When it comes to The Dress, 

every bride finds her own way to “yes.”

On a bitterly cold night in late December, Encore Bridal Loft is especially twinkly—and not just because of the teensy evergreen festooned with ornaments and crinoline hoop in the display window. A young woman is pensively making her way through a row of gowns—lace or satin, sparkly or shimmering—when a small group of friends enters, bundled up against the cold. Warm greetings are exchanged. The woman behind the counter calls out a welcome. With its festive camaraderie and dusting of great expectation, the moment perfectly captures the spirit of the season.
Wedding dress season, that is.

To hit the mark when the “I do’s” start cascading in late spring and summer, Northern Colorado brides must start making decisions about their wedding gowns before the last-minute Christmas rush ends. Dresses typically take four to five months to arrive, and then there’s more time required for alterations. By the new year, when most merchants are drifting into the post-holiday lull, Northern Colorado bridal shops are shifting into overdrive.

And so is the tension. The bridal dress is a singular purchase. Having found the one in romance, the betrothed is immediately tasked with finding the one again: the perfect dress. “You’re supposed to look the best you’ve ever looked in your life,” says Timiry McCaskell, owner of Dora Grace Bridal in Fort Collins.
Pressure, what pressure?

If you’ve ever watched TLC’s addictive “Say Yes to the Dress,” you know how much drama and joy swirl around a bride’s search for the one. At 16 seasons and counting, the binge-worthy bonbon set in New York City’s Kleinfelds Bridal follows brides and consultants as they zero in on that perfect dress and deliver the signature set-up line: “Are you saying ‘yes’ to the dress?”
By early January, when 22-year-old Abby Weston arrives at Encore to select a gown for her June wedding, it’s “Yes, definitely” time.

This is Weston’s third trip to Encore. She made her first visit in early fall—September 23, to be exact, two days after high school sweetheart Ethan Mattson proposed. “My mom was in town [from Washington state] and she wanted to come with me the first time,” says Weston. “I had no idea what I wanted. I knew I liked lace. That’s the only thing I knew. I’ve always really liked vintage-type wedding dresses.”

She made a second visit in December, this time by herself. “That’s when I found the dress,” Weston says—not an unyielding “yes,” but oh-so-close. She’s here today to confirm the choice, with a little help from Arryn and Ally Mattson, her roommates and soon-to-be sisters-in-law.

“Abby!” says bridal consultant Julia DeSarro when Weston walks in. DeSarro has only been at Encore for three months but she has the vibe of a veteran, cool yet empathetic.

“It’s really satisfying to help someone find the most important dress of their life,” she says. “They usually have an idea of what they think they like. But what I’ve learned is that they like the dress on the brides that they see them on, not necessarily something that would look good on them.”

Weston, DeSarro and the sisters take the short flight downstairs to the dressing room. The next hour and a half dashes by, as Abby and Julia disappear behind the changing-room curtain, reappear to showcase a fresh contender, then disappear again. There are eight dresses in all, including the one from December’s visit.

Each time Weston emerges, Ally and Arryn prod or gently critique. “So lacy,” observes Arryn about Dress No. 2.  “How are you with the bedazzled look?” Ally asks of No. 6. “Ooo, I like it a lot,” says Arryn of the same dress. “This is Arryn’s dress,” Ally teases Arryn, who is about to start her own dress search for a September wedding.

Encore is intimate and arty, with a nicely curated sense of the bohemian. It has a high, tin ceiling with three chandeliers and two display windows to soften the light. Next to the desk in the showroom there’s a small sign that reads: “I SAID YES TO THE DRESS @ENCOREBRIDALFORTCOLLINS.” In the feedback loop that runs between popular culture and life, the long-running TLC series—abetted by Pinterest and other social media—has created a generation of pretty savvy gown shoppers.

So when a bride arrives at Encore—or at Dora Grace’s 5600-square-foot salon, with its 500-plus options—there’s a good chance her Pinterest feed prominently features mermaids and A-lines, ball gowns and trumpets. She may already have narrowed her choice down to a genre: glamorous, whimsical, bohemian, classic, modern, ethereal. Forget 50 shades of gray and consider the daunting varieties of white. According to Dora Grace’s McCaskell, stark white is on the wane. Today’s brides are partial to ivory, natural white, light gold, champagne, and alabaster, or dresses that combine these colors.

