Over the course of three short days last week, my mother and I went shopping for dresses, both hers and mine. It was my first crack at it, and we trotted around Manhattan and Brooklyn at a fever pitch: five appointments for me, four hours spent looking for a dress for her, and countless moments spent in the throes of existential discussion. Plus cab fare. All this while temperatures hit the mid-nineties, leaving us positively soaked with sweat, anxiety, self-reflection, and the irresistible tang of fashion promise.

Stepping into the very first dress (the WTOO Watters Persiphone at BHLDN), I moved gingerly and nervously, as if immersed in a tank of quick-drying Elmer’s glue. I was afraid of the dress—its delicate layers, the beads sewn on with baby hairs—and how it would look on me, a 26-year-old woman with a girl’s face and bad hair and big thighs and all kinds of other problems. Five appointments later, by the time I put on the last dress (Katie May’s Sienna at Lovely Bride) I was a changed woman, pulling the things on and off like they were popsicle wrappers. The confidence comes from gaining knowledge along the way: realizing what you like from the hits (which we’ll talk about in another post, maybe), and being able to rationalize what you hate from the misses, of which there were plennnnnty. Babies, oh ladies, were there some misses.

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At first, these unfortunate gowns frustrated me. Why didn’t I like these gorgeous confections that would inevitably be some other bride’s most beautiful dress she’s ever seen? But then I started learning from them. That’s the topic for today: Dresses I said hell no to, and what they taught me.

“Valentina” Gown, Badgley Mischka at BHLDN, $1,000

Now would be a good time to say that the dresses that were misses were not at all ugly dresses. This dress was gorgeous, especially from the back, with all those cascading ruffles falling like a curtain that opened on either side of a stage that presented a Broadway show of your fine ass. Looking at it again makes me want to run back to BHLDN and buy it right now, actually. But it’s the front that was an issue: the high neck covered what moments earlier I’d realized (after trying on a corset top and skirt combo) was—surprise!—my favorite part of my body: my neck/shoulder/clavicle region, which I feel is refined and delicate. It didn’t help that the catty biatch in the background there screamed to me and my mother, while I was on the podium in mirror, “HONEY, YOU’RE TOO YOUNG FOR THAT DRESS!” Her diamond was the size of my head, and she was far too old to be talking to strangers without them inviting her to.

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What I learned from Valentina is hiding my décolletage makes me feel like a human smear.

Beaded Lace Tiered Gown, Melissa Sweet at David’s Bridal, $1,650

My experience overall at David’s Bridal was downright Melissa Sour. My “stylist” was about as excited to be at her job as a movie theater ticket seller; you’re not allowed to browse, touch, or even go remotely near the gowns; and the appointment felt rushed, cheap, and impersonal, even though I really think they do have some lovely options. This gown, which was brought to me as a surprise from my stylist, and which made me feel like an actual fish from Liberace’s diamond-studded dream pond in heaven, was not one of the gorgeous options. This dress had true gills. Really, look at them. Every time I took a step, I felt like the dress was dissolving oxygen from water, and excreting carbon dioxide as a byproduct. It was heavy, its layers clacked against one another like the panels of a Trapper Keeper, and, worst of all, the dress grew ever sloppier as your eye traveled downward, with its tiers that suddenly increased in size as if the seamstress didn’t want to miss happy hour so she started to take some shortcuts at around 4:00.

What I learned from this dress is, if I wanted to look like a fish, I’d be better off trying on some mermaid dresses (which I eventually did, and I loved them, ta-da!).

Gray Raw Silk Mermaid Gown, designer unknown, Lovely Bride NYC

By the time I got to Lovely, my last appointment of Doris and Lauren’s Dressfest 2015, I was 100% mermaid-obsessed. This was the first merm I saw on the rack, so naturally, I snatched it, somehow pierced my feet through its bottom-third portion’s insanely dense cloud of tulle and crinoline, and revealed myself in the mirror to my entourage. Oh, oh no. No, no. The gown was far too formal for my humble New England barn wedding; it wouldn’t work.

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Now for my least favorite part of dress shopping: Telling the consultant you hate something after she spends forever getting you clamped into it. And thusly, the hand wringing began. How to tell this sweet, ombre-haired lady that the very first dress I asked to see was a big fat no? Oh, the wringing. Oh, please get this off of me. Oh god, take it off. It has to go. My hands are literally disappearing. They’re gone. They left. I wrung them clear off—as evidenced in the photo above.

