Wedding dress shopping is supposed to be a joyous experience: You bring your mom, your future mother-in-law, your sister or your best friend — or all of them — to a bridal boutique, where you all sip champagne and dab away happy tears as you try on gown after gorgeous gown.
Well, that’s what happens if you’re thin.
The challenges of buying a wedding dress as a plus-size bride have been well documented online, from Offbeat Bride to Brides.com to every bridal site and forum in between, and plenty of non-bridal sites as well. Many bridal stores don’t carry sample gowns larger than a size 10 or 12 — and in some cases, they don’t carry sample gowns larger than a size 8 — so plus size and even on-the-bigger-end-of-straight-size brides have to squeeze into way-too-small gowns, using clips and ties to estimate where the extra fabric will go. Then, they have to place an (often expensive) order without knowing how the dress will actually look on their bodies, risking having to go through the entire process all over again when the dress arrives.
Some bridal labels don’t make plus-size wedding dresses, and those that do may charge a higher price for larger sizes, or offer them only custom-made (meaning they’re even more expensive and often nonrefundable). On davidsbridal.com, there are currently 750 off-the-rack wedding dresses available in a size 6; 244 in a size 16; and just 52 in a size 26. Add body-shaming salespeople to all that, and wedding dress shopping as a plus-size bride has the potential to be not just difficult, but miserable.
Things are — finally — beginning to change, and popular online retailers are leading the way. Modcloth and ASOS, which offer both straight sizes and plus sizes, and Eloquii, which offers only plus sizes, all launched bridal collections in spring 2016, Eloquii’s in collaboration with Stone Fox Bride — you know, the boho bridal line that made the wedding dress Marnie wears on Girls.
It’s not a surprise that these brands all launched bridal collections — the surprise is that it took this long. Over 2 million women get married in the US every year, and the average American woman is a size 14, just the point where plus sizes begin. That means that there are about one million plus-size women looking for a wedding dress every year.
Eloquii creative director Jodi Arnold agrees that the time for plus-size bridal is overdue. "Well, thank goodness that more segments of the market are awakening to the fact that 65 percent of women are a size 14 and above, and not only is it a business opportunity, but it’s also the right thing to do," she tells Fashionista.
Although these collections have only been on the market for two months, the brands are already seeing some major success. Arnold describes the response to Eloquii and Stone Fox Bride’s collection as "beyond anything we ever expected," while ASOS Womenswear Head of Design Sian Ryan says response has "exceeded our expectations."
Modcloth’s Vice President and General Merchandising Manager Nicole Haase says that Modcloth’s bridal line is "our highest-performing campaign for new visitors in Q1 2016 (measured by revenue)," and has been especially well received by plus-size shoppers. "We see a higher percentage of total category volume from extended sizes in the wedding collection than in any other category. Our return rate is also lower for wedding styles in extended sizes than for total bridal styles," she explains. ASOS’s Sian Ryan said that ASOS Curve’s bridalwear has been "equally successful" to the straight size ASOS bridalwear.
"I think the industry caters for more customer types than ever before. At ASOS, we look to our customers for inspiration and know beauty and fashion comes in all different shapes and sizes," she added.
We spoke to several plus-size brides who shared wedding photos on social media using the #MarriedInModcloth hashtag, and many of them said that finding a wedding dress in their size at more traditional bridal retailers was quite difficult. Marilyn McCorkle, 26, says that she knew she wanted a vintage-inspired short dress with a lace neckline, and browsed other bridal stores looking for the dress of her dreams before deciding on Modcloth.
"I did have trouble finding the style of dress I wanted in my size at other places. A lot of places offered similar dresses but in a very limited size selection, which was a bit heartbreaking while I was shopping," she says. "When I searched Modcloth, I knew what size my dress was and had even measured myself to make sure it would fit."
Scottish blogger Lolly runs a plus size fashion blog called Lolly Likes Fatshion. After becoming engaged in summer 2015, Lolly began covering plus size bridalwear in addition to other plus size clothing. You might recognize her photo gallery of 105 plus size brides and grooms that went viral earlier this year; she also runs a weekly interview series featuring plus size brides and grooms. There are several common threads in these interviews: Brides talk about the lack of sample dresses in plus sizes, the unexpected price of expensive alterations and pressure to diet before the wedding. Words like "miserable" and "awful" are used, and one woman even describes a salesperson accusing her of lying about getting married.
"There is a demand for plus-size bridal options and the supply is slow, but it is coming," Lolly tells Fashionista. She adds that though online bridal retailers are great, brick-and-mortar stores for plus-size bridal gowns are needed as well.
