The trend of the past few years has been toward more formal weddings. ``The girls this year are going very traditional - with a train, the beading, lace, the gloves, the whole bit,'' comments Bella Hall, manager of Pronuptia bridal shop on Boston's Newbury Street.

Karen Metz of Priscilla, also on Newbury Street, says, ``The most common thing is that they come in saying, `I just want a dress to be married in,' and then they leave with the whole nine yards - the veil, the beads, the lace.''

In most towns, bridal gowns can be obtained at some department stores, bridal salons, and bridal discount shops. While Priscilla, Pronuptia, and the bridal salon at Boston's Jordan Marsh department are very different, salespersons agree that most women buy dresses in the $600 to $900 range, though dresses can be had for much more - $3,000, or even $5000!

They can also cost much less. Laura Ashley's line of wedding dresses run about $400. An inexpensive, discontinued, off-the-rack dress can be bought at Jordan's for as little as $20 to $50.

Boston even has a bridal consignment store, The Bridal Exchange and Bridal Shop, where you can buy once-worn bridal gowns for half-price. Nice dresses are snapped up immediately, according to owner Lorraine Fallon.

The difference in price usually stems from difference in material and workmanship. ``Most gowns are really polyester, even if we say they're satin or taffeta,'' says one saleslady. The term to listen for, if good material is important to you, is silk organza and silk taffeta.

After your first strenuous day of shopping, you will be able to tell the difference between Alen,con lace (more delicate) and Venice lace (coarser). You will talk knowledgeably about portrait necklines (scoop), sweetheart necklines (they come to a point in the middle), and a jewel neck (a high collar with beading).

There are also trains to consider: These range from a ``sweep,'' a full skirt with a tiny train in the back, chapel, 1 yards trailing behind you, and cathedral (2 yards).

``Some girls come in - they're getting married in two weeks, so they buy a sample,'' says Ms. Hall of Pronuptia. The samples come in size 8, 10, and 12.

But they are the exception. Wedding dresses are almost always ordered. They are cut to fit you. Alterations, though necessary, are mostly fine tuning. ``She comes back for her first fitting. She comes back for her second fitting. By the time she picks up her dress, you know her better than your own daughter,'' says Hall.

Bridesmaids' dresses come in many colors. You pick a style from trying on a sample and then look at the color chart to pick the fabric. Sometimes there will be 10 or so different fabrics. Sometimes as many as 20 or 30.

If you are going the non-traditional route and want a regular dress from a department store, your size can still be ordered if the dress is by an American designer, says James Sullivan, vice president/ fashion merchandise director of Jordan Marsh.

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