BALTIMORE — With an hour left to kill, the ladies are antsy. Fueled by coffee, tired of the all-night card games, armed with walkie-talkies, they are ready for the doors of Filene's Basement to open.
Some are wearing matching T-shirts so that they can better spot their allies when things get chaotic. One group, clutching pictures torn from magazines, is in pink. Another group has chosen camouflage.
They are taking no prisoners. Deeply discounted bridal gowns are at stake.
Just after 8 a.m., the glass doors swing open, and the store managers stand back. The whooping, hollering mob runs in -- a stampede of frenzied, determined bargain hunters.
Within three minutes, the racks are empty.
The Running of the Brides has been a tradition at Filene's flagship store in Boston for at least half a century. For years, word that the discount store was putting designer wedding gowns on sale attracted brides-to-be by the hundreds. They camp out in lines waiting for the doors to open, not unlike hard-core fans seeking tickets to a Rolling Stones concert.
This month's sale on wedding gowns was the third for Filene's Towson, Md., store, which opened in 2004. Designer gowns that normally carry four-digit price tags go for $250 to $500.
More than a hundred women rushed the store. Some found bargains. Others, like Christine Intrieri, were not so lucky, but left with a story to tell.
"We still had fun," said Intrieri, who made her entrance with four friends, their arms locked like a soccer team trying to ward off a penalty kick. "We couldn't stop laughing on the way in. We were crying, laughing so hard.
"It was mayhem."
Kari Olson, of Virginia, and her mother, Linda, said they began their wait at 8:30 the night before. They took turns venturing into the store for a peek at the racks of dresses, which were cordoned off with yellow police tape. They napped in sleeping bags outside the store, unable to do much sleeping under the glare of the fluorescent lights and amid the giggling groups that joined the line at midnight and at 3 a.m.
The sacrifice earned Olson, 27, the first spot in line, which she hoped would give her a slight advantage when she scrambled to find a vintage-style dress for her January wedding.
"At first, I said, 'It's worth a try, when you look at these prices,' " Olson said. "But as we've waited in the hot, I'm now saying, 'I better find something.' "
Kim Wallace, 25, a slender, dark-haired bride-to-be, said she arrived with four of her friends at 4:30 a.m., passing the time "talking, drinking lots of coffee and acting silly."
She said she wanted to check out this sale after watching an episode of "Friends" in which Monica, Phoebe and Rachel camp out at a bridal store called Eileen's Basement and storm the racks with whistles around their necks. Monica wrestles another bride-to-be to the ground.
Wallace, who is to be married in April, decorated white foam visors for her friends, who wore them as crowns. And she got them matching T-shirts with the words, "Sassy, but classy," the motto for the strapless, mermaid-style dress she was after. On the back, the T-shirts were printed with the logo: "Team Kimitzel," a reference to the blending of her first name and her fiance's last name, Mitzel.
Soon, the countdown began:
7:54 a.m.: The crowd of several hundred is snaked around the sidewalk. They let out a collective yell when a manager comes out and shouts, "Ten minutes to go."
Inside, the clerks and managers stand at the ends of the racks, to keep them from being toppled.
8:04 a.m.: The doors open. The brides-to-be and their entourages grab what they can of the 1,300 dresses hanging neatly in clear plastic garment bags.
8:07 a.m.: The racks are bare.
The women, having accumulated heaps of gowns, begin sifting through them to see if they have, by chance, grabbed one in the right size or style.
One woman strips down to her panties and bra in the men's suit section. Another is in her underwear in housewares. A few have worn bathing suits under their clothes. But many are in girdles and corsets, the undergarments they plan to wear on their wedding days. This is not a time for modesty.
Most of the dressing rooms are ignored because they are cramped compared with the open aisles. As she stands in bra and panties, Wallace says, "It's very surreal to stand in a store in your underwear."
8:20 a.m.: Cheers and yelling erupt in the lingerie department. Katrina Trent has found the dress.
The 28-year-old woman, preparing for a July 2007 wedding, turns, wearing a curve-hugging, strapless gown. Her three friends admire it as she pronounces, "We've found it."
8:45 a.m.: About half of the gowns are back on the hangers as shoppers begin to narrow their choices.
Across the store, the brides-to-be are standing in front of mirrors -- some of which they've brought from home -- on tiptoe, pirouetting and sucking in their breath as the dresses are zipped and examined.
9:30 a.m.: Wallace and her crew give up on finding her dream dress. But, she says, "I don't regret it. It was fun, and nobody got hurt."
10 a.m.: Pauline Sawyer, 31, who came from New Jersey, is deciding between two dresses. She asks a roaming tailor about alterations and models how the back will look when bustled.
10:30 a.m.: Olson is becoming more discouraged. The one dress she had spotted Thursday night, a lacy, beaded empire-waist gown, doesn't fit and would be hard to alter.
"It's the one I was thinking about all night," she says. "It was heartbreaking."
Sawyer picks a $500 strapless gown. "I stalked this dress for a while," Sawyer says. "I've tried it on about six times."
"This," she says with a smile, "is the one."