"The online shopping experience is perfect for some, but having high street stores that plus-size people can go into and have a positive bridal experience is what is needed," she says. "Access to plus size bridal can only be a positive thing and fat people have just as much money to spend as smaller people and deserve the same access."
There are some drawbacks to buying a wedding dress — or a bridesmaid dress — online. Bride Christine Porco, 27, chose an ASOS bridesmaid dress that would fit all her bridesmaids, who wear a variety of sizes and have a variety of body shapes. "The availability on these dresses was a huge issue," Christine tells Fashionista. "The dress in the size you need will be there one minute and will be out of stock by the time you refresh your browser. I am not lying when I tell you that I had to check the dresses every hour for the past two weeks to be able to acquire all the dresses I needed."
"I’d say all in all, the ASOS bridesmaid experience is a true gamble," she says, but adds, "At the end of the day, I guess I am willing to take the gamble in the name of fashion."
Modcloth’s and ASOS’s bridal lines are also considerably lower-priced than most wedding dresses: ASOS’s wedding dresses are $78-$405 and Modcloth's are $125-$600. For some brides, this is a big part of the dresses’ appeal. Sarah Yakawonis, 31, who describes herself as "right on the cusp of plus size," chose Modcloth dresses for both herself and her bridesmaids, in part because of the price. "One of the most important parts of my wedding was that I didn't want to go into any debt," she says. "I worked really hard to make sure I didn't, like instead of real flowers I made about 400 paper flowers for the bouquets and decorations."
Sarah found a dress she liked at David’s Bridal, but the $700 price tag was out of her budget. She says, "I started looking online, and I have basically had a Modcloth ad somewhere in my Facebook feed for years, so I gave them a try. The dress I found was nicer than the one I tried on at David’s Bridal and it was only $175!"
However, other Modcloth brides have expressed a wish for higher quality dresses in the site’s widely used review section. Some reviews mention itchy fabric, a poor fit or uneven detailing. Overall, Modcloth’s wedding dresses are highly rated: every dress with 20 or more reviews has at least a four out of five stars average rating. But it appears that there’s a segment of customers who’d be willing to pay more for a luxury wedding gown.
Eloquii and Stone Fox Bride’s collaboration offers just that: The capsule collection features five wedding gowns in a price range of $4,350 to $6,800, and brides try on the dresses in person before buying their own, which are made to order.
"I think everyone was so happy to finally see a designer in the higher end of the market who shared our belief that good fashion should be available to women of all sizes — especially on a day like her wedding day," said Eloquii’s Jodi Arnold.
The fact that they're custom-made means Eloquii and Stone Fox Bride’s dresses will also be available to a segment of plus-size brides that still won’t have access to online retailers like ASOS and Modcloth’s bridal collections: Brides who are on the larger end of plus size. (Well, brides who are on the larger end of plus size and also have a high budget.)
Lolly is one of them. She previously reviewed a white ASOS dress for her blog’s Budget Bridal section; she tells Fashionista, I love the ASOS Curve Wedding Collection and hope they keep it going." Asked about Modcloth’s bridal collection, however, she says, "I am larger now and they do not have anything in my size."
Lolly’s comments are reminiscent of writer Roxane Gay’s interview on a recent This American Life episode called "Tell Me I’m Fat." In the episode, Gay introduces a concept that she calls "Lane Bryant fat," which means plus-size women who "can still buy clothes at Lane Bryant, which goes up to 28 in size [the episode included a correction that Lane Bryant carries up to size 32]. And they’re the ones I find that are often the strongest cheerleaders of ‘this is who I am, and you have to take me as I am, and respect me because of my body, not despite it,’ and I admire that a great deal. But I think it’s easier to feel that way when you have multiple places where you can buy clothes, and feel pretty, and move through the world."
Those "Lane Bryant fat" women are the ones that are best served by this new wave of plus-size bridal lines — women whose sizes are measured in teens or twenties, not thirties or larger. This is still a significant change from lines that only offer dresses to women size 12 or smaller. Today, a size 16 bride has far more options than she did a few years ago — but she still has far fewer options than a size 6 bride, and far more options than a bride who’s larger than a 26.
Shafonne Myers, the CEO of plus size bridal magazine Pretty Pear Bride, tells Fashionista, "We want to look amazing like straight sized brides. We want all the variety and different styles like they have. Just because we are big doesn't mean that we don't want to look gorgeous on our special day."
She adds that straight size brides "have the variety and versatility that plus-size fashion segments don't get! We only get fashions created that the designers think will look good on us. There is no regard that it might not look the best on us. But to them it's all about getting plus-size stuff on a shelf, not that if it will actually look good on us.
"Don't get me wrong, there have been huge strides made, but there is still so much more to be done."
Homepage photo: Stone Fox Bride