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On the morning of her 28th birthday, Jaime Atwell and her maid of honor, Shannon Hughes, dipped out of the line outside Filene’s Basement in Washington D.C., which curled around two Washington D.C. city blocks, and staggered groggy-eyed to a nearby Starbucks.
They had not eaten in hours. They had arrived at the Savoy Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue at 2:30 that morning, after a flat tire extended their road trip to eight hours, and awoke before dawn to get in line.
The annual Filene’s Basement Bridal Gown Sale is known to most by its more savage nickname, “The Running of the Brides.”
Atwell, the bride-to-be who graduated from West Brunswick High School and UNC Chapel Hill, like hundreds of women in line, hoped to find the perfect dress for less.
“I thought it would be a good way to get exposure to different designers and try on dresses I couldn’t find in Raleigh,” Atwell said.
Atwell’s mother, Deborah Hines, who works at Century 21 in Sunset Beach, and aunt, Kim Dayvault, held the group’s position in line behind several hundred frenzied women. Most arrived early morning, but those at the head of the line made sidewalk campsites and spent the night in tents and sleeping bags.
Police and store security roamed the block. Cameramen from NBC and local television and radio stations scanned the crowd and plucked some of the most theatrical for interviews. Bridal magazine representatives, wedding consultants and florists worked up and down the street, handing out samples and promoting their products.
Adrenaline surged as the store’s 8 a.m. opening inched closer. “Teams” slipped into uniform—identical shirts or customized jersey. There were chants, high fives and chest bumps. Some women smeared war paint under their eyes. One team wore boxing sparring headgear.
“It was just amazing,” Hines said.
Filene’s gets the gowns from manufacturers, bridal salons and boutiques all over the United States and Europe, according to the store’s Web site.
The dresses may become available for a number of reasons: canceled orders, canceled weddings or just to make space.
For the one-day sale, the store carries some of the most famous labels in the wedding gown industry, and sells them for less. Gowns that originally cost $900 to $10,000 are sold for only three prices: $249, $499 and $699.
The doors opened like floodgates at exactly 8 a.m. The line outside poured into the store.
A thousand screaming women stampeded like the bulls in Pamplona down a flight of stairs and into Filene’s.
Employees literally hung on as manic maidens and their helpers ripped plastic wrapped gowns off the sales racks.
Amid the screaming and shrieking and breathlessness, team members staked out plots near mirrors, in aisles, or simply wherever carpet was visible, while the others bear-hugged all the dresses they could grab in one swipe.
Some teams held up signs or blew whistles to find one another. When the teams assembled again at staked-out territories, they dumped the dresses in armed-off, chest-high white satin heaps.
Atwell’s team barreled into the store and down the stairs.
“When we entered the store, it could not have been later than 8:02, the racks were completely bare.”
Filene’s does not arrange the gowns by size or designer.
Groups work in teams: the bride-to-be is the general—the Queen—flanked at all times by a helper, who gets her in and out of once-$10,000 gowns, and a guard to defend the pile.
There’s the runner, who collects other bride-to-be’s discarded dresses, and the trader who bounces from group to group, making deals and exchanging dresses.
Atwell and Hughes found a spot near a mirror, in between the socks and leggings aisles. Hines and Dayvault were the “runners.”
“It was total chaos,” Hines said.
Days earlier, Atwell had gone to a bridal store to try on different gown styles. She knew what she liked and what looked best. The perfect dress was going to be a strapless, A-line with a sweetheart neckline.
The brides-to-be flung off their clothes, stripped down to their underwear and slipped into dress after dress, sorting them into two piles: like and dislike. The “likes” are guarded like hostages; the dislikes are used to barter.
With the racks empty, Hines and Dayvault scurried around the store, hoping to acquire other’s cast-offs.
“We finally got our first cast off gown from a group of 8 or 10,” Hines said.
One dress was all they needed to enter the game. Hines shopped the dress around. Some groups held signs looking for sizes. Others just screamed it. The Atwell team had whistles, which they ended up not using.
To race to find the perfect dress before someone else finds it inevitably turned vicious.
One mother passed out. Discarded gowns lay on the floor, mangled or marked with footprints from carelessness. Frustration set in as some groups hoarded dresses.
“One girl had a chest-high pile of gowns, some she liked and some she didn’t,” Atwell said. “But she would not give up any of them without a trade—even the ones she did not like.”
The pressure also led to indecisiveness. A bride-to-be might lend to another group a particular dress she was not sure about. Returning a “borrowed” gown required an honor system few were willing to break—even if it might be the dress.
“I was discouraged at one point,” Atwell said. “I borrowed a dress I really liked from another woman’s ‘like’ pile. I ended up having to give it back.”
Every time a bride-to-be found the gown of her dreams, her team announced it, screaming out, “Yay!” or “Found it!” and the rest of the store stopped and cheered.
Atwell tried on 60 gowns all morning.
“I thought I’d never find a dress I liked,” Atwell said. “I was finding so many dresses I didn’t like.”
Then her maid of honor came running, white draped over her arm. Hughes was excited; she thought she had found what Atwell was looking for. The rest of the team was weary.
Atwell tiredly slipped into the dress Hughes had brought. She turned around and looked in the mirror. She gasped.
“You could see it in her face,” Hines said. “The gown was absolutely her. It was absolutely perfect.”
They called Dayvault back to the group to see the gown and the four of them stared at Atwells reflection in the mirror, knowing they were looking at a bride.
“She looked so lovely,” Hines said. “I thought, ‘That’s the one.’”
The gown, by Mori Lee, was marked down to $249 from $6,000.
Hines paid for the gown, and the exhausted team reeled out of Filene’s and to the car.
They put the gown in the trunk of Atwell’s electric blue Chevy Impala and hit the road home. Mid-drive they stopped to replace the spare tire with a full-size. To make room for the spare, Hines stuffed the gown in the back window.
They got back on the road and Atwell drove the rest of the way home with her wedding dress in the rearview mirror.