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Smart Choices | Spending Smart

A big-day dress for a little expense

When you're shopping for a wedding dress, don't forget to look for second-hand finds

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By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / April 26, 2009
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OK, so we're not getting married. But we did catch the bouquet recently at a friend's wedding.

And that got us thinking about The Big Day and just how little we could spend on the perfect dress.

We scoured Newbury Street secondhand shops such as The Closet and Second Time Around; perused websites like eBay, Craigslist, and www.oncewed.com; haunted the sales racks at Sara Campbell, a boutique in the South End, and Bobbles and Lace in the North End; and finished off at our old stand-by, the Goodwill.

The challenge for this nuptially inspired Globe shopping spree: $100 or less.

We picked up nine dresses - from a Cinderella-like concoction of tulle and beading, to a more casual knee-length silk sheath with spaghetti straps by Ralph Lauren. Prices ranged from $15 to $100. Here's what we learned:

Free is a good way to go. So check with your relatives and friends. The perfect frock could be hiding in the back of someone's closet. When we checked with our mom, we learned that a friend lent her the vintage gown she wore. "It was my 'something borrowed,' " she said. But sure enough, our Aunt Rosie has her dress stashed away - and she just happened to be about our size when she wed.

Start early. Unless you've got amazing consumer karma, the perfect dress is going to take some time to find. We pounded the pavement for nearly two weeks and perused untold Internet listings before we began to find lovely dresses that were also good deals. One eBay seller listed a Jon Bradley designer dress in ivory that once sold for more than $4,000. The winning bidder got it for $78.77, and shipping was free.

Wedding dress sizes are weird. If you're a size 4 in Gap jeans, please do not expect to fit into a size 4 wedding dress. We huffed a little when we made that mistake and ended up squeezing our ribs too hard while trying to get the zipper up. Instead, try a size 10. In fact, your best bet is to try on every dress you like. We found that we ranged from a size 8 to a size 10, and almost filled out one size 14. If buying online, ask lots of questions of the seller, such as whether the listed dress size is the one on the tag or a street size equivalent, or if the seller has taken measurements that you can match to your own waist, hip, and shoulder estimates.

Think outside the box. This advice applies to venue, dress style, and color. We weren't really expecting to find anything at the secondhand shops on Newbury Street. And then we walked out with four possible dresses - all suitable for a casual backyard or beach ceremony, or for a second wedding. Our favorite? An $18 tea-length cream colored silk number with a vintage feel. We're pairing it with a hat made of fabric flowers that we picked up a few doors down at Poor Little Rich Girl for $10. We also coveted a light pink silk wrap dress at Sara Campbell, but thought it might work better as a bridesmaid's outfit.

Expect homework. Almost all dresses will need a little work, whether it's alteration or a professional cleaning. Don't bypass something because the bodice is a little loose or the train has a smudge. At Goodwill, we found an elegant but simple off-white gown with an empire waist that will need to be taken in and up, but at $60, it was too good a deal to leave on the rack.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.