I walked through the glass doors of Filene’s Basement and into a Hobbesian state of nature. The steel garment racks were empty, many knocked over, and giant piles of wedding gowns dotted the room like bonfires. Women in colorful party hats ran in every direction like plunderers bearing white-hot loot. Hair-raising shrieks and whistles punctuated the roaring din.
The annual one-day sale known as “The Running of the Brides,” a tradition since 1947, was taking place on the third floor of a building overlooking Union Square. Wedding dresses that normally sold for thousands of dollars on Fifth Avenue could be had for “as low as $249.” Other brides-to-be, along with their mothers, sisters, cousins, and girlfriends, had stood in line on the sidewalk of 14th Street since four o’clock in the morning, shivering in their winter coats and bunny ears, clutching blowout horns and pom-poms and paper cups of coffee. After watching last year’s YouTube video of the store doors opening and two thousand women stampeding for the racks of white dresses, I thought it would be safer to show up a few hours into the sale.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I felt a hard tap on my shoulder.
I looked up from the massive heap of white taffeta, silk, and lace I was sifting through.
“These are my dresses!” said a woman, glaring at me through leopard-print glasses. Her pale, wobbly breasts brimmed out of a satin bodice.
Unable to see how all these dresses could be hers—the pile could have filled a third of a subway car—I shook my head and returned to my rummaging.
“Hey! Didn’t you hear her? These are her dresses!”
Now on either side of the bride stood henchwomen in glittery pink tiaras and pink T-shirts that read “Amanda’s Team.”
Amanda said, “Get out of here! Go find your own dresses!” [End Page 80]
I dropped the velvet gown in my hands and walked away, muttering, “What the hell?”
But now I saw that all the piles of white dresses were well guarded. Atop one giant hoard sat a tawny, slump-shouldered woman, an exhausted guardian elf in her pointy, yellow party hat and candy-striped socks. In order not to dirty the dresses, she had removed her boots, and they sat next to the white pile like a relic from a saner world. In front of another mound of dresses stood two sandy-haired women in green T-shirts, one declaring “Mother of the Bride,” the other “Aunt of the Bride.” When the two women spotted the younger, blonder, thinner version of themselves inching toward them in tiny, jerky steps, because the dress under consideration was binding nearly all the way down to the ankles, the mother’s hand flew up to her heart and she gasped, “Oh God, you are so beautiful!”
I approached a saleswoman who was standing with one arm draped across an empty clothing rack, giving off the air of a prison gang leader surveying the exercise yard, and asked how I was supposed to try on any dresses. The saleswoman looked down at the loafered foot she had propped on the rack’s lower bar and inhaled the sweet power of information.
“Should’ve got here earlier,” she said. “Racks were empty thirty seconds after we opened the doors.”
After more prodding, the saleswoman explained that you needed a dress to get a dress. If you found a dress you liked in another woman’s pile, you had to have a dress to swap for it. The bigger your stockpile, the better your chances of having a dress the other woman would want. This was prison-esque, I thought. I was in a closed-barter market, and I didn’t have any cocaine-laced postage stamps. Or even a cigarette.
“Good luck,” the saleslady taunted.
Leaning on a pillar, I watched the other brides and their posses in matching T-shirts and sparkly head boppers ransacking each other’s piles, fighting over mermaid dresses, shouting through cupped hands, and hurrying back...