They’re also well-versed in other fine details, of which there is a nuanced load: How bold or subtle is the lace pattern? How big a train? How far does (or doesn’t) the neckline plunge? Open back? Straps? If so, how delicate or wide? To bodice or not to bodice?

Far from being flustered by the possibilities, Weston (who was 10 years old when “Say Yes to the Dress” debuted) seems sweetly giddy, even benevolent. When she rejects a dress, she does so gently—as if telling the dress, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Perhaps Weston’s equanimity shouldn’t come as a surprise. It may be a Colorado bride thing. “Our girls in Colorado are a little more practical,” says Encore Bridal Loft owner Jessica Brostron. McCaskell concurs: “Our brides are really down to earth. Our typical bride is between 21 and 30. She’s from Northern Colorado. We get a lot of Wyoming and Eastern Nebraska girls, with a mid-range budget.  We get some brides with a $3,000 limit. The Wyoming [and] Nebraska brides like the bling and the big. The Colorado brides go for the chic and boho.”

“Sometimes these girls are more of an expert than I am,” jokes Brostron. “They know the lingo. I learn a lot from them.”

The interactions between bride and consultant can make for a fine waltz. “I definitely offer my opinion when they ask, but it’s not my opinion that matters,” says consultant DeSarro. “My main focus is that the bride doesn’t lose sight of her voice in the whole thing, because there are so many people and so many opinions. I haven’t run across too many mean entourages but, you know, it happens. I’ve had brides that are in the dressing room and say ‘Oh my god, I love this dress.’ And I’ll have one person say something [negative], and that’s it. Nope.”

Entourages can be tricky, but the Mattson sisters take to their tag-team role with relaxed grace. “Ally’s a very honest person who will come out and say it straightforward,” Arryn says. “I’m a little, ‘Yeah, I can see that. But you seem like you’re talking a lot more about this one.’” Ally wants to be sure Weston feels confident in whatever dress she chooses. “I didn’t want to give her any fake praise,” she observes afterward. “I want her to wear what she wants, but I also want her to look great, because she can.”

When a bride feels good about a dress at Encore, she and the consultant walk upstairs to the full-length mirror near the display windows. The light is lovely. Without a lick of self-consciousness, Weston stands on the pedestal and eyes herself in a dress that’s threatening to nudge the one of December to runner-up status. The upstart gown has a high neckline, open keyhole back, and ever so slightly larger train. Ally Mattson gets Weston’s mom on FaceTime to show her the challenger. Like the sisters, Robbin Weston strikes notes of support but also clarity, reminding Abby what she loves about her first choice.

They hang up, and Weston returns to the dressing room a final time to don her original choice.  She steps onto the floor. Closeup of Weston on Camera 3. Cue soundtrack: slow crescendo….

She loves it still. Perhaps even more now, for having put it through this final test. Chalk up another “yes.”

Film actors often speak of the way a costume authenticates a role they’ve rehearsed over and over. Bridal dresses assert a similar power.

“They’re trying on a bunch of dresses,” says Dora Grace’s McCaskell, “and all of a sudden you put a veil on them, and you make it real real: ‘Now I’m a bride.’”

Sure enough, the subtlest shift occurs when DeSarro pins a sheer veil to Weston’s hair. Recalling the moment later, Weston says: “Even when you get engaged, it didn’t really feel, like, real. Then you get the ring and you’re ‘Okay, this is really happening.’ Asking your bridal party to be part of it. But when you put the dress on, you think: ‘This is what I’m going to be wearing.’ And then you put on the veil…”

She pauses. “I don’t know what it is about the veil.”

When Abby Weston and Ethan Mattson marry at the end of June, it will be in the small Washington town where they met and dated, in the lovely barn-like church Weston’s parents had a role in founding. She’ll be wearing the dress she said “yes” to back in January, a dress we deliberately chose not to picture in this article. Because that would rob Mattson of one the most incandescent moments in any wedding.

Since last March, Weston has been keeping a daily list of the things she loves about Mattson on her phone. Maybe the entry for June 22 will be: “The look on his face when he saw me for the first time in the dress.”

Photos by Patrick Emidston, PhoCo