y diamond shoes are too tight. While it’s true, trying on wedding dresses at a bridal salon is one of the most indulgent things you can do as a bride, a couple of rounds in LA and the Bay didn’t yield a to-die-for, this-is-the-one moment for me. A few months in to my dress search, my friend and fellow bride mentioned how she was getting a custom gown by a friend of hers from fashion school, and how this could be a fun option for me, too! It sounded great, especially coming with the recommendation of a fashionable woman I trust, so I assembled a few reference pics of the gown I wanted to emulate, and pitched the project to The Dressmaker.*
I hit The Dressmaker up in the summer, citing a gown I loved from the Oscars previous (dumbed down, of course, because: outdoor spring wedding). She agreed to do the design, and the entire project would even fall under my budget! The cost was actually lower than dresses you’d find at a bridal store, even cheaper than some dresses I tried on in consignment bridal boutiques. She recommended I formally purchase the custom order through Etsy by the fall to ensure a late winter delivery (which she also recommended given our spring wedding date). I ordered the dress; I sent in measurements taken by My Tailor; she sent me sketches; all was set to go. Even though The Dressmaker was based in Chicago, this whole finding-a-dress thing was a cakewalk! At this point – with my dress in production, my deposit sent in – everything was pretty copacetic.
Having gone (or, as I’m going?) through the process, I can understand the trials of women looking for “the one” wedding dress. After years of being told this is “your day” and months of buildup to a stint of less than twenty-four hours where you’re supposed to look the best you’re ever going to look, I certainly understand the stress in trying to dress your immaculate self. But with my firsthand understanding of this hype and how you can’t just *poof* be down and totally chill about it, this is exactly why I decided to commission a custom dress. I wanted to avoid the mystery and make sure I’m about to put on something that I know fits and flatters. I didn’t find my one-hit wonder, and I didn’t want to settle. I didn’t want to settle, so landing a custom gown from a dressmaker that came with a personal recommendation really felt like the best solution for me, my time, and my wallet.
I’m very selective about what I wear and how I dress myself. Always have been. I like to take risks with fashion, and I am constantly editing my closet at home. For me, the wedding dress is not going to be just a dress. It’s going to be the core of the outfit in which I will be the most photographed I have ever been photographed and I want it to be special. (Before I knew any better, I used to say that I would rather wear an haute couture gown for my wedding instead of a traditional bridal gown. Then I saw the prices, and the practical part of my brain sent me on those initial dress-shopping appointments.)
So fast forward: Last Friday, I was GPSing to the nearest David’s Bridal, just two weeks to the day of my wedding. But I had commissioned a custom gown in August. Why was I running around now?
-Because custom dresses need to be carefully commissioned, that’s why.
My dress was supposed to be in my hands by the end of January. For the first two weeks out of that month, I was stuck in the Midwest on a work trip, averaging four hours of sleep a night. I barely had the energy to respond to Bill’s wedding planning questions or Melissa’s and Edith’s bachelorette planning questions. In fact, I basically didn’t respond to anyone who wasn’t on the work trip with me, pounding the pavement. Melissa secured my travel for the future weekend, and while I quickly reimbursed her, the point is: I couldn’t even get back to her in time to say if a flight worked. I was strung out, and the wedding was definitely not at the front of my mind that month.
With every measurement sent and every sketch approved, I thought of returning home to my wedding dress as a light at the end of the Midwest Work Trip Tunnel. Since I was not of a multitasking mind out on the road, I left The Dressmaker to her own. Didn’t nag or text. I just fantasized about the scheduled delight of my most important dress.
So I get home, I’m tired, and there’s no dress. Oh well. The Dressmaker has a couple of weeks to make the final deadline we agreed upon. I distract myself with work again. Finally, on the very last day of January, I wrote to The Dressmaker asking about progress. She responds quickly, telling me she’ll send out photos at the end of the week.
And then it’s February! I hear nothing about the dress. I paid half a deposit on a four-figure gown, and I am wondering what is going on. I write to The Dressmaker on Valentine’s Day:
I know you run a small business/studio of one, but I’m getting nervous. Over summer we agreed upon an end-of-January delivery date. Now we’re halfway through February and I haven’t even seen pictures of the dress yet.
