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'Brides are back': What bridal shop spending says about the economy, politics

Presidential elections are determined by the economy. Numbers look good but the view from a bridal shop is mixed.

FAIRHOPE, Ala. – Is there any garment that says "optimism" more than a wedding gown?

Kimberly Waldrop stood barefoot on a marble pedestal at Bliss Bridal in this southern Alabama town on the bay, trying on dress after dress while her mother and grandmother looked on. The bride-to-be shimmied in a gown with a wide skirt, then twirled in another with long-sleeved lace.

The store was filled with dresses with price tags under $4,000.

"It's what the everyday working bride would have as a budget for her gown," said Katie Yellin, owner of , which has three locations on the Gulf Coast. "We make sure we're offering the type of experience you'd get at a very high-end, very expensive designer boutique, but then all the gowns are affordable."

Weddings are big business again after the COVID-19 pandemic, and even the "working bride" is splurging thousands on her gown after the down years of casual backyard parties and uncertainty. It's the kind of economic optimism President Joe Biden is try to bottle up and sell to the American public in a presidential election year that, for many voters, hinges on how they view the economy.

"Brides are back in force with huge parties, huge weddings," Yellin said.

"Kimmy" to her Alabama mother and "Kiki" to her Guatemalan groom-to-be, Waldrop, 27, was having her own personal "Say Yes to the Dress" moment, modeling for her family like brides do in .

Bride Kimberly “Kiki” Waldrop, of Atmore, Alabama, checks out a dress in the mirror while shopping at Bliss Bridal in Fairhope, Alabama on Thursday, June 20, 2024.

She had budgeted $2,000 for her gown, and one of Yellin's assistants was quietly helping curate the dresses so Waldrop wouldn't try on something she couldn't afford – a relief, Waldrop said.

Waldrop is a third grade teacher at a public school in Molino, Florida. Her partner, Jony Rosales, runs a car-detailing business and is a server at a Mexican restaurant. On New Year's Day, they're getting married in a country setting on an Alabama farm.

At Bliss Bridal, she stared at her reflection in the mirror. "I like this one," she said, running her fingers over a lace bodice.

Her mother, Rhonda Barrow, chimed in, "Is this one your favorite?"

Each new dress became the new favorite.

"Are you ready for the party? There's a surprise after this," Waldrop said with a laugh as an assistant detached a billowing overskirt to reveal a cocktail dress.

Brides are spending more on wedding dresses

The U.S. economic recovery looks robust from some angles, tenuous from others. Like Americans writ large, brides and bridal stores are facing an uncertain – and uneven – economy.

Bridal stores are small businesses in the U.S. There are more than 5,500 independent stores nationwide, according to .

There are bright spots in the industry: Marriages have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, helping boost sales of bridal wear. In the five years through 2023, "growth in per capita disposable income and consumer spending encouraged more brides and grooms to splurge on high-value wedding goods," according to the report.

Dresses at Bliss Bridal in Fairhope, Alabama on Thursday, June 20, 2024.

But and decline in weddings during the pandemic depressed bridal store industry revenue over the past five years. It's expected to hit $26 billion in 2023, rising 0.4% from the year before.

The country's one national chain, David's Bridal, is working through , and the company's plan for recovery is to emulate the sort of personalized "Say Yes to the Dress" experience Yellin provides in her stores.

Waldrop said she and Rosales have saved up and are hoping to pay for their wedding on their own, but Waldrop is leaning into crafting and creativity to make it happen.

"Things are so much more expensive than what they used to be," she said.

She discovered wedding invitations cost twice what she had expected, so she used an online tool to make them herself. She wanted a keepsake seating chart, but that was over her budget, too, so she went on TikTok to see if she could create one.

"Anything I can make, I will," she said.

Owner Katie Yellin talks about her business at Bliss Bridal in Fairhope, Alabama on Thursday, June 20, 2024.

At Bliss Bridal, the price tags are on the gowns. "Knowing that the dress is in the realm of what you can afford was helpful," Waldrop said. Some other stores wait to share the price until after a bride is already in love with a design, she said. She drove nearly two hours to shop at Bliss Bridal in part to avoid that stress.

Brides are spending more on their dresses, in part because of inflation. U.S. brides spent an average of $2,000 on their gown in 2023, up from $1,631 in 2018, according to the annual .

More:Pawn shops know something about the US economy that Biden doesn't: Times are still tough

Bridal stylist Lauren Brady returns a dress to a rack at Bliss Bridal in Fairhope, Alabama on Thursday, June 20, 2024.

At Yellin's store, brides are shopping for sleek white dresses like the ones worn by British royalty or gowns embroidered with beading and three-dimensional florals like Netflix stars riffing on British royalty. Yellin has been approached to carry higher-end designers, but she always declines.

"While the gowns are gorgeous, I love being able to provide a bride an experience that maybe she felt she wasn't worthy of or didn't have the capability to attain," she said. "Nothing makes me happier than a mom who looks at me and says, 'Thank you, because I didn't think I was going to be able to afford this for her.'"

A marriage proposal on a mountaintop

Waldrop is the kind of teacher who explains fractions with a pizza party and solids and liquids by making root beer floats for the kids, Barrow said. She's the youngest of Barrow's three girls, her "baby daughter."

"She's definitely a Disney princess for sure," Barrow said.

Four years ago, Waldrop and Rosales met at the Mexican restaurant where he works. She and her sister went there regularly, and Rosales always took their table. She thought he might be flirting with her, until one day he asked if she had a boyfriend. She didn't. He messaged her on Facebook. She didn't answer.

Two months later, she typed out a one-word response: "Hey," she said. After that, they couldn't stop talking.

In March last year, Waldrop got into a bad car accident. The nurse called her mother, and Barrow called Rosales. He beat the ambulance to the hospital.

Her injury left her with a 12-inch scar along her left arm. But she had recovered, and they decided to take their annual couples vacation to in December.

Only this time, for reasons Waldrop couldn't understand, her whole family insisted on joining them.

On a cold, rainy day during their week away, Rosales persuaded Waldrop to join him on the ski lift to Anakeesta Mountain – despite her protests that the weather was bad and they had better stay in. Her family was waiting at the top.

Eduardo Rosales proposed to Kimberly Waldrop on a cold, rainy winter day atop Tennessee's Anakeesta Mountain last December.

"There was a heart sculpture with Christmas lights," Waldrop said. "You could see the mountain. The rain stopped and the clouds moved out of the way – you know in movies when that happens? We took a big family picture. I walked away and when I turned back around, he was on his little knee."

A top-secret choice, a bit under budget

After an hour and half of trying on gowns, Waldrop video-called her eldest sister from the marble pedestal and they debated the merits of each dress with their mother and grandmother.

An unexpected gown rose above the rest.

Bride Kimberly “Kiki” Waldrop, of Atmore, Alabama, shops for dresses with her mother Rhonda Barrow, left, and grandmother Kathy Rolin at Bliss Bridal in Fairhope, Alabama on Thursday, June 20, 2024.

"I didn't like that one," Waldrop said of the winning dress, which she won't reveal until she walks down the aisle, "but then I saw the picture and I looked good."

Once decided, Waldrop put half the money down and plans to pay off the rest at pickup – another of her wedding day hopes secured.

Yellin observed the women from the side.

"From the girl who is shy to the girl dancing on the platform – that transformation is what we live for."

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