You have been planning your wedding since the very first time you pored over your parents' wedding pictures. Tucked into the overstuffed chair, the weighty album carefully balanced across your lap, you studied the splendor of your mother's big white dress, with its fitted bodice and smooth, full skirt softened by alençon lace and a veil that swept the aisle.

And you knew in that moment there would never be another bride as blushing, as beautiful, as blessed as your mother. Until the day you, too, would wear that dress.

That old thing? Some 32 years later, the marriage has not lost its magic, but the dress has paled by comparison. The bright white satin is now candlelight in color, and the soft French lace has become a little crisp. The ballgown-style skirt is a tad overwhelming, while the bodice is a little spare. Suffice it to say your mother's treasured gown just doesn't fit the occasion.

Fortunately you discovered the dilemma the morning after you said, "I will," leaving just over six months until you say, "I do."

That's actually not a lot of time.

Your mother's latest contribution is a copy of Vogue; Martha Stewart Weddings; Brides; Elegant Bride; Modern Bride and every other bridal magazine she could collect. And today, you're going to lunch, for the fourth time, to pore over the pages of designer dresses to find the gown of your new dreams.

Frankly, at this point you're thinking you just might drive up to one of those Bay Area discount bridal superstores, pull something off the rack, plunk down $100 or $200 or $300 and be done with it.

And you can, and it would work. And it would be pretty. And chances are, few folks would be able to tell the difference between readymade and custom from the photos.

But you might. Quite often, the mass-market dresses are heavier and less likely to be silk. They often have only slight seam allowances, and the embellishments are more likely to be glued into place than hand sewn, making the garment difficult if not impossible to alter. Of course there's always the chance it will fit like it was made for you.

In a perfect world, you would like the bodice of the dress on page 327 in Vogue, the skirt from the design on page 149 in Elegant Bride and the train on the gown gracing the cover of Brides.

You could fly to New York. You could call up Reem Acra, Badgely Mischka or Vera Wang and see what they're up to these days. Which is somewhere around $5,000 to $15,000.

Or, you could stay in town and see what the local bridal fare has to offer. Consider Nest and Martin's Bridal, both in Pacific Grove, as well as a slew of salons in Salinas.

Teresa King opened Martin's Bridal several years ago because, in her observation, it was something Pacific Grove and Monterey simply didn't have. Today, her one-stop shop offers everything from gowns to crowns.

"I don't make my dresses," she said; "I order them from Jasmine Bridal and Eden Bridal, Alfred Angelo, and Mary's Gowns, which are the big, huge, heavyweight cathedral dresses. Jasmine gowns are not heavy but look more royal; whereas Eden dresses are sleeker, simpler and easier to wear in the many beach and garden settings we have here."

King offers what she considers a wide variety of fabrics and styles within a broad price range from $299 to $1,400.

"If I could change locations," she said, "I probably could carry a $10,000 dress. We're on Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, but we're tucked under Chili Great Chili. I could have a better display space if I were up on the avenue, but people seem to find me.

"

Nearby Nest, which moved from the Barnyard Shopping Village to Pacific Grove two years ago, carries everything from "blue jeans to bridal gowns." Not actually a bridal salon, they are known principally for their Jessica McClintock line of special-occasion wear. The San Francisco-based designer, whose legendary "Gunne Saks" gowns from the '70s and '80s, is known for her simple elegance.

"What brides like about Jessica McClintock," says Nest owner Phyllis Davis, "whether it's their first wedding or their second or their third, is that she has a way of making gowns beautiful without overdoing it. We try to find dresses that are beautiful without taking up the whole room. Brides who want that need to try on about a million dresses till they find the one that stands out or have it made."

Nest, whose prices range between $200 and $600, also carries Jasmine Bridal, through which brides often customize set styles to suit their preferences for color, length or embellishment.

Yet, for the ultimate in custom gowns, gather your magazine pictures and your mother, and make an appointment with Ericka Engelman Couture, reportedly the only true couturier in the county.

Housed in an impressive space near the Barnyard Shopping Village in Carmel, the salon, with its heroic tri-panel mirror, bevy of bust forms, bolts of fabric and rows of sewing machines is the epitome of New York design houses lifted from the Upper West Side.

"As a couture house," said Engelman, "I offer my own designs and those of my staff. These are for brides looking for that special, custom gown that suits them. What's special is the fact that she can have the dress she imagines in her size, designed with her shape and style in mind, and all the details that make it hers.

"This is a salon where women can feel comfortable and accepted, where a woman's shape, whatever it is, is honored and relished. This is the atmosphere we've worked on creating since we opened the salon 23 years ago."

It all begins with a consultation and the bride's wish list, pictures, personality and measurements. Then Engelman or her staff creates a mock-up of the dress in muslin, right on a dress form, which gives them a sense of what the dress will look like and later serves as the pattern for the dress.

"Once we have confirmed the neckline and bodice line and waistline and fullness of skirt with the bride," said Engelman, "we create the basic dress in the bride's chosen fabric without any embellishments such as beading or lace. Those come after the initial fittings."

Engelman once designed and completed a wedding gown in three days, but she prefers a window of three to five months to create couture gowns, most of which will run between $1,200 and $3,500. Sometimes more.

"Once the bride has decided whether she wants a pretty, inexpensive dress that will work for her wedding," said Engelman, "or a beautifully made, custom-designed heirloom to treasure and possibly hand down, she will know where to shop."


Right Gown for Your Body Type

Every bride can be beautiful. It begins with the sparkle in her eye, the flush of her cheeks, the smile at her lips, the love in her heart. From there, it depends on who does her hair and whether or not she chooses a gown to flatter her figure.

Because the truth is, it's not about having the right figure but the right fit and style of gown that makes a bride feel beautiful.

For a lesson on the anatomy of a wedding gown, turn to page 35 in "The Knot Book of Wedding Gowns," by Carley Roney (Chronicle Books, 2001).

"Though you might consider your gown a single element, it is actually the sum of specific components," writes Roney. "Singly, these parts create certain visual effects and flatter your figure. Together, they unite to express your individual style and form your perfect gown. For starters, look at a gown in terms of its overall silhouette - big and poufy, sleek and slender or somewhere in between - and decide which appeals to you the most."

Silhouette, says Roney refers to the overall cut of a gown, which is the most essential element, since the shape of a gown is its foundation and what sets the mood for the entire garment. The ball gown, for example, is the most traditional of all shapes, with its fitted bodice and natural or dropped waist that leads to a very full skirt. It adds curves to skinny girls and hides hips on pear-shaped brides but overwhelms the petite figure and can make a slim-hipped woman look curvaceous if she is otherwise well endowed.

The sheath, considered a modern, sexier and more sophisticated version of the traditional wedding dress - think Carolyn Besette Kennedy - cuts a slim profile that closely drapes the curves of the body. This lean shape flatters the tall and thin or the small and slim but is not recommended for anyone who feels she has something to hide.

The A-line gown is named for its shape. Cut close at the top, it follows the figure through the upper torso before extending out from the body in an A shape to create a smooth and simple line. Unlike the ball gown, this style, with its ungathered skirt, flatters almost all figures.

"No matter what the style," says designer Ericka Engelman of Ericka Engelman Couture in Carmel, "one of the most important elements of fit and form is the undergarments. Almost all dresses show off the waist. If the bride is larger busted, she will want to lift it to reveal the waist. Even the thinnest brides, who like the sheath, need to be smooth underneath. The style of the dress and the shape of the bride will determine what she needs to get or what we need to build into the dress. It all starts underneath."

Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.