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The Running of the Brides

Updated on September 9, 2011
The crowd eagerly awaits the start of the gown sale.
The crowd eagerly awaits the start of the gown sale.

What has the power to transform mild mannered brides into a pack of wild animals, screaming, shoving, and elbowing their way to the front of the herd? The Filene's Basement wedding gown sale, of course! Since its inception in 1947, this famous event has developed such a reputation for chaos that it is now officially called “The Running of the Brides”, in honor to its resemblance to Pamplona's Running of the Bulls. Yep, you guesses it: the brides are the bulls, careening wildly, through aisles of white bridal gowns instead of the ancient streets of a Spanish city. So why would anyone brave the madness of the Running of the Brides? For the deals, of course!

The calm before the storm.
The calm before the storm.

The Origins Of The Legendary Bridal Gown Sale

First a bit of history. Filene's Basement opened its doors in 1909, as a clearance center or “bargain basement” for the venerated department store above it. In addition to merchandise from the Filene's store, buyers brought in close out lots from other sources to fill the space. Filene's Basement was notable for two things: first, its automated markdown system, and secondly the fact that it was attractive and well-lit. The two facts in combination made Filene's Basement a popular shopping destination, for tourists and Boston locals alike. The Filene's department stores no longer exist, having been consumed by Macy's in 2005. The Filene's Basement brand, however, survives, having been spun off from the Filene's stores years ago.

As part of the ever-rotating stock of clearance merchandise in Filene's basement, at times a selection of bridal gowns would make an appearance. In 1947, Filene's basement was inspired to hold its first ever all-bridal event, with such spectacular results that it remains a popular event today, over 60 years after the first sale. The chances are that the initial bridal extravaganzas were a bit more tame than what we see on the news today, but when deep discounts are available on designer bridal gowns, there is no question that brides will turn out in force, as has been the case ever since the first Filene's basement wedding dress event.

Brides Gone Wild!

Brides Go Wild For Discount Designer Wedding Gowns

The primary allure of the Filene's Basement sale is the opportunity to score a fabulous designer gown at a fraction of the retail price. All of the bridal gowns are priced at $249, $499, or $699, marked down from original prices ranging from $900 – over $9000. with discounts up to 90% off, it is not hard to understand why brides sometimes get a bit aggressive on sale day! According to Filene's Basement, the best deal that any bride ever got at one of the Running of the Bride events was a $10,000 wedding gown purchased for $199. Of course, every bride-to-be who finds her perfect wedding dress at a bargain basement price ends up leaving the sale feeling like she has just hit the jackpot.

So where do all of those designer wedding dresses come from, anyway? All sorts of sources, actually. The buyers for the Running of the Brides sales get the dresses from manufacturers, large bridal salons, and small boutiques. The stories behind the gowns are just as varied. A bridal designer might have several special orders which had been canceled after production was started. A salon might have gowns from weddings which were canceled. And many bridal salons and boutiques will have inventory and samples which they need to clear from their floor to make room for new inventory. The bridal gowns can be from recent seasons or they may be discontinued styles. Filene's Basement's buyers personally view each gown before selecting them to include in the sale; nothing is purchased blind as a lot. Many famous designers are represented, but Filene's Basement will not publicize or advertise which particular top labels will be present at their sales, due to the deeply discounted prices. Everyone wants a Vera Wang for $249; whether or not there will actually be any at a Running of the Brides event is anybody's guess!

Because many of the discounted bridal gowns are samples from salons, they will primarily be in sizes 8 – 12. It is important to realize, however, that sizing in the bridal industry is not the same as in the rest of womenswear. Most brides should expect to wear a wedding gown which is labeled one or two sizes larger than her normal dress size. In other words, a bride-to-be who typically wears a size 6 will be looking for a size 8 or 10 wedding dress. This is not to say that brides outside of this size range will not have the chance to find the dress of their dreams at the Running of the Brides, just that they should be aware going in that their choices will be somewhat more limited. A good rule of thumb is to consider purchasing a gown that is a little large and have it altered, but to avoid falling in love with a gown which is too small. If the wedding dress cannot be altered to fit, it is no bargain at any price, and all sales are final.

Brides assemble teams to help in their quest to find the perfect wedding gown.
Brides assemble teams to help in their quest to find the perfect wedding gown.
Even dads hoard wedding dresses!
Even dads hoard wedding dresses!

