Finding a Consignment Shop
You may already know of at least one shop in your area. Visit it to get a feel for pricing in general. Not every second-hand store is a bargain. Make sure you're getting enough of a deal to justify going this route.
You can also look in the phone book or online for locations. Be sure to ask friends and family as well; they might know of a location that provides clean, well-preserved clothing.
Take the Initiative
If none of your local consignment shops currently have wedding dresses available, take the bull by the horns. Visit each store and speak to the shop owner. Tell him or her that you are getting married and would love a phone call if a dress should come in.
Depending upon what type of dress you're looking for, you might also find an evening wear dress that fits the bill as well as a traditional wedding one might. Check the formal-wear racks and see if anything says "wedding" to you.
Proceed With Caution
There are rarely, if ever, any guarantees attached to a consignment shop purchase, so be extremely careful. Look the dress over thoroughly. Unless you're a competent formal-wear seamstress (or have a friend who is), you will want to purchase a dress that is in pristine condition.
Luckily, most wedding dresses are worn only once. This virtually eliminates wear due to cleanings or repeated wearings. However, a lot can happen in one night. Pull at the seams (gently, please!); try the zipper; button every button and close every hook-and-eye before making your purchase.
Don't stop at the dress! You might also find a lovely pair of shoes, pretty costume jewelry and other wedding "extras" to complete your outfit. Again, if you don't see what you're looking for, ask. Many times a busy shop owner might have newly arrived items in the back that she hasn't gotten to putting out on the racks yet.
Unfortunately, free alterations are unlikely to accompany your consignment shop purchase. Make sure you have a seamstress lined up to make any alterations.
You can also ask the shop owner whether she knows of any seamstresses in the area that are reputable and offer good rates.
Selling Your Own Dress
Not every bride wishes to seal up her dress for posterity. You might decide at some point to sell your dress. This is no longer taboo -- if this is your decision, go for it! Visit a variety of consignment shops in your area and get a quote.
If you purchased the dress second-hand yourself, then you will have a fairly good idea of what the shop owner is planning on charging for your dress. Be reasonable about the gap between what she gives you for the dress and what she'll be selling it for. At the same time, don't get fleeced. If you are re-selling the dress in virtually as pristine condition as you bought it in, you can expect at least some return on your investment.
But don't be surprised if you fall in love with your dress and would rather keep it. (See Wedding Dress Cleaning for tips on how to clean and preserve your treasure.) Enjoy your fabulous find!