Please give me an update…
She actually quickly writes back, informing me that she was in the emergency room for a week because she’s having difficulties in her pregnancy. Well, shit. Now I feel bad for ever demanding a response. I have had multiple friends go through difficult pregnancies. It wasn’t my business to ask The Dressmaker what the situation with her pregnancy was, so I immediately assume the worst. I write back that I apologize to hear about the complications, that I’m sending positive thoughts to her growing family, and am looking forward to seeing the dress pictures when they’re ready. (If they’re ready…)
Last Week of February: My dress comes in. Super excited, I pick it up from the post office, bring it home, slice through the tape, and try it on. It. Is. Scary. I show it to Bill (his reaction to this dress is the most important to me, I’m not trying to hide my dress from him). He is scared. I am swimming in the bodice and…it’s just not flattering at all. It does match the sketches, yes, and the overall silhouette is correct. It just wasn’t made for my body. It certainly doesn’t look like I paid custom quote dollars for it.
Bill and I make an appointment at our local tailor to see what finishing touches our wedding outfits might need. Lucky him, his suit fits perfectly and he has nothing to do but wait. (He also got the suit at a massive discount – well don’t we all wish we could be Bill?) Ironically, no one’s going to remember what suit Bill wore. Meanwhile they’ll be loading all this conditioned expectation and pressure on whatever I end up wearing.
My tailor looks at me. She’s got widened, judge-y eyes, taking in all that is wrong with the thing I am wearing. The hem is too long – which was partially intentional: I hadn’t picked out shoes before I got measured so I asked The Dressmaker to leave the skirt long – but what makes no sense from an artisan standpoint is that the hem is uneven. It is longer in the front than it is in the back, and the dimensions left and right are mismatched. As far as I’m concerned, “reverse train” is not a trend I will be launching at my wedding. I need to be able to dance, people! (Let alone walk.)
In addition to the skirt (the skirt’s only the biggest part of the gown, right?) being off, the bodice is huge on me. I’m going for a daring shape, and there will be tons of body tape vacuum sealing involved, but at this point I may as well have tied two handkerchiefs across my chest. The bodice is probably four to six inches too long, made for a tall person, and not a Mayka-sized person.
The gaps in the bodice are only further emphasized because of the gaps at my waist. While it’s true I had lost some weight since getting measured and receiving the dress, I really don’t believe I lost as much circumference as what was eventually taken in. (The weight loss was not intentional. Don’t get excited, I have no tips on bridal diets. If you’re looking really hard, I suggest: Body by Burnout! All of my life’s major weight losses are the results of a bespoke Stress Diet, custom tailored for me.)
And the waistband itself – it looked like two-ply toilet paper. You could see my skin through it, the seams joining at the bodice and the skirt. I’ve seen a lot of Say Yes to the Dress and I am not down for the see-through bodice shit that’s going on in New Jersey.
Learning No. 1: As the client, you are the amateur.
I blame some of this on myself. My Tailor made my measurements, but I did the fine-edit pinning on the mock sample that The Dressmaker sent to me. She cautioned me “Please keep in mind this is a mock up only of the basic outline to test the style lines,…” – so I took in points of the bodice that seemed immediately too much, and didn’t pin much else.
That ended up being a big mistake. I should have Skyped with The Dressmaker, sent copious photos to ask if I was doing things right, and just presented myself as putty in her hands. I didn’t. And I really wish she had taught me to be a better client.
Learning No. 2: Wedding season is prom season.
So anyway, the dress didn’t fit and I personally felt like my Dressmaker was off-limits, so I took it to My Tailor. She pinned me all over and told me to come back for my first fitting – in three weeks. Getting the dress at the end of February meant I was approaching the spring wave of alterations that everyone starts getting in March. This put me out to crossing my fingers until March 26th, which I circled in my calendar multiple times.
