Buys To Die For

THE BALTIMORE SUN

These ladies have come prepared: Sandy Spanos, Sharon Etridge and Rose Jaeger are relaxing in lawn chairs as they wait for the official opening of the 33rd annual Johns Hopkins Hospital Best Dressed Sale.

Like other veteran shoppers at this beloved charity sale, the friends have planned budgets and strategies and worn their most easily shed clothes. In order to sort through thousands of "gently worn," "delicately used," "previously owned" designer garments -- some with the original sales tags on them -- you need to think fast and move even faster.

Spanos, tall, blonde and knowledgeable, is a 10-year veteran of the sale. She knows prices, she knows labels, she knows values. And as owner of the Culinary Delights catering company, she also knows the vagaries of Baltimore fashion: Just who's wearing what and where.

Once inside the doors Thursday, Spanos sheds her sweat shirt in favor of an ankle-length raccoon coat with the name Mary A embroidered in it. Swathed in fur, she looks regal: even taller and blonder. What's more, the coat's only $180.

Things are off to a great start.

"I've gotten some wonderful bargains here," she bubbles. "Bally things, Ferragamo, $400 suits marked down to nearly nothing. I got a great Geiger suit: boiled wool jacket and skirt to match in green and purple. An Escada sweater. My friend Audrey, she's a size 6, got a $500 skirt for $35!"

The best-dressed sale, created from clothing collected by members of the Johns Hopkins Women's Board, has been steadily increasing in fame and revenues. Last year the event raised more than $137,000 to support programs at Hopkins, including the hospital's new comprehensive cancer center. It's a win-win outing: Buy a garment here, you receive the psychic bonus of contributing to a good cause.

You also step into a Baltimore phenomenon.

The Evergreen Carriage House off North Charles Street is divided into sections including suits, coats and formal wear for men and women, vintage and children's clothing, lingerie, jewelry, furs, accessories and shoes. Whatever room is left fills rapidly with people whose paths may never cross except at this dress sale. Along with the clicking of hangers across dress racks, you hear the constant murmuring of "Excuse me," "I beg your pardon" and "No, not at all, it was my fault." It's the civilized chaos of The World According to Emily Post.

"It's a lot of fun. It's called togetherness," says Sharon Etridge as she stands patiently in a clump of perfumed shoppers awaiting their moment with the furs.

This year, the sale has added a fourth day. It has also opened its doors to credit cards. And Bagelmeister of Jacksonville is selling a lot of bagels and fat-free muffins -- mostly post-shopping, of course.

A rookie and a pro

It's shopper Thea Schnydman's first trip. She has come with friend Kamila Swanson, who shops professionally for her vintage store in Savage Mill. In the past, Swanson has snapped up Hermes scarves, Gucci handbags and fur coats. Oh, yes, and a Chanel suit for herself.

"I can't fit in it, but I look at it all the time," she says.

"She's going for bags and scarves," Schnydman says. "I'm along to see what it's like." Her maiden voyage ends at the cash register: one sable scarf for $50.

There are almost as many agendas as shoppers: Sisters Athena Klosteridis and Elektra Sophocleus are looking for antique jewelry and kid gloves. Peabody students and professional musicians are searching for concert clothes. A pregnant shopper wants post-partum incentives to lose weight.

To handle the crowds, Hopkins volunteers and board members work in shifts, a task that requires about 60 people each day.

"It's madness," says volunteer Myrna Goldberg proudly. "I've seen people get so caught up in trying on clothes that they lose track of where they put their shoes. There are people who take the day off from work to be here. There are regulars who come year after year."

Speaking of regulars, how is Sandy Spanos doing?

Sandy has found just the right outfit to go with her new fur coat. She's wearing a black cocktail dress with gold buttons (Talbots, $35) and black pumps with gold trim (Selby, $5) and has snapped up a bright-pink and turquoise Nicole Miller handbag ($25).

Bravo, Sandy!

One reason Sandy and her chums do so well at this sport is that they make sure to rehydrate periodically with the bottled water they bring with them. And they build in time for periodic breaks. This isn't just shopping, they point out, this is marathon shopping. After the 16th or 17th run through the racks, your mind can go to some pretty weird places.

Last year, for instance, a frenzied shopper took Rochella Nze's clothes while Nze was trying on a dress.

"I came to the sale dressed to go to work: Green plaid wool skirt, jacket, all Talbots stuff," Nze recalls. "All of a sudden, there was this woman wearing my clothes! She said, 'These fit me perfectly.' I said, 'That's nice, but they're my clothes!' "

And yes, there are men. The ones who come with their wives anchor themselves in one spot, often serving as topographic reference points for hours at a time. Physician Steve Bailey of Fallston arrives at 9 a.m. with his wife, Laura, and a hefty pile of Sunday newspapers. By lunchtime, Bailey knows a lot about the Whitbread Round the World Race and Baltimore's cultural calendar. He also holds a lot of clothes.

"Laura loves this sale," he says. "We have to arrange our vacation around it. Yes, I did buy something for myself once. A couple of years ago, I think I bought a sweater."

Sol Hassenbusch would like to sell him another. Manager of nobly recycled men's wear, Hassenbusch proposes that his deals are the event's best-kept secrets: Ties: $5 each or 3 for $12. All pants on sale for $8! Suits, sports coats, formal wear at can't-miss prices!

Allen Ingram of Clarksburg, W.Va., is making Sol a happy man. He has bought two pairs of shoes, a sports coat, two dress shirts, one casual shirt and two pairs of shoes. He and friend Pierce Gainous of Baltimore plan to break for lunch, refuel, and resume their efforts.

"We'll be back after we get some more money," they pledge.

Ground zero

The heart of this sale is located in the women's dressing room, a large, legendary and well-shadowed area in the stable section of the carriage house. It's a place where "All barriers disappear," as volunteer Goldberg puts it.

At first, it seems a bit odd to see women changing clothes in horse stalls, an unusual twist to Maryland's thoroughbred traditions. But here, in these hallowed stalls, shoppers can share clothes and opinions with strangers, friends, former elementary school teachers and friends' mothers. Sometimes they even run into their bosses.

The effect is a multigenerational slumber party: Women of all ages and shapes congratulating one another, making faces at themselves in the mirrors, zipping each other up, giggling, gossiping and piling clothes every which way.

Many successful shoppers are reluctant to announce just how well they've done at the sale in case certain family members, particularly male family members, discover it in the newspaper.

But others are willing to share their secrets. Social worker Mary Burke, for instance, found the sale to be rough going early on; it didn't look as if it was going to be her year. But she hung tough. She kept on trying on. After several hours, Burke went out for some fresh air and Excedrin and returned with renewed purpose.

Suddenly, everything started looking good on her.

Now, standing in her horse stall dressing room, Burke tries on a chic Adolfo knit dress.

Bingo!

Next she tries on an Escada plaid skirt with leather trim down the side. This tenderly treated garment can soon be hers for only $50. There's a hush as other half-dressed shoppers turn to admire her.

Burke does look magnificent: She and this skirt were fated to be together. Recognizing a rare moment, she is giddy with success.

"It's perfect, it's gorgeous!" she says. "I did it!"

The summit of shopping is hers.

The Johns Hopkins Best Dressed Sale continues from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow at Evergreen Carriage House, 4545 North Charles St. Proceeds benefit programs at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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