The clock crept toward 8 a.m. inside Filene's Basement in Towson yesterday, where 1,200 wedding gowns were lined up like soldiers on neat racks, an untouched mural of white and cream.
Filene's staff was locked down like pros. "It's 7:55," one called out. "Everybody knows to hold the racks down, right?"
And then the doors opened, propelling more than 400 women into the store, running, screaming and threatening to mow down any person or thing getting between them and The Perfect Dress.
The racks didn't stand a chance. By 8:03 a.m., they were stripped almost bare, the only dresses left a sad-looking pink number with oversized flowers and an extravagant, long-sleeved one drenched in brown and gold sequins.
Another "running of the brides," as this alarming spectacle is affectionately known, was under way. The legendary Filene's Basement Bridal Event, which began 50 years ago in Boston, promises high-end gowns to those willing to engage in some high-stress shopping. With the gowns marked down from around $5,000 to between $249 and $499, the sale always draws huge crowds, as it did yesterday at the Filene's in Towson, which opened in March.
"It was like a madhouse," said Kelly Hoeck, exhausted but laughing. "My heart was pounding and I was sweating. I don't think I ever want to experience that again."
The sale's renown is such that brides come well-armed and appropriately dressed for this unique battle. Many came with friends and family to help navigate the madness, some even came in "uniform."
Janet Nathanson, 42, marrying her sweetheart of more than 20 years in April, looked serious, despite her get-up: a bright yellow shirt and multicolored Hawaiian lei. "This way we figured we could find each other," she said of her identically attired maid of honor, Diane Croucher.
Croucher also came with a sign: "Gas to Towson: $10. Losing a day's pay: $250. Gown from Filene's Basement: Priceless."
Tiffaney Gibson, 23, a fresh-faced blonde, arrived with an entourage that included her mother, her future sister-in-law and a bridesmaid - all wearing pink "Tiffaney's Team" visors. They staked out a corner of the store by the window, where Gibson promptly stripped and allowed her her posse to zip her in and out of gown after gown, turning her this way and that to check out every angle.
Few bothered with the dressing rooms, and many wore sports bras and shorts or other attire that allowed them to try on dresses right in the aisles or behind the racks.
Many came armed with a strategy - and in one case, some extra muscle.
Lenny and Demetrius Holmes, big men in oversized T-shirts, were clearly the linebackers of the Filene's playing field, recruited to run interference for their sister and bride-to-be, Dawn Diggs.
"We're going to dominate the dresses," Lenny Holmes promised.
The Holmes' original plan - to wheel entire racks to their sister - was blocked by the stalwart Filene's salespeople holding down the racks, but the brothers improvised, grabbing dresses by the armful for Diggs to try on. Lenny Holmes sidestepped two women dragging dresses, weaved between clothing racks and gestured proudly: His sister and several other women were literally surrounded by dresses, stacked at least 4 feet high on each side.
"Look what we did for our sister," he grinned.
Savvy brides knew to come early.
Jenn Baumgartner, the 21-year-old lucky line-leader, arrived with her cousin at 9 p.m. Thursday. Others soon followed, and by early morning, the line stretched across Filene's Basement's second-floor promenade.
"This is like Black Friday, except with all women," Baumgartner said.
Preparation inside the store similarly began the night before, said assistant store manager Tameka Young. This was her first Filene's event, and she wasn't sure what to expect, but based on the customer interest - 12 to 20 calls a day before the sale - Young had an inkling as to what the crowds would be like.
Filene's staff set up specially shipped racks for the dresses, hired caterers to provide coffee and muffins for the restless, brought in a restroom trailer for overnight campers and, of course, beefed up security.
"Hopefully everyone will stay safe," said Harold Williams, one of three Baltimore County police officers on site. "I think it's going to be pretty crazy."
"It's unlike any other sale," said Patricia Boudrot, who works in public relations for Filene's Basement and was witnessing her 25th Bridal Event. "It brings out the worst and then the best in women.
"It's just evolved over time," she said. "It's kind of a signature event for Filene's Basement." The sale is held twice annually in Boston, and has spread to Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and now, Maryland. Boudrot said the event is popular not only for the prices, but also for the experience.
"I don't think anything compares to the purchase of a wedding gown for women," she said. "And think of what you can do with the extra money."
Much of the appeal of the sale is the bonding factor.
"What I like about it is the incredible camaraderie and enthusiasm about what it means to find a dress," said Antonia van der Meer, editor-in-chief of Modern Bride magazine who has witnessed the Filene's spectacle in New York. "You're certainly not buying a dress with any kind of service or attention. But even if you go and are not successful, it's a great way to find out what styles are available."
The Filene's phenomenon has even attracted academic interest. Susan Dobscha, associate professor of marketing at Bentley College, a business school just outside Boston, started watching the Filene's sales seven years ago. Now the researcher on gender issues in marketing focuses her work on the monumental shopping day.
"It's just such a unique event," she said. "It's a distinctly female phenomenon." Dobscha was initially interested in the mad dash, but other complexities now intrigue her.
"There was bartering and people building a community of strangers," she said. "There's an underground economy that forms immediately after the doors open."
She said many see the sale as a backlash against the wedding industry. "This is one way they can exert control over the system," she said. "It really crosses class boundaries."
Women at the Towson sale did indeed barter and share, calling out sizes and styles at random. One woman walked methodically up and down the aisles like a bored hot-dog vendor. "Size six, anyone?"
The sale has grown to such proportions that local competitors feel its impact.
We'll be getting the overflow all day," said Sherry Unger, manager of David's Bridal in Glen Burnie, where just hours after the rush on Filene's, the racks were flawlessly packed and love songs spilled from ceiling speakers. It's where Kelly Hoeck, with a friend and two children in tow, sought refuge after trying the Filene's sale but leaving exhausted and empty-handed.
But while some stressed, others found the sale a hoot. Forty-five minutes after doors opened, the shoppers had generally calmed down. Over by the window, Gibson was still climbing in and out of dresses and the Holmes brothers were still joking - albeit a little less enthusiastically.
"These dresses are heavy," says Lenny Holmes after reminding his brother they were to look for strapless ones. "I'm not doing this anymore." Even their sister had slowed down. "I don't think I'll find a dress today," Diggs said, sighing. "But it's very fun."
Filene's staff members expected the madness to last until the sale ended at 9:30 p.m. "I think around 12 it will die down and pick back up at 5, when people get off work," said cashier Johnathan Hayes, who had only sold one gown in the hour after the sale began. About 2 p.m., just 110 gowns out of the original 1,200 had been sold - so there was hope for late shoppers.
"There is the same kind of energy now we saw earlier," Young, the manager, said. "I think it has been a tremendous success."
At least one customer could revel in the discovery of The Perfect Dress. Baumgartner, the first woman in the store and one of the first to check out was rewarded for the time and effort she spent with a gorgeous beaded gown that she said originally cost about $4,000. It was milk-white and neat again, beneath its plastic cover.
"I came last night to scope out the dresses, and when I saw this one, I knew it was the dress," she beamed.
Not all were as lucky, but for many women, what mattered was the experience.
"I thought it was going to be more cut-throat," Baumgartner said. "Everybody was helping. It was really fun."