I came back on the 26th, and My Tailor had completed the bodice work, but laid out the situation on the skirt: It didn’t make sense. The mismatched sides, the strangely cut front. We scheduled a second fitting (which I understand to be the norm for wedding dresses), and as I saw our original estimate to tick up and up in line item costs, she advised I talk to The Dressmaker.
So I wrote to The Dressmaker. Very carefully. I started with empathy to her situation, hoping that things for her new family were going well. I then moved on to where I was technically (without a dress I could wear) and emotionally (disappointed). I asked if maybe she had handed the dress off to another dressmaker or apprentice whose work she wasn’t able to check. I spelled out the growing quotes on alterations for my dress, a custom gown that should fit like a custom gown. I proposed a solution that I thought would save her time as a sole proprietor (basically that she “source” me a wedding belt [which I never wanted to wear] to cover up the unfinished-looking waistband). I ended with sincere wishes to find a compromise that worked for us. I had Bill read it over, then I read it over another five times. I hit send.
The Dressmaker wrote back. She felt bad that I was at this emotional point. She intimated that I should have come to her with this feedback earlier. She did not believe it was her responsibility to buy me a bridal belt. Instead, she refunded me $200 to cover some of the $200+ alterations costs. And basically denied that the skirt could have been measured, cut, or sewn incorrectly.
I slept on it. I wrote back. I had three points to make with this message:
- I didn’t approach her earlier with my feedback and disappointment because I wanted to give her family space to recuperate from her pregnancy. (At this point, I still didn’t know what the complications were with her pregnancy.)
- There was simply no way that the dress was “complete.” My poor mock-pinning jobs aside, the skirt made no sense and the waistband looked like a failed attempt at illusion paneling. I attached photos from my first fitting with My Tailor since the gown was still at the shop.
- By all accounts, the dress – a finite good with an agreed-upon deadline – was a month late. All communication inquiring about the status of the dress between January and February was initiated by me. Her entire dressmaking shop went MIA without a backup plan or alert system to her clients. (I’m a big advocate for letting people know when you’re going to be late or unavailable, whether it’s for brunch or the most expensive piece of clothing you’ve ever bought.) And now, here I was, playing out Mayka vs. Prom at my local tailor.
The Dressmaker emailed back again. Now that she had photographic evidence of where the craftsmanship looked like a rushed job, she offered to fix the waistband if I sent the dress back. She told me that the dressmaking process is back-and-forth, which I really appreciated reading. It reminded me that this was a procedure that is meant to be iterative and eased a bit of my anxiety.
I drove straight to My Tailor to intercept the dress. I called The Dressmaker to tell her I got the dress! and that I would ship it out first thing in the morning. This was the first time The Dressmaker and I had spoken on the phone, and it was awkward. It was awkward because I didn’t want to be an overdemanding client. It was awkward because we had never talked before. It was awkward because she was clearly not very practiced in heading up adverse conversations.
Learning No. 3: People in client service roles don’t necessarily know how to deal with clients.
It was awkward because the third question out of her mouth, after a rhetorical “How are you?” and a check-in to see if I already have a good-sized box to ship the dress, was: “So are you going to send me back some of the $200 refund?”
Me, tongue-tied. Here I am scrambling a month before my wedding, running around town after an uncharacteristic spell of passivity where I shouldn’t have been concerned about The Dressmaker’s postnatal health, racking my brain for what this is all going to cost, mentally inventorying if I have a dress-sized box at home, and boom – no segue at all, just pay me back. Way to put me off, lady. When you’ve dropped a pretty penny of your own money on a custom piece loaded with significance, you don’t want to be accused of considering dining and dashing. Am I the one who was late on her delivery, didn’t bring in reinforcements to set clear expectations about delays, and sent over a product with questionable workmanship? No. I’m just the girl who paid on time and didn’t do a great job pinning a mockup sample for the first time. Oops.
I danced around answering because honestly I didn’t know how to in that hasty conversation. For one, I didn’t know what “some of the $200” reimbursement meant. I also didn’t feel confident paying back an amount when my product still wasn’t fully finished. I stammered. I moved the discussion along to general timeline for shipping, alterations, and expected delivery.
