Taffeta was flying. Could I find my dress?

I confess, I'm the consummate bargain hunter. When it comes to clothing, basically everything I own comes from a bargain-basement store or is bought with discount coupons. So when the man of my dreams proposed over dinner and I had gotten over the initial excitement, my prevailing thought was: "Where, oh where, am I going to find a reasonably priced wedding dress?"

As any bride-to-be knows, the cost of even the most modest gown can approach the price of a Lincoln Continental. Two days after the proposal, my girlfriend MaryAnn and I visited a bridal boutique just outside town. The place had gotten rave reviews for "incredible savings."

Minutes after our arrival, I was giddy with glee, my dressing room bursting with the most beautiful wedding dresses I had ever seen. Somewhere in the process, however, I had neglected to check prices, assuming that "incredible savings" meant a dress would be within the means of a middle-income mortal.

I glanced at the dress in my hand. A price tag dangled from a long wire attached to the neck. I had to reach deep into the dress and draw it up as if I were ice fishing. It was a whopper all right - an $8,000 one. As it turned out, that was the cheapest dress in my collection. My creative abilities had to reach new heights as, one by one, I found fault with each of these perfectly gorgeous gowns. I left feeling that I'd have to get married in my underwear.

Wedding gowns are really just white party dresses, right? So why did I have to buy one at a bridal shop?

Over the next few weeks I combed the racks of department stores, and I actually found several out-of-season white dresses. But the fact that they were still for sale was also the source of their unsuitability. Each garment's shoulders had been stretched out from hanging on a hanger too long, and fairy wings sprouted in all the wrong places. I passed.

Since my fiancé and I were getting married in a historical village, a recreated 18th-century Colonial community, why not spend our special day in costume? For a month I gathered information from theatrical companies and scanned the Web. I found the white tights, knickers, and waistcoats of the menfolk appealing. But my intended claimed he had chicken legs and could not be entreated to show his calves. Then I learned that to look truly authentic, I'd have to dress in plain brown or gray attire. Small wonder that no ceremony held at this site was ever done in period dress!

Some brides gravitate toward vintage Victorian wedding dresses, and I uncovered a number of these in consignment shops. Was it my imagination, or did no one grow beyond a size 6 in those days? Every gown I found seemed to have a waist of 12 inches or less. It's a known fact that ladies had ribs removed so their waists could be cinched tighter than the circumference of a bagel. And speaking of boiled bread, maybe the reason I'd never have a waist the size of a bagel is that I can't stop eating them for breakfast.

It was then that I spotted a newspaper ad announcing a huge bridal-gown sale that would take place at a department store soon. The highly publicized event typically draws hundreds of bargain-seeking brides and their helpers from across the country.

Attempts to entice my friends to accompany me were like trying to sign them up for a chat with an insurance agent. Fortunately, Christina, my fiancé's adventurous niece, was game. Alexander the Great could not have prepared a more inventive plan of attack. I sent Christina a floor plan of the store and faxed her pictures of dresses I liked. We talked about strategy for hours by phone.

The day of the sale, Christina and I met up around 5 a.m. - so early that our noses were practically pressed against the glass entrance door. Officials inside were sectioning off areas that were off limits with yellow caution tape. Unfortunately a steady stream of women managed to cut in line, some offering clever excuses, others not even bothering to lie to us. There were ladies who had the build of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and we pretty much let them do what they wanted.

As we waited, a doughnut shop worker handed out free T-shirts and another group dispensed butter cookies (along with information about their catering services). TV cameras rolled, and there was even a movie crew. Just before opening, a store employee addressed the 500-person crowd with a loudspeaker