• Quest for perfect gown is even harder for atypical brides
     | December 21,2008

    Eternity Gowns’ temple-ready dress, shown in a photo provided by the company, has long flared sleeves and a high scoop neckline.

    As a Mormon planning a temple wedding, Jenna Gaal knew what she needed in a wedding gown: pure white, with sleeves and a conservative neckline and hem.

    She just couldn't find it.

    "I tried on things that looked like nightgowns, floor-length with beads," said the 23-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., who wanted something elegant as well as modest.

    Finally, she found her dress about a four-hour drive from home at Chatfields Boutique in the St. Louis suburb of Des Peres. Chatfields, which bills itself as "an unexpected wedding store," features modest, plus-size, eco-friendly, maternity and other specialty gowns.

    Its owner, Debbie Welcher, notes that not all brides are seeking a size 6 strapless couture gown. While those with unconventional — or very traditional — needs may have to do a little more homework, there are places where they, too, can find the dress of their dreams.

    Gaal was beaming, and her mother looked happy too, as she stood in front of a mirror at Chatfields while her satin gown — with covered shoulders, a dropped waist and box pleats — was being fitted. She found the store because it is near her wedding temple.

    "Oh, my goodness! I was almost in tears because I had 10 to 20 dresses to try on, instead of two or three to try and work with," she said. "I think it's a great thing because every bride wants to look pretty on her wedding day."

    Welcher was motivated to create a boutique of hard-to-find bridal dresses when she heard a radio call-in discussion about how difficult it could be for pregnant brides to find flattering dresses and sympathetic salespeople.

    Her store now serves a variety of niche bridal markets. There is a pregnant mannequin in the same store window as another mannequin wearing a temple-ready gown with high neck and long sleeves.

    The maternity dress is a champagne taffeta with a corset back that can be laced to adjust for a changing figure. It also includes a panel of fabric that expands to accommodate an expanding belly.

    "It's not just an empire with fabric hanging down," Welcher said, referring to the high-waistline style that might be used to dress a pregnant woman. "I love this dress because it's so Audrey Hepburn."

    These days, brides want gowns that fit their own personal circumstances, say those in the industry.

    "The whole concept of a traditional bride is being turned on its head a little bit," said spokeswoman Cindi Freeburn of David's Bridal, which has about 300 stores nationwide. "Brides really want to make their wedding their own."

    The chain doesn't specifically design maternity dresses, Freeburn said, but has in-store experts trained to make those alterations.

    They can help meet other special requests, too, she said. A jacket or cover-up may be the answer for a bride seeking a modest silhouette at a religious ceremony. Sleeves can be added to certain designs, or bodices built up with more fabric to raise a neckline.

    The industry also has seen an increase in plus-size gowns; an estimated 25 percent of women getting married need them.

    David's, based in Conshohocken, Pa., stocks a wide range of sizes, and Welcher said her boutique has samples up to size 30. Recently, Marimo USA introduced Bara Luxe, a collection of couture wedding gowns for plus-size women, including a halter dress and one with a mermaid cut.

    Customers "get to see a lot of styles they may have thought they couldn't wear," said Yvonne McClendon, from Marimo. "She's as glamorous or romantic or sexy — not as she wants to be, but as she is."

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