In follow-up emails, I confirmed with The Dressmaker that I would happily resend the $200 after I received the final dress.
The next day, I shipped the dress and hoped for the best (more actively than before).
Learning No. 4: When your mom references your dress being sewn “like shower curtains,” it’s not just you being OCD.
The Dressmaker indeed did me a great solid and worked on the dress over a weekend. When it finally came back, I was stoked. Again! And my hope was higher this time because of what this dress and I had already been through.
I pulled it on, I zipped it up, I fluffed out the folds – the skirt looked amazing! The bodice fit better, having had to be taken in again since being worked on by The Tailor. But,…the shoulders.
At first I thought it was lighting, or maybe I was just standing massively asymmetrically. I sent a couple quick gut check mirror selfies to my mom and Iris asking what they thought about the shoulders, and they affirmed it: The seams were uneven. I tried taping one shoulder this way, the other shoulder that way, to see if I could even out the difference and make things look symmetrical. This type of job required structural change, though. I searched Etsy for non-froufrou appliqués that could potentially cover up one shoulder, but adding anything would kill the whole simplistic vibe this dress was meant to convey. I thought long and hard about if the seams that grace your collarbone are even noticeable to the naked eye, and: yes, they are. They’re right by my head! They frame my neck. They’re going to be in every photo – and by the way I paid in full for a custom gown. It should look like I did.
Instead of being silent with my dissatisfaction (learned that lesson the hard way), I emailed My Dressmaker immediately. I praised the skirt, the general fit of the bodice. And then I gave her a heads-up that I wanted to talk about the unevenness in the shoulders instead of calling and potentially catching her off guard. Could she Skype? Could she FaceTime? In the meantime, I drove straight to My Tailor.
Learning No. 5: Dressmakers ≠ Tailors
“These are uneven,” The Tailor said.
“Yeah, I know,” I lamented. I asked her what could be done, if anything at all. The tailor pointed out how the way The Dressmaker altered the dress, it was bound to pull on the front unevenly compared to the back, a major contributor to the asymmetry in the shoulders.
While I was getting assessed, I missed a call from My Dressmaker. Once I had changed back into my streetclothes and properly hung the dress, I called her back. Basic course of conversation:
Mayka: I don’t know if My Tailor is as good at working with pleats as you. Is there any way I can send you the dress again to fix the shoulders? They are visibly uneven.
Dressmaker: I didn’t notice that they’re uneven. I never worked on the shoulders, only your tailor did. Are you going to pay me back the $200?
The symbolic $200 again! This woman’s got as much finesse as an ox. I was so close to finally bridezilla-ing on The Dressmaker, but instead, with a lot of control, I said, “Look, I’m not trying to be a bad client. I just have very little time to repair a delayed shipment that requires extra work.”
I asked her again about the possibility of sending the dress back to be finally, fully completed. She essentially said no, that this was now a “hardship” for her, working on the weekend and losing a key part of the sale. (That symbolic $200 is less than one-fifth of the price of the dress.) Her newborn cried in the background – okay, good, at least the baby is okay. At this point, I still had made no proactive inquiries about how her new family was doing. Didn’t want to be nosey, and now I just wasted perfectly good concern on this emotionless cloth cutter.
Eventually The Dressmaker did offer that if My Tailor wouldn’t fix the shoulders, I could send the dress back to her for a final round, but she said it with such disdain that I wasn’t about to test her generosity. For sure it would be a rush job again, and what’s the dressmaking equivalent to a chef spitting in one’s food? That’s what I was afraid of. (I also had flashbacks of her deciding to tack on another symbolic $200 to get the job done.)
I asked if My Tailor could fit the wedding dress back into her schedule. I could see the smoke coming out of her ears as she ground her gears roadmapping my singular job against a bevy of prom alterations. She agreed, and also said she wouldn’t charge me extra. I asked if she’d be open to talking to My Dressmaker. Oh, to be a fly on that wall…
That afternoon, I sent The Dressmaker my final email with My Tailor’s phone number so they could converse. I thanked her for her input. Then I PayPal-ed her $200. Pretty sure we’re done with each other.
