.


This is the edge or border of cloth, not just the bottom of the dress, but also the sides, sleeves and shoulders.


Most wedding dresses come with either one layer of material, or multiple layers.  Some dresses have many layers to give a “poofy” appearance.

Beading and lace:

Most dresses these days have lace, and the trend is going towards beaded dresses right now.  They look beautiful but they are costly and tend to lose the beads after time.


Boning are rigid strips of material used to maintain the shape of a corset or bodice, they can be hidden inside sleeveless dresses or seen with the straps. They can be added or removed depending on the structure of the dress, do not just assume you can add or remove these, often they are hidden inside the dress and it’s a big undertaking to change them


The train describes the long back portion of the dress that trails behind the wearer. It is not difficult to remove or hem, but its difficult to add, as material will be hard to find and beading will make it almost impossible. You can add crinoline to make it fuller.


This is the waist area, if there is a defined waist area with seams, your bodice can be cut to fit, also if you have a small torso, get a dress with a well defined waistline with seam to work with.  Dresses without seams can be very difficult and costly

Support Garments:

These are spandex or shapeware, most brides complain afterwards that these are very hot and uncomfortable, so if you plan on wearing them be prepared for this and also bring them to the fittings.

Lastly a few tips to keep in mind:

Many brides plan on losing weight before the wedding but this almost never happens, and many times they gain weight instead of losing weight, so be prepared for this.

Stay on schedule, you don’t want last minute rushes as they will often cost you more and rarely you will get what you want due to the time constraints

Research the store and the seamstress, make sure they have good reviews, and experience.

Budget first, figure out what you can spend on the dress and the alterations separate.  Always assume the alterations will be expensive, so if they are less you are not disappointed.

Ask questions, speak up.  This is your day make it how you want, the seamstress or sales person will not know what you want unless you speak up and say exactly what you expect and want.

Once again, DO NOT bring an entourage to the first and second fittings, remember this is about you not them, often they will talk you out of what you want and just confuse everyone.  It is a good idea to bring them to the final fitting so they can see how the dress goes on to be able to help you.





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