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.