My Tailor estimated finishing the dress by April 23rd.
My wedding is April 25th.
Learning No. 6: It’s all about positioning.
Believe me, I super appreciate that My Dressmaker ever took my dress back to fix the skirt (I’m curious if she re-measured her cut and had an “Oh god I fucked up” moment.) and waistband (Yay! I don’t need to wear a bridal belt I never wanted to wear.), but the woman has got to learn how to better handle clients in difficult conversations. If The Dressmaker was a surgeon, she would likely be sued for malpractice over and over again based purely on her bedside manner.
You don’t cold open with “What about my money?” – unless you’re a pimp – you just don’t. So you don’t want to work on my dress again? Okay. Next time, say “It’s your tailor’s job to fix the alteration that she made.” In fact, start there. Don’t start with counting pennies with me when you clearly can’t count minutes.
Where are we now.
Thanks to lots of helpful input from my fabulous Facebook friends – people I haven’t seen in thirteen years offered me their dresses! – and a lot of laser-focused searching, I found a backup gown for under $200 on Tradesy. (There’s another symbolic $200 for you.) I specifically chose it because it’s a David’s Bridal gown, and I was able to drive straight to sunny Pinole to try on something by the same designer to ensure fit.
It’s a weird challenge, trying to find a backup dress in the last weeks before your wedding. On the one hand, you don’t want to have to buy one, but you also have to be practical: What if something simply cannot be fixed with the original dress?
Since you’re stuck looking for a backup dress, you want to find something you really like – but you can’t like it too much! Cause what if you end up liking it more than the custom gown you just went through earth, wind, and fire for – and which is exponentially harder to resell than an off-the-rack backup? That’d be weird, and a sad waste of money.
Also, if you’re like me, changing the dress component of an outfit means changing the whole entire look. Do you already have earrings to go with the dress? Do you already have shoes? Will the dress’ new skirt work with the shoes you already have in your closet? Do you need to change your coverup?
Sometimes just the process of re-styling your wedding wardrobe can make you feel more invested in the backup dress even more. And then you’re an awful parent favoring the baby of the family instead of your firstborn.
Finally, obviously, the time window makes things that much more complicated: Your size is going to be harder to come by. You don’t have time for alterations. Ideally, you can just return the backup dress when you’re done with it, which means you’ve got to go off-the-rack. And how many people look ready for the aisle in a dress right off the rack? Very few.
I think it’s true that great creativity can come from constrained conditions, but the quagmire of the backup dress is just throwing money at a problem and settling for less all along the way. Lemons…lemonade…I’ll figure it out.
Where I’d like to be.
Let’s hope I don’t have to wear the backup gown, because frankly, it doesn’t flatter. It fits, but it’s not as complementary to small-chested girls as the online pics led me to believe. When I identified the silhouette for my custom gown, I specifically chose it with my own shape in mind. It can really only be worn by members of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee. And guess which bride isn’t interested in getting alterations done on her backup dress a week and a half out from her wedding date? THIS ONE.
On the way back from my impromptu fitting at David’s Bridal, I called My Tailor. I couldn’t keep the desperation from my voice, “I know you have a lot of prom services to do right now, but if there’s any way I can try on the dress earlier than the 23rd…I can come in any day, any time – even if it’s just to check things incrementally.”
My Tailor said she could have it ready, at least for a preview, on the 16th.
::hits my dougie::
And that, folks, brings us to our last learning for this saga:
Learning No. 7: Go local.
I can drive to My Tailor, and that makes a world of difference. I have to email and call My Dressmaker. Inevitably, things get lost in translation, and I would have been better off staying close to home.
Does every bride have a nightmare dress story? Because I don’t want this one.
So anyway. Like an afternoon special, this wedding dress story is:
To be continued…
*I’m not going to name The Dressmaker or The Dressmaker’s business, because I’m sure she does a great job at, and would rather focus on, creating her own collections as opposed to doing commissions for other people. But if you are a bride looking for a custom gown, let me know and I’ll tell you who to not enlist.