Wedding Gown Shopping As A Team Sport

The size of the Running of the Brides is massive: 1300 – 2500 gowns at every single sale! An equally large number of people may be in line by the time the doors open to a sale at 8am (start times are the same across the country, although closing times will vary by location). The sale is held once a year in select Filene's Basement stores, and twice a year in Boston (the Boston sales are currently being held in the Hynes Convention Center). Only a quarter to a third of the people in line are brides; the rest are members of their support team. The usual entourages include mothers, sisters, and bridesmaids, but the occasional fiance or dad has been known to brave the bridal madhouse as well.

There is a reason that most brides bring such a large team to help them in their hunt for a bargain wedding gown at the Running of the Brides. First of all, the gowns are not organized on the racks in any way, shape, or form. There are two reasons for this: the first is to prevent any small group of women from hoarding all of the dresses in a size or style, and the second is because any system of organization would be instantly demolished anyway. So a bride needs to have as many sets of eyes as possible helping her look for the perfect bridal gown. Actually, the first step is to get a group grabbing as many gowns as possible; from there, the process of narrowing them down to possibilities can begin. Keep in mind that the dresses are all in plastic bags, making it difficult to determine anything beyond color at first glance. The successful strategy is just to grab dresses by the armload and sort it all out later.

A bride's team has other very important jobs besides grabbing dresses. Someone has to guard the team's stash of dresses, less some other bride-to-be make off with the ivory taffeta strapless or white satin tank dress. Getting in and out of wedding gowns is not easy, so it is also very helpful if the bride can have a friend available to help her try on the dresses, clip them if they are too large, and of course to offer opinions. There is another absolutely crucial role that a member of the bride's posse must undertake: that of trader and barterer-in-chief. Once a bride has rejected a gown, or for that matter, all of her initial dresses, someone needs to go around and look for other brides to trade off with. The bride herself certainly can't do it, or she will lose her spot at the mirror. The trading is one of the key elements of the Running of the Brides, and it is why grabbing as many gowns as possible in the first seconds of the sale is key. You must have something to trade in order to keep receiving new dresses to try on. A prepared bride will come with a sign to hold up stating her needs: Size 6 or 8, or Ivory strapless. This makes the trading process much easier all around.

To make team members easier to spot among the thousands of people running around the sale, some enterprising groups will come up with a team uniform. Creative brides really get into the spirit, dressing their groups in everything from bunny ears, brightly colored wigs, custom printed t-shirts, or even referee costumes. Team members might carry walkie-talkies, whistles, or some other signal to help stay in touch during the rush. Brides prep their moms, sisters, and bridesmaids about the styles they hope to find; there have even been cases of type A brides-to-be giving Power Point presentations to make sure the entire group is on the same page! Usual strategy is to park the bride in one spot and let the team members come and go from there. Brides will also form alliances with the women around them in line, promising to help find the other person's preferred style and size. After all, with all those hours spent waiting, you have to talk about something to pass the time.

The search is on!
The search is on!
Thousands of bargain hunters will show up in the first hours of the sale.
Thousands of bargain hunters will show up in the first hours of the sale.

Strategy Is Key To Success

Yes, the waiting. Eager bargain hunters start camping out the day before the Running of the Brides. They bring lawn chairs, sleeping bags, even small tents. The events have become huge media draws, and sometimes there are freebies to help the ladies in line. Radio stations covering the Running of the Brides set up portable heaters on cold nights, grocery stores hand out snacks and water, there have even been Mary Kay consultants handing out hot chocolate (and maybe scheduling a few wedding makeup consultations?). The atmosphere is a festive one, and camaraderie grows amongst the brides. The Running of the Brides is much more than a discount sale, it is a tradition, and many of the women in line are there as much for the experience as to find a wedding gown on the cheap.

In addition to the die-hard shoppers, many more hopefuls will queue up between 7 and 8am on the morning of the sale. As the clock ticks closer to 8 o'clock, tension starts to mount. Late arrivals try to inch closer to the front of the line, only to be repelled by those who have been waiting all night. The promise of so many discount designer gowns so close by creates a near-frenzy as the seconds slip by. Then a store employee will give instructions to the crowd: walk don't run (completely ignored), keep it friendly (partially ignored), and quiet down so they can hear the count down to 8am (generally obeyed). With bated breath, the brides wait as the Filene's Basement employee counts: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...doors open, and brides start running!

