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Finding the wedding dress of your dreams

Most couples do it. Many even think about it when they are children, and they continue to dream and plan it for years.

You may be thinking about marriage, too, especially since tomorrow is Valentine's Day. And if you agree to a marriage proposal tomorrow, you will be embarking on a journey deep into the caverns of the bridal industry.

But it's not as bad or as scary as you might think. There are lots of people ready to help you.

It all starts with the wedding gown. Most bridal salons know their business but, perhaps more important, they also know brides. They know that many girls have grown up with dreams of being a princess on their wedding day. And they know that even in the 1990s, with more women committed to their careers, a dream wedding is still on their minds.

"The wedding dress symbolizes the dream of the bride that she might have had even subconsciously as a little girl," says Patricia Hall, president of the Bay Area Bridal Association and owner of Bridals by Patricia in Tampa.

Many shops also are seeing second wedding brides. "Obviously, due to the divorce statistics, we're seeing a significant number not just of second weddings but for third, forth and fifth weddings. They honestly feel that if they had gone all out with the other weddings, it might have made it longer-lasting," says Suzette Berkman, co-owner and manager of Main Event in Tampa.

Second wedding brides often opt for a more sophisticated look. "Usually for second and third weddings, they go for an informal gown in ivory," Berkman says.

While most bridal boutique owners agree that there isn't one single design or fabric that is totally out of style, they all have different ideas on what trends are popular now.

Tulle seems to be making a strong comeback. "It's certainly not the first year it was introduced, but it is making a strong re-emergence. This year we also see the A-line, which is an old-fashioned style starting to come back," Berkman says.

Elizabeth Tellor, co-owner of Boulevard Fashions in Pinellas Park and Clearwater, sees most of her brides going for the portrait neckline. "They still want the Queen Anne look, the sweetheart neck and the illusion neckline. Most want long sleeves," she says.

Hall agrees on the popularity of the portrait neckline. "It was very popular in the '50s. It brings all the attention up to the face where it should be, so you don't have the bride coming down the aisle with people saying, "Here comes the dress.'

"

Oftentimes, women turn to bridal magazines for guidance in choosing a dress and veil.

"I think it helps them in terms of when they come into the shop; they can say, "I really like the look of the high neck.' They can look at dresses by style," Berkman says.

Beyond that, magazines may give many brides false hopes, Hall says. Many gowns shown on those slick pages are very expensive. "You have to work harder with those brides," Tellor says. "because of the magazine pictures they are trying to match." As president of the Bay Area Bridal Association, Hall has been campaigning for magazines to start publishing prices "so that the girls have some idea of what it is going to cost and discard the ideas of what they cannot afford."

It's best to start shopping for your wedding gown at least six months before the big day, the bridal shop owners say. "It's important to allow shipping time of four months. The bride should shop early enough so she can get the gown decision out of the way and make the other decisions that hinge on that choice," Hall says.

Once you start finding your way through the bridal racks, you'll notice that most of the dresses you see are size 10 or 11.

The limited sizing is a matter of practicality, store owners say. Because there are two buying seasons (spring and fall), the manufacturers must get the samples out to the stores as quickly as possible, so they cut only one or two sizes. "The manufacturers consider a size 10 or 11 to be an average size and the average height that they base their designs on is 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-8" Berkman says.

Alterations are frequently needed and can run anywhere from $10 to $200 depending on how extensive the work is. Most brides will require two fittings. "The first fitting is when the dress is pinned," Hall says. "So when the girl comes in the second time, the dress should fit her and then minor adjustments are made."

Bridal shop owners suggest the would-be bride look around before choosing a gown. "We are going to get the gown whether the bride gets married or not," Hall says. "Sometimes the bride orders the gown and then falls in love with another gown. The she has to walk down the aisle in something that is her second choice."

Most bridal shops will not buy back a gown after a wedding has been called off or another dress has been found. "We can't," Berkman says. "We would be stuck with so many dresses that we would literally be out of business. It happens to us on an average of once a week."

In the Tampa Bay area, formal gowns with a train may range from $250 to $2,500. Informal gowns, those dresses without a train, may range from $200 to $500.

And it's not as difficult as you may think to find a beautiful dress in your price range, even if you are on a tight budget. Discontinued gowns are available in most shops. "Even with extensive alterations, she can still have a nice gown for a lower price," Hall says.

Another option many brides on a budget should consider is a bridesmaid dress. "They are extremely appropriate to be married in," Berkman says, "and they can be ordered in white or ivory. There you are looking at about $70 to $200."

Once the gown is selected, most brides begin looking for a headpiece, which is more important than some brides realize, according to Tellor. During most ceremonies, she points out guests will be looking at the back of the bride for a long time. Therefore, she recommends using a pouf because it gives more highlight to the back of a gown.

As with gowns, headpiece styles come and go. The V-headband design, Berkman says, is on its way out. "It's still available but has been replaced by the crown or tiara look. It adds to that princess feeling. The V was only good for a very sophisticated bride and no one else, but everyone was wearing it and it did not look well," she says.

Above all, Berkman says brides should remember to keep all the shopping in perspective.

"If a wedding does not incorporate the meaning of what it's all about, I don't care what you spend or what you do. You might as well forget it," Berkman says.

BOULEVARD FASHIONS: Right. Location: Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. Model: Kori Hendricks. Dress by Sweetheart; price, $650. The gown features an illusion and jeweled neckline and a heavily-beaded satin bodice that drops into a basque waist. The gown has a cathedral train. Hat by T

&

G Veil Co.; price, $140.

BRIDALS BY PATRICIA: Left and inset. Location: Plant Hall at the University of Tampa. Model: Joan Rodriquez Hall. Dress by Galina; price, $2,300. The antique white gown has a silk off-the-shoulder scalloped neckline. Headpiece is custom made; price, $190. A silk bow from dress fabric is complemented by lace.

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