My quest for the perfect dress was hampered by the fact that I didn't want to look for it. In the ideal world, I'd have something like my old prom dress - a vintage chiffon number, sleeveless, with a high collar. But in the real world, I am lazy and cheap, and I HATE shopping.
The future mother-in-law (Eileen) took me to the Bridal Garden, a nonprofit that sells designer gowns, both used and samples, at steep discounts. But even at 75% off, I was still looking at a price tag of around $1,000, which was more than I wanted to pay (though the ladies there were prepared to haggle).
My next stop was to return to what was then my neighborhood. I walked down 5th Avenue in Park Slope with my buddy Alexandra, who was also getting married. We both looked for a dress -- any dress that fit and flattered -- to no avail. (Alexandra ended up hiring a seamstress to make a simple blue dress, but she hated the result and decided she was better off sticking with a black dress that she loved – and that was already in her closet.)
So I turned to Craiglist. After about a week of searching, I found a dress with the neckline I liked for $400. It was a beautiful dress with one obvious flaw: it was in Patchogue. Regardless, I emailed the seller and found out that our measurements were very similar, so I tried to set up an appointment to try the dress on. After waiting a few weeks for a response I was certain of two things: (1) the dress was still available and (2) I didn’t want to schlep out to Patchogue to look at it. So I offered to pay $200 (plus shipping) for the dress without trying it on. At best, I had a dress for $200; at worst, I could put the dress back up on Craigslist. Apparently, the seller didn't want me to come over and try the dress on any more than I did; she gladly accepted the offer.
The dress arrived and it was much more traditional than it appeared in the photos -- it had a long train, for example - but it fit perfectly.... ok, with one exception: the boobs were HUGE. They were packed with enough foam padding to safely FedEx a printer. I don't mind a little padding -- I'm an AA -- but I could have fit a couple of small animals in the boob-cavity of this dress.
Eileen took me to her seamstress, who removed some of the padding (if she removed it all, the front of the dress would float around independent of my movement) and gently took in the sides. The bill: $10. Seriously.
So here are the lessons:
* Craigslist is a buyer's market for wedding dresses. Most dresses don't sell, at least not at the offered price. I wouldn't pay more than 25% of the original cost.
* Bookmark your search and check it regularly.
* Get as much info as you can before going out to look at a dress. Get the owner's measurements. Ask for more photos. You aren’t going to have the luxury of looking at a clearance rack – every trip is for a single dress – so make sure each trip is worth the time.
* Check the listings outside of your area. If you have a little gambler in you, you might be able to find the best bargains in cities that don’t have enough local buyers. If the dress is decent but doesn't fit, you might even make a little money from Craigslist arbitrage.
* Alterations can be very expensive. Find a mother-in-law who has a longstanding relationship with a seamstress. (I’m not sure how to help you with that).