Beaded bargains for brides-to-be

The Baltimore Sun

Her glass of champagne stood next to a platter laden with chocolate treats and miniature cupcakes as Shari Rolando turned toward the oval stand-alone mirror and surveyed the ivory gown.

She swished to her left and then right, stepped away and walked back up, examining the dress with a square neckline and bodice beadwork.

"I think I like the other one better," Rolando said to her friend Filipa Goarmon.

It was the seventh or eighth gown the Middle River resident tried on yesterday afternoon in a large upstairs room of the Woman's Industrial Exchange, searching for the one that screamed "perfect" for her October wedding in Chicago.

The Exchange aimed to make the dreams of future Baltimore brides come true yesterday with a "Bridal Sweet," complete with cookies, cupcakes and champagne.

Some found the offerings sweet indeed as they perused the racks of more than 40 sample gowns donated by Towson's Gamberdella Salon for Brides. Whether Vera Wang or Nicole Miller, Amsale or Lazaro, the designer dresses that normally could cost anywhere from $600 to $2,500 were going for $225.

From the palest of pinks and a light champagne to the more traditional white and ivory, the dresses enclosed in clear plastic garment bags ran the gamut - some with beaded flowers, others with organza, and still others a simple, unadorned satin.

The fundraiser was a first for the nonprofit Exchange at 333 N. Charles St.

"We've had other donations, but never bridal gowns," said Barbara Gamse, retail operations manager for the exchange.

The gowns were donated in January, and the exchange planned the fundraiser for March to catch the women newly engaged over Christmas and Valentine's Day, said Jenny Hope, president of the exchange's board. The curious bride-to-be can also scope out the selection from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this week, Hope said.

"We're really excited because we're always looking for creative fundraising ideas," Hope said.

The store's more typical wares surrounded her: Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls on one shelf, sock monkeys and jewelry on another.

Hope and others said they thought their predecessors would approve of the event. For more than a century, the exchange has helped needy individuals by selling their handcrafted items in its shop.

"They would have been very positive about the opportunity," said Krista Green, a board member. Perhaps in earlier days the dresses would have come from a dressmaker or someone's closet, she added, but they would have shared a similar idea of using them to generate extra income.

And at $225 a gown, "it's worth it," board member Amy Seitz added.

To entice potential brides, a sleeveless white gown with a beaded flower pattern hung in the exchange's display window, a preview of the upstairs room where walls were lined with dresses.

That gown drew Eileen Klein into a store she'd never set foot in, to take a turn about the large room for her first up-close encounter with such dresses.

Klein said she and her soon-to-be fiance just made a deposit on a ring, and they are envisioning a ceremony in the summer of 2008, possibly at a California vineyard.

The white confection was also what led Goarmon, who lives in nearby Mount Vernon, to mention the sale to Rolando. They decided to check out the selection - Rolando's first bridal gown spree since her engagement Christmas Eve - after Mass yesterday at St. Ignatius Church.

Although Rolando liked the length and color of the first square-necked gown she tried on, she wanted to do some more looking before her final decision.

"It's a fun time," Rolando said. "I'm trying not to stress out about it."

Still, Goarmon captured the bride's dilemma.

"You should only get married once in your life, and there are so many beautiful dresses," she said. "It's a problem."

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