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With official engagement season coming to a close, wedding dress (or outfit) shopping season has commenced. But, in a still unprecedented and unpredictable landscape, searching for and investing in a bridal wardrobe continues to involve more considerations than in the before-times.

"The venue and the location typically set the general tone for your event," says Micaela Erlanger. The bridal and celebrity stylist knows the challenges of planning nuptials during the age of Corona, first-hand: "I just had my wedding plans changed for the fourth freaking time."

The 2021 WeddingWire Newlywed Report: Covid-19 Edition found that nearly 60% of wedding receptions last year were fully or partially outside. For obvious reasons, outdoor ceremonies and receptions continue to be the popular choice. The Knot's top 2021 wedding trends also include more intimate, less formal gatherings, like brunch and weekday events, largely due to rescheduled dates.

Stylist Micaela Erlanger.

Stylist Micaela Erlanger.

But whether on a Saturday evening or Wednesday afternoon, finding the perfect wedding look for you still remains tantamount. 

Tina Wong, founder and creative director of direct-to-consumer and size-inclusive bridal brand Grace + Ivory, has heard a common theme from her clients. '"I've lost control over pretty much most of my wedding, so the one thing I feel like I have the most control over is my dress,'" she says, over the phone.

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As we head toward the light at the end of the tunnel, there are ways to both realize your ultimate wedding vision while also remaining versatile — whether to scale down due to unforeseeable circumstances, build up for a more grand aesthetic or adjust at the last minute, just because. We consulted a handful of bridal experts for guidance, based on real weddings feedback from their clients. "Choose something that would make you happy and look nice," says Valentine Avoh, Zoom-ing from her Brussels-based atelier filled with her signature red carpet-meets-vintage wedding dresses. "Because at the end of the day, Covid will pass, but you will still have your pictures in 20 years."

The Iris slip dress and Blaze cape from the Halfpenny London collection.

The Iris slip dress and Blaze cape from the Halfpenny London collection.

As Always, Be Aware of Timing

"My first advice would be to look as soon as possible," says Avoh, who also custom-designs (so, essentially, has "double the work" from last year's rescheduled brides). The traditional bridal dress shopping timeframe, from ordering to alterations to delivery, runs from six to 12+ months. But also, you should allow padding for pandemic-related delays. 

There are plenty of direct-to-consumer brands, like Grace + Ivory, Anomalie and Lace & Liberty, that deliver faster and offer levels of customization, virtual styling sessions and try-at-home services to avoid going into a store. "You can now you can now find wedding appropriate look online that can be delivered overnight, if you need it to be," says Erlanger, name-checking Moda Operandi, Net-a-Porter and Revolve. "There's just a lot more flexibility out there."

Seek out retailers and brands that are transparent regarding timing and provide responsive customer service to answer questions. Some bridal brands also accommodate rush orders — but check the small print regarding additional fees. Certain brands may offer customizations down the line, too.

The Tabitha gown from Grace + Ivory.

The Tabitha gown from Grace + Ivory.

Work Off a Clean Slate

A slip dress, column or mermaid silhouette all offer a versatile base layer to create multiple more formal looks. "You can then add a beautiful embellished top, cape or an overskirt," says Kate Halfpenny, on Zoom from the U.K. The former stylist is the founder of Halfpenny London, a destination for a myriad of bridal separates to layer and mix and match for a unique wedding day ensemble (or a series of ensembles).

Erlanger, who recently collaborated with Forevermark on a capsule of engagement rings and wedding bands, says that with these sleeker silhouettes, "you're going to have more versatility," as these can be "enhanced with a special veil or a special accessory. That's not to say that you can't have your princess ballgown moment, if that's what you want." Over-the-elbow opera gloves also give an easy aristocratic effect to a streamlined gown.

In any case, remember to check the fabrications to ensure quality and aspects that meet your preferences. "We've seen a big trend towards crepe for something that's more elegant and formal, but simple," says Wong.

Go Shorter

If you're dreaming of a "Bridgerton"-level cathedral train but don't want to make the commitment right now, start with a floor-length or even midi-length dress. You can always add the sweeping drama later with a detachable overskirt. 

