After becoming engaged and facing the sticker shock of the typical wedding dress (why Vera Wang? Why?), I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to save up to 75 percent of the price at frequent sample sales in New York. Trouble is, I thought the environment would be complete pandemonium. (Picture that episode of Friends where Monica goes to a bridal sample sale equipped with a drill sergeant’s mentally and the whistle to match.) I was gearing myself up for the type of fisticuffs that go down when you put 200 women in a room with clothing discounts in the thousands. Talk about blood in the water. That’s why I was shocked by the civility of the first sample sale I went to. I’d been ready to break out my best Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon moves, but instead I politely chatted to other brides while flipping through the racks. That’s when I learned there are different levels of crazy to bridal sample sales and different levels of butt-kicking you need to bring to them.
Black Belt. The Filene’s Basement Bridal Gown Sale (AKA The Running of the Brides) and the Vera Wang Sample Sale. These two are so crazy, they’re craaaazy. Brides are hungry like the wolf and roam in packs with their entire bridal party hunting for dresses. The Filene’s Sale, in various cities nationwide, is aptly nicknamed because of the massive stampede that ensues when the doors open. It could easily put Spain’s “running of the bulls” to shame. Vera Wang, being the designer of the most desired wedding dresses, inspires such a frenzy at her sales that brides sometimes camp out overnight for a place at the front of the line.
Brown Belt. Large bridal retailers, such as Kleinfeld, or department stores with wedding gowns, like Saks Fifth Avenue, also hold sample sales, but their events are decidedly calmer. First of all, they often have a system in place to handle crowds: Kleinfeld gives you a numbered piece of paper, almost like a butcher shop counter, and you wait outside until a sales person is paired up with you. Stores like Saks hold their sample sales over several days, thinning out the madness.
Green Belt. Most smaller bridal salons hold sample sales, but you’ll be treated to a calmer vibe—downright I-just-finished-Yoga-class serene compared to Black-Belt sales. Smaller salons tend to ask you to make an appointment to shop the sale (just like a regular salon appointment), but that means there is a limit on the number of people at any given time snagging the dress you’re looking for. The upside: less competition. The downside: less selection.
White Belt. You don’t even need to set foot in a sample sale to buy a wedding dress sample. Any gown vendor carries samples. (That dress you try on before you order a gown? That’s your sample.) While shopping, you lose nothing by asking, “Is the sample for this dress for sale?” Retailers need to replace the samples once the gown doesn’t look bright and crisp any more. And if the designer is about to unveil the next season’s collection, you’d be doing them a service by buying the sample from the previous season.
Before you hit a black or brown belt sample sale, you should hydrate well and …
- Plan for the wait as if you were taking a flight to Bridalandia. Think of the things you pack when you’re taking a long flight. That’s what will keep you sane as you wait in line for two or three hours. Bring that iPod, paperback, trail mix, and comfy shoes. Heck, you can even write postcards while you’re at it!
- Wear biking shorts, a leotard, or even a swimsuit under your clothes. Often, you don’t have a private dressing room, and you’ll need to strip down in full view of other brides and their entourage. If you don’t want to flash your thong-clad butt to a room of strangers, wear formfitting clothes that you can slip a gown over. Don’t forget, if you’re trying on strapless styles to wear a strapless bra so you can have an idea of what the neckline really looks like.
- Bring buddies. Trust me, if you go alone, you’ll just be one pair of hands, but if you bring four bridesmaids, that’s ten hands all combing the racks for your dress. The Filene’s racks empty out in ten minutes (really), so you need manpower (or ladypower, as the case may be) on your side.
- So you’ve found a beautiful dress. Take five. Ignore the swirling madness around you, take a deep breath, and give yourself time to reflect on your purchase. Buying your wedding dress is a big, emotional decision. Don’t make it in haste. You don’t want to regret an impulse purchase later.
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