Here are the rules you'll need to live by as you start the search for your dream dress:

Budget: It's received wisdom that about 10% of the wedding budget goes on the dress. You will be in 98% of the photos, so this is not an area you want to skimp on. While you might not believe yourself to be in the designer-dress league, try them on anyway, to get a feel for what you want.

Body type: There is a dress to flatter everyone, even Shrek's Princess Fiona. Your designer will be able to direct you, but see our "Shapes and Sizes" article for some pointers.

Time of the wedding: If you time the wedding to suit the dress you're in love with, you won't be the first... But do try and make sure that you fit into the context. Velvet in the day doesn't work in South Africa – even in winter. And chicken-skin arms shivering in a strapless number isn't a good look either.

Tone of the wedding: You'll look better than anyone else in the room, so out-glam the lot of them – even if you're having a beach wedding.

Right, time to go shopping.

The scouting should begin between six and 12 months before your wedding, depending on what you want and where you're going to get it. Whether you know exactly what you are looking for or are dazed and confused by a cloud of white lace, chiffon and silk, the experience is most likely to be fun if it's not conducted in a last-minute panic.

Take one or two trusted friends with you but avoid having an entire entourage. You're shopping with a mission and having too many friends with you will turn it into a girl's day – tempting, but not productive! At this stage, keep an open mind. Most of us haven't spent a lot of time in wedding dresses, and you could be surprised by what suits you best.

Take along:

  • A digital camera to remind you of what transpired (and don't forget to check yourself from every angle);
  • White or nude underwear (the good ones);
  • Pins and hair-bands so that you can adapt your hairstyle, as this can make a huge difference to the look of a neckline;
  • Shoes with a similar heel to those you anticipate wearing on the day. These will affect the fall of your skirt and the height of your hem.

    Maybe you'll find the perfect dress – or one that's 90% of the way there and just needs to be tweaked. Or maybe you won't, in which case now’s the time to choose a dressmaker. That's often a juggling act between budget, design and quality. Your best reference resources are the people who know, whose taste you share, and who might have had experience with dressmakers. It's also worth checking with people in the industry, such as fabric stores.

    Our wedding directory, of course, is a great source of contacts too.

    When interviewing dressmakers (yes, you have to do this), you should check availability according to the date of your wedding. Ask for samples of their work, references from previous brides, an estimate of costs, what this will include, and the deposit amount. When signing a contract, (at the risk of sounding parental) read the fine print.

    Dressmakers will be able to advise you on the fabric, colour (there are many shades of white), and style to suit you best. In turn, they will need from you the date of your wedding, samples of fabric and pictures of dresses that have caught your attention.

    There are conflicting views on how far in advance you should collect your dress. Generally brides, through stress or dieting, tend to shed kilos shortly before their wedding. It is up to you whether you want to collect the dress a month before the wedding day (after final sign-off, it is possible that you will be charged for alterations), or a week before, which may mean a little more stress, but a better fit on the day. Either way, you should try the dress on before taking it out of the shop for the last time.