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HereCome the Brides

2,000 marriage-minded shoppers scramble for bargains at Filene's Basement bridal-gown close out - Boston's unofficial `sporting event'

THREE times a year, Filene's Basement in downtown Boston hosts a ``Bridal Event.'' At these colossal close outs, $7,000 designer wedding gowns sell for $199.

Prices like that can turn otherwise proper young brides into pillaging barbarians.

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``I know they're women and many of them are small, but that doesn't matter,'' says store spokeswoman Pat Boudrot. ``Believe me, they'll run you over.''

``This is definitely a sporting event,'' adds Ray McCarthy, head of security. ``It's similar to football. You'll see some tackling, some blocking, maybe even a few clotheslines.''

His advice to disgruntled shoppers: ``You have to remind yourself that it's the best day of your life, and you can't be walking down the aisle having had to punch somebody out to get your dress.''

Minutes before the store opens on a March Monday, Mr. McCarthy gapes at the writhing crowd of about 2,000, shakes his head, and cracks the button on his walkie-talkie. ``They're getting restless out there,'' he says.

``When we open, you'll see hangers flying. We have to get the biggest guys in the store down here to hold up the racks, or else they'll knock them over.'' McCarthy waves his hands wildly. ``It's like a school of piranhas.''

Outside, Lydia Smith, an August bride-to-be from Marblehead, Mass., is first in line. A veteran of a previous sale that left her holding an empty hanger, Ms. Smith, who arrived at 5 a.m., is calm and philosophical.

``It's the shopping experience of your lifetime,'' she says. ``You have to get up early and fight off other women, but you can get a dress for 200 bucks. You have nothing to lose.''

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Well, maybe.

Shopping for her wedding next May, Ashleigh Lake of Raynham, Mass., is not so sure. ``I'm nervous,'' she says. ``I hope there are no fistfights, I heard there were fistfights last year. I wouldn't want to walk down the aisle on a pair of crutches.''

Ernie Wu of Providence, R.I. - one of the few men in line - has a ready retort for anyone who questions him. ``Isn't this the line for Celtics tickets?''

After some prodding, Mr. Wu confesses that he is helping his fiancee. ``If we find a dress here, it means we get to invite 15 more people to the wedding.''

Yet not every gown shopper has a ceremony to prepare for. A woman who identifies herself only as ``Dawn'' says that even if her boyfriend of four years doesn't propose to her soon, it's still a fabulous chance to buy a dress.

``I have plans to persuade him,'' she quips. ``Besides, I plan on getting married someday. If not to him, then to somebody else.''

As the 8 a.m. opening nears, the crowd presses forward. The brides elbow each other, shout, and jockey for position. Women in the front row kneel like sprinters.

``Walk!'' warns a security guard, ``Be nice!''

Inside, a voice on the loudspeaker pronounces the store open, and the madness begins. Suddenly, the sales floor is awash in white organdy and sequins.

The first women to the racks grab as many as 12 gowns and stumble off to examine their loot. In 53 seconds, the racks are bare.

Some of the brides are, too.

``Even though we enlarge the fitting room for this event, most women don't bother using it,'' Ms. Boudrot says. ``They stake out a spot by a mirror and start trying on dresses. Some women wear leotards or body suits, but some wear the underwear they would actually wear under a wedding gown. These women are not shy.''

On the floor, speed and strategy are crucial.

The rule is, don't give up a dress until you get another in return. Some brides have helpers circling the store with rejected gowns, looking to trade. Everywhere, the women haggle, negotiate, and cut deals.

Everyone has an opinion. ``That's the one,'' one bride says. ``No, I think it flattens you out,'' a friend says. ``Nice,'' a third party adds, ``but those sleeves have to go.''

According to Boudrot, Filene's Basement buyers scour stores and boutiques year-round looking for dresses that are overstocked, out of date, slightly damaged, or left over from going-out-of-business sales. Filene's Basement hosts a bridal event as soon as enough gowns accumulate.

Shoppers have come from as far as Chicago, Atlanta, and Switzerland to attend the extravaganza. At least five times since the sale's inception in 1947, they've actually broken down the doors.

``We don't publicize it very much. We don't need to,'' Boudrot says. ``It's something that probably doesn't need to get any bigger, anyway.''

Why do so many women put up with such pugilism every year? Garrie Elios of Everett, Mass., sums it up this way: ``If you go to one of those fancy-schmancy stores, you can pay thousands.''

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