Is this any way to shop for a wedding gown?
Is this any way to shop for a wedding gown?

When The Doors Open: Mayhem!

The initial minute of the Running of the Brides is pure mayhem. The racks are cleared of up to 2500 gowns in 60 seconds. The record for rack clearing is an astonishing 36 seconds! Brides swarm like locusts as Filene's Basement staff members hold on to the racks for dear life to prevent them from being knocked over. Elbows fly, ladies wrestle over plastic bags laden with potential treasure, and for the first couple of minutes, all common courtesy goes out the window in a frenzy of bridal hormones and aggression. It is rumored that the mothers of the brides are the most cutthroat among the competitors. There is also a feeling that the Running of the Brides in Atlanta is a little less chaotic than in Boston.

After the racks are cleared, the hunt for a dream wedding gown begins. Although some of the Filene's Basement locations will set up dressing rooms for the Running of the Brides, most brides just strip in front of the nearest mirror and start trying on dresses. Veterans of the event advise brides to wear a bikini or a leotard to avoid total public exposure; after all, there are television camera crews and men in the room! Also advisable is to have a bridesmaid wear a fanny pack with the bride's money and to leave purses and valuables at home. Some brides even tote their own full length mirrors to the sale, knowing that there will be more brides than mirrors available.

There are some keys to finding the perfect gown amongst all the chaos of the Running of the Brides. Besides assembling a crack team of grabbers, guards, and negotiators, brides should do their research ahead of time by looking at bridal fashions online and in magazines. If you are going to send your team out to hunt for you, they need to know what type of gown you want. That said, it is also important to remain open minded. Many brides end up finding a wedding gown that they had never pictured, which can only happen if a bride is willing to try on virtually anything in her size range with some potential. The bargain basement prices also mean that it may be worth it to buy a gown which needs some alterations or a cleaning before being worn.

Image: Glen Yoder/
Image: Glen Yoder/

Camraderie Blossoms When The Frenzy Subsides

The neat thing about the Filene's Basement wedding gown sale is that once the initial frenzy has subsided, brides and their teams root for one another. When a bride announces that she has found “the one”, all those around her cheer and applaud her success. Brides who do not have mirrors have their pictures taken on cell phones or digital cameras so they can see how a gown looks on them. Those brides who show up without an entourage may well find themselves adopted by a group of supportive moms. This camaraderie and shared enthusiasm is a large part of the enduring appeal of the Running of the Brides.

For those brides who want to find a deeply discounted designer gown but cannot face the insanity of the initial rush, Filene's suggests waiting a few hours. By 10am or so, the first wave has started to clear out, and employees have rescued gowns from abandoned heaps and re-hung them on the racks (still in no particular order, but it beats wrestling on the floor for that clearance Lazaro). Keeping in mind that there are more gowns than brides in the first few hours (since a large percentage of shoppers are assistants, not brides), there will still be quite a few dresses from which to select in the later part of the morning. This is not to say that the Running of the Brides will necessarily become sedate by 10am, but for non-adrenaline junkies, waiting a few hours will offer a much more sane shopping experience.

Image: Glen Yoder/
Image: Glen Yoder/

How To Get In On The Action

Wondering how you can get in on the excitement? There are still several Running of the Brides sales coming up for 2010. These are the dates:

Atlanta: March 19

Chicago: July 23

Washington, DC: July 30

Boston: August 20 (Hynes Convention Center)

Cleveland: August 27

The bridal event is so popular that women come from around the world for a chance at scoring a fabulous deal on an even more fabulous dress. That said, there are also plenty of brides for whom the idea of fighting two thousand other women over wedding dresses is their idea of a nightmare, and the last way they would ever want to shop for their bridal gown. For those women, there is the Priscilla of Boston flagship salon over on Boylston Street. But for the legions of bridal bargain hunters, let the Running of the Brides begin!


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    • tim-tim profile image

      Priscilla Chan 

      8 years ago from Normal, Illinois

      I watched that a while ago on TV. That is crazy for getting a wedding gown! People tripped over each other. There are ways to get the bargains!


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