Whether you're the bride, an attendant, or just attending a wedding, if you wear a plus size, shopping for formal wear can be a frustrating and frazzling experience for many women.
The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. Not only are key wedding-wear designers like Richard Glasgow, Alvina Valenta, Anne Barge, and Kenneth Pool now creating spectacular dresses especially for larger-sized women, many of the moment's most popular wedding styles look great on all shapes and sizes.
"This is clearly the year for the plus-size gal to shine because so many of the top styles are so well-suited for the larger figure -- and that goes for attendants and the mother of the bride, too," says Cindi Freeburn, spokesperson for David's Bridal, the only national chain store devoted to women's formal wear.
To find the style that looks best on you, experts say, start by defining your body type even before you start shopping.
"If you want to find a gown that both fits and flatters, you have to know what you want to camouflage and what you want to bring out, and don't be ashamed to share that information with your bridal consultant," says Marianne Shear, a wedding-gown designer and owner of The Dresser, a bridal boutique in Fullerton, Calif.
If you have to, make a list. And don't be shy about naming your assets!
"Every woman has something about her body that is beautiful," says Freeburn. "For plus-size gals it's often gorgeous shoulders, a beautiful neck, an elegant chest and bust line. And fortunately, these are all features you can really play up in today's wedding styles."
Bridal Gowns That Fit and Flatter
For bridal-gown expert Nancy Aucone, the key to finding the right dress is to focus your attention on the bodice, making sure you get the right fit and style on top.
"The skirt is less important because a larger girl can wear almost any type if the bodice is correct," says Aucone, co-owner of The Wedding Salon of Manhasset, in Long Island, N.Y.
To flatter the plus-size figure, Aucone suggests a bodice with a longer cut, classically known as a "Basque" style. Also, she says, make sure the cut of the gown can accommodate your bra cup size.
"If the cup size is right on the bodice, then the back of the dress doesn't have to be as wide, and that gives you a much more flattering and slender look," Aucone tells WebMD.
Some of the most popular designs feature a strapless or halter-cut neckline, both of which can be super-flattering for plus-size women, experts say.
"The goal is to create that hourglass figure by counter-balancing what nature gave us, and both a strapless and a halter can help you do that," says Freeburn.
Here's another way to get that hourglass look: If you're a lot smaller on top than on the bottom, she says, look to an off-the-shoulder style; if you're larger on top and smaller on the bottom, choose a gown with a slim-cut skirt, in a sheath or A-line style.
For a universally flattering look, look for princess tailoring (seams that run lengthwise, without a break at the waist). Or, look for high-waisted styles with a "breakaway" A-line shaped skirt.
Some styles to avoid: Narrow trumpet skirts; straight-cut dresses in super-slinky fabrics; the "mermaid" look with a tight, narrow skirt and large flounce; and oversized, pouffy ball gowns, particularly those with long sleeves.
"When you encase a larger figure in too much fabric, it begins to look larger," says Aucone.
If you're self-conscious about your upper arms, consider a wedding shawl, lace jacket, or another coordinating wrap or boleros. For an extra touch of elegance, Shear says, many wedding-gown manufacturers will supply material by the yard, allowing an experienced bridal shop to whip you up a shawl or bolero in the same fabric as your gown.
"This is why it's important to choose a full-service salon -- one that can not only guide you in fit and style, but also take care of alterations, and, if necessary, create pieces to customize your look," Shear tells WebMD.
Another plus to visiting a full-service salon: Most can guide you to the right bridal undergarments. Yes, experts say, formal gowns require formal undergarments to smooth and shape the figure. Most bridal salons carry several lines.
"Ideally, you should not even try on a bridal gown without the proper undergarment," Aucone says, "and you certainly should not have your final fitting without one, since a well-made corselet or bustier can take as much as three inches off your waist, sculpt your bust line, and reduce your midriff."
Bridesmaids and Moms: Show Your Style
Another plus-size wedding challenge is slipping into your attendant's gown only to discover it was chosen to fit and flatter someone half your size.
But this season experts say the plus-size attendant is in luck: The two-piece bridesmaid gown is one of the hottest styles.
"Not only does this give attendants the opportunity to shop for a top and bottom that is most flattering to their figure type, they can also buy them in different sizes so there is a minimum of alterations," Freeburn tells WebMD.
Among the most popular choices at David's Bridal is the "Mix and Match" collection. Brides can choose their color and fabric preferences, then allow each attendant to select her preferred top and bottom from a variety of coordinated styles. Other designers offer similar collections.
"We realize that not every girl in the wedding party is the same size or has the same figure issues, so we have created a collection that allows each attendant to look her best while still holding true to the bride's vision," says Freeburn.
This mix-and-match approach can also be a solution for the plus-size mother-of-the-bride.
"If the bride chooses lavender or pale aqua as her wedding color, and you just can't see yourself in a pastel gown, you can still fit in if you choose a black or navy skirt and wear the accent wedding-party color just on the top -- or the other way around," advises Freeburn.
Since every option and combination is available for viewing on their web site, it's easy for the whole wedding party to get online together and find the right look for each member, even if they're thousands of miles apart.
Finding Your Dream Gown
While style advice can narrow your gown choice, finding a store that carries what you like can be another hurdle to clear. If you haven't already figured this out, many local bridal shops carry sample gowns in one size only: the "bridal size 10."
What you should also know: That "bridal size 10" would be more like a 6 or 8 in regular street clothing. So, don't panic if the sales folks tell you to go up as much as two sizes.
Another disappointment: In some bridal shops, plus-size customers are asked to "hold the dress up" to see how it looks and to place their order with nothing more than a paper-doll interpretation of how the gown might look on them.
If this has been your experience, stop right here. You don't have to settle for that kind of de-personalized treatment.
Experts say the plus-size bridal market is exploding, and a good number of bridal shops are answering the call. Many now stock samples up to size 28. David's Bridals has created an entire department that caters to the plus-size figure, found in all 240 of their stores.
But what if you've got your heart set on that designer gown on the magazine cover? Experts say you should look for a shop with experienced fit consultants. These "super-tailors" can help you see exactly how your dream dress will look on you, regardless of the sample size.
"A-well trained bridal consultant knows how to do this, and if you don't get this kind of personalized service, without making you feel self-conscious, then this is definitely not the shop for you," says Aucone.
One thing all our experts agree on: A plus-size bride, attendant, or mother of the bride or groom should expect to be treated with dignity. If a salon does not make you feel that way, move on.