From this dress I learned it’s okay to go right ahead and tell your consultant, “No, this isn’t it,” when a dress just isn’t it.

“Naima” Chiffon Gown, Theia, Lovely Bride NYC

“I’m looking for something form-fitting that shows my shoulders and chest area,” said the bride-to-be whose beady eyes immediately darted to the Theia rack, landing on a dress that fit neither of these very specific qualifications. “I would like to try this on,” she demanded, plucking a horsefly larva from her hair-nest and popping it into her mouth. Anyway, you can tell from my cool and relaxed face of maximum chillness that this dress was not going to happen for me. Plus it’s the only one that made my mom blurt out a straight-up, stone-cold “Hell naw.” The gentle scallop of the lace topper really does wonders for my abdominal beer-and-bread storage area, and wow, does that lace overhang out back ever eek over my ass like a slow slap of a wet towel in a locker room, or what! My poor consultant. She was like, “When does this day end for me?”

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From this dress I learned that I should stick with dresses that actually fit the bill of what I’m looking for.

High Neck Lace A-Line Gown with Appliques, David’s Bridal, $1,099

This dress was brought to me on a whim by my David’s Bridal consultant, who apparently felt it was her distinct responsibility to dress me up like her haunted porcelain cotillion doll all afternoon. It looks great on this model, but on me, it looked like a weatherbeaten corn husk. The overskirt, which weighed approximately one elephant, was removable, mercifully, but underneath, you were left with this itchy, sweaty, thick polyester brocade shell that stretched dutifully from chin all the way to metatarsal. Because every summer bride feels her most beautiful when she is dressed like a fiberglass mummy from the ancient Egypt ride at her home state’s off-brand amusement park! There is no photo of me in this dress because I bought it and am getting married in it and don’t want Joe to see it and us to divorce someday. Just kidding, there is no photo of me in this dress because I hated it so much, I made a lewd gesture as my mom was taking a photo of me wearing it, and I don’t want that photo of me living in infamy on the Internet forever.

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This dress taught me that hell is a David’s Bridal consultant whose boyfriend just broke up with her on Snapchat or something.

Aimee” Gown, Something Blue Vancouver at BHLDN, $1,200

For, oh, I dunno, the entire time I’ve been engaged, I thought Aimee would be the dress I’d get married in. At $2,400 regular price, it was way over budget, but then it went on sale just a few weeks before my appointment at BHLDN—a sign from the wedding gods, for sure. When I finally put it on, I was told by my very sweet consultant to use my imagination; the sample size was several sizes larger than my own, and the clips totally altered the way the crazy beautiful straps were supposed to fall in the back. So I used my imagination, and told myself it was going to be my dress, even though I felt overwhelmed in the ball gown skirt and the heavy layers of fabric. After all, it was on sale, and it was my favorite!

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The next day, after a really wonderful appointment at VeKa Bridal in Brooklyn (New York brides: Go here, it’s divine) where I discovered I could wear close-fitting silhouettes and feel beautiful, grown-up and confident, I showed my consultant these pictures of me in the Aimee and asked her what she thought. “It’s pretty,” she said. “But what do you like about it?” The back, I told her, duh. She traced the outline of it’s significant skirt, sighed, and said, “But where are you in this dress?”

Then she softly explained the most important thing I learned from dress shopping: Picking a dress because you like a few of its details is okay, but it’s even more important to pick a dress because of how it frames you in it. You wear the dress; the dress is not allowed to wear you. You are the bride, Aimee is not. And whether you’re a wedding fanatic or an anti-wedding, backyard bride, we can all agree that we want the be the ones doing the kissing, dancing, toasting and crying that day—not our dresses.

And so I thanked Aimee for letting me learn from her, and I un-docked her gently, a little sadly, like I did all the no’s, from the bobbing pool of other dresses hitched up in my mind. I said farewell once and for all, and let her drift on to be perfect for someone else.


Image via Shutterstock.

Watch this space weekly as Lauren Rodrigue shares the victories and freakouts of planning her 2016 wedding (and the marriage that’ll follow). Tweet her at @laurenzalita.