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Halfpenny London's flounce-hemmed A-line Moon overskirt (below), for example, works over a slip or column dress, or even a pair of crisp trousers and a bustier. An elaborate veil or sheer organza cape with a cathedral train also regally elevates a shorter hemline.

Wong has also noticed many of her brides forgoing the formality of long trains all together, possibly for practical reasons. With pared-down wedding parties and social distancing protocols in place, brides may not want to deal with the bustle, which often requires three sets of hands to maneuver. 

A Cosmic column dress, Moon overskirt and Sun puff sleeves from the Halfpenny London collection.

A Cosmic column dress, Moon overskirt and Sun puff sleeves from the Halfpenny London collection.

Consider the Details

Just because you want a look that's easy to scale down at a moment's notice or simply gravitate toward a straightforward silhouette doesn't mean you can't play with intricate, eye-catching elements.

"I would go for something that has nice detailing, like a little bit of lace or beads, and interesting fabrics," says Avoh. "Interesting details will elevate a simple design." Her brides have been responding to the '30s-inspired silk crepe Dinah gown (top of page), with dreamy Calais lace detailing and skirts with lively embellishments, like the paillette fringed Anita mini-skirt (below).

The Ellie top and Anita skirt from the Valentine Avoh bridal collection.

The Ellie top and Anita skirt from the Valentine Avoh bridal collection.

Opt for Separates

Modular pieces offer optimal flexibility to dress up or down. You could style a bustier with a sheer ruff-neck crop top and organza ball-gown skirt, or throw a long sheer cape or ballgown skirt over a camisole and crisp trousers. Or, as Halfpenny suggests, hold onto the voluminous overskirt for the massive 200-person celebration in 2022 and wear a simple slip "with a little Neptune tuxedo blazer over the shoulder."

"The blazer can be worn again to work to parties to events," she adds. Separates are also a way to really put your personal style stamp on a unique wedding day look. "I saw some amazing images where somebody wore cut-off jeans on the bottom half — with an amazing shoe and an amazing bag — but a full on bridal look on top," says Halfpenny.

Play With All the Frills

"The easiest way to transform any look is with your accessories," says Erlanger. Statement jewelry, gloves or Avoh's suggestion of colorful shoes, instead of the traditional white, not only dress up a streamlined look, but also bring in your personal style touch. Formal layers, like long embellished capes or silk tuxedo jackets, also add an instant black-tie vibe.

"I'm really loving the headbands," says Halfpenny. Of course, a traditional tiara or Lady Edith-style circlet create instant nobility, but consider playing with color, fabrics and accents, like a bow or twist. (Not specifically bridal, but "Bridgerton" breakout Nicola Coughlan's Insta offers plenty of wedding-friendly headband inspo.) Plus, "veils are gonna make a big comeback," noting heavy interest in the short '60s mod veil, especially worn with cute little bridal skirtsuits or sheath dresses. 

Wong notes Grace + Ivory clients have been countering their less elaborate trains with longer, more "extravagant" veils. The brand now offers custom-made veils, usually in matching lace to a bride's wedding gown.

Plus, Avoh says, "the other accessory that is very fashionable now is the mask." She custom-designs masks in the same fabric as clients' wedding dresses upon request.

Something to Keep Forever

The added benefit of investing in a versatile bridal look is that you really can rewear and restyle the look, either for another wedding celebration or whenever you feel like in our vaccinated future.

"I try to reiterate to my clients is these are not a one-wear-wonder," says Halfpenny. "Everything in the collection,  you can either alter the length of or you can restyle it with a different color or black."

Stay True to Your Vision

"Brides, even if they are canceling that big wedding, they're just gonna rock that big frock," says Halfpenny. "Just channel Sarah Jessica Parker and just go full-on 'Sex in the City.'" (According to The Knot, "The Big Reveal" wedding photo, disseminated across social media post nuptials, is another 2021 wedding trend and ideal opportunity to go all out.)

Just make sure you stick with your ultimate dress vision, whether minimal or maximum, even if your venue or guest count change later. "Committing to your main look is important," Erlanger says. "Choose your main wedding dress to be worn as it is intended."

Of course, there's one other thing that might throw a little adorable wrench in the wedding dress shopping process. "The funny thing is I have three brides who got pregnant," says Avoh, with a smile. Don't worry, we gotchu covered there, too.

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