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Race down the aisle for bargain wedding gowns

Hundreds of women gathered yesterday outside Filene's Basement on Wisconsin Avenue NW for its annual "Running of the Brides," a one-day-only sale of 1,400 designer wedding dresses.
Massive Retail Sale Spurs Annual \"Running Of The Brides\"
Stephanie Carpenter, right, of Silver Spring, Md., tries on a wedding gown during Filene's Basement's annual sale on Friday in Washington, D.C.Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Tamasha Barnes, an architect from Manassas, pulls from her purse a magazine photograph she clipped four years ago showing a model in a slim, simple, off-white wedding gown. It is the dress she pined for long before she even met the right man and long before he proposed to her. Now it is the dress she dreams of wearing to the altar before they have even set a date.

The dress is everything.

Barnes, 29, is among the hundreds of women who gathered yesterday outside Filene's Basement on Wisconsin Avenue NW for its annual "Running of the Brides," a one-day-only sale of 1,400 designer wedding dresses. They've been marked down to as low as $249 from as high as $10,000. A tradition of the original Filene's Basement in Boston since 1947, the sale has evolved into a cultural event that now travels to places such as Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and, for the past five years, Washington, which last year set the national record for the shortest lag between the opening of the doors and the racks being stripped bare --37 seconds.

The sale reveals the double identity of today's fiancee -- who is at once a ruthless Bridezilla brawling for a Vera Wang and then, preening before a mirrored column to the oohs and aahs of future bridesmaids, an innocent in white, the fulfillment of a romantic ideal. Here women steal, rip, strip, squeeze, cry. To guard against fights, Filene's Basement hires extra security just for the day.

The doors open at 8 a.m. Women started lining up in front of Mazza Gallerie on Thursday afternoon.

"Most of my brides would not even consider going there," says Linda Garner, a Bethesda wedding planner who works 150 weddings yearly. "[But] with a sale like that you really don't have an opportunity to stop and think about what you're doing."

Teams devise strategies
On the sidewalk, teams arrive in matching T-shirts, toting full-length mirrors, wearing whistles. In dawn's apricot light, women coach their shopping helpers in terms like beaded, sateen, gauzy, off-the-shoulder. As in any sport, there must be preparation: The women devise breakaway patterns, envision meeting points, divide tasks.

The idea is to get inside and immediately start hauling plastic-sheathed dresses from racks and dividing them into piles like fishermen tossing their catch on a dock.

For every 25 or so women, one man stands apart, arms crossed, wondering how he got here. Angelique Manning, a Fort Washington bride-to-be, brought two -- her father, Bernard, and her fiance, Ben Okeke, who breaks a handful of traditional rules just by being here. "I would've never thought it would be this crazy," Okeke says, looking ahead at the line. "It's like we're lining up for free Super Bowl tickets."

"Let us in! Let us in!" chants a team in pink shirts that read "Bride of Mayhem" and "Maid of Mayhem." Father of Mayhem utters, "Oy vey," before whoosh, the doors open and he sprints toward the racks.

One mother falls, losing a shoe.

Teams elbow for gowns, ignoring style and size, throwing as many as they can onto heaps. By 8:01 a.m., the racks are bare.

Then the brides-to-be strip to their skivvies before mirrors and rifle through piles to separate "try-ons" from "barters," dividing their teams in the same way -- enlisting trusted gal-pals to squeeze them in and out of crinoline and crepe, while others serve as runners who barter for the rejects of other teams. It's a surreal scene: women in underwear, panting runners, piles of castoffs.

One of the few men in the store, Doug Bushman, helps his daughter, Katie, into a strapless size 6. "I'm used to this," he says; "I coach girls' basketball."

The dress seems to fit but still she frets: "Does this make my butt look big?"

"That's it," her father says. "I'm going trading."

Trading floor
The neutral zones between teams transform into makeshift stock-trading floors: Bridesmaids hold skyward signs that read, "Corseted, Size 14," while others yodel out desired sizes. From somewhere across the room, they'll catch an echo and jog toward the source.

Billy Bustamente, who came with his sister from Annapolis, is out to barter for a "size 10, classy." It's tough. "These girls are in it to win it," he says.

"It's like a hilarious meat market for dresses," says Michael Tarasenko, a defense contractor who took the day off to help out his girlfriend, Erin Hanna, bridesmaid for a high school friend from Rhode Island, Kendall Lima. Hanna came with a team of nine co-workers from the National Organization for Women.

"We're fearless feminists," says Hanna, "the best at finding dresses."

By 9 a.m., Lima has whittled the 100 dresses her team has grabbed to a few finalists. She tries on the first. Ohhhhhhh. Then the second. Ahhhhhh. Staring at the mirror, she stops breathing. "This is it!" she says of a strapless Stephen Yearick dress, originally priced at $3,000. (Today's price: $499.)

Everyone starts clapping. Lima bursts into tears.

"I can't believe this is for real," she says. "Suddenly, I'm aware I'm really getting married."

Every two or three minutes, teams clap and scream as each bride discovers her dress.

The perfect find
Tamasha Barnes feels a little sad every time she hears clapping. "I'm picky," she says. She has tried on only three, and none is just right. Maybe the problem is that she's still thinking of that magazine clipping in her purse.

That dress isn't here; Filene's Basement bridal buyer, Kelly Dawyskiba, has already told her so.

Tamasha's mother, Marian, volunteers to head out to the floor. They still might find something.

Over in the purses, Marian Barnes spots a train that looks, she says, "like a scarfy thing" and reminds her of the dress her daughter had clipped years ago. It's poking out from the pile of bride-to-be Amy Butler, who doesn't mind that Barnes has nothing to barter.

And when Marian Barnes pulls out the hanger, she can't believe it. It's the exact Romona Keveza dress, in the exact size (8)! Mom sprints to her daughter, who's posing in front of a mirror in a dress she kind-of-sort-of doesn't really like. When she sees the pile of off-white satin, Tamasha can't even speak. She pulls it on. Yes, it fits. She's a princess.

Twenty minutes later, they've paid -- $700 instead of $3,000 -- and they're on the escalator when Marian Barnes asks, "Do you hear that, Tamasha?"

From the mall's speakers trickles a Muzak rendition of "Isn't She Lovely."

"Stevie Wonder was playing when Tamasha was born," the mother says, astounded. "Everything is so perfect for us. This is a story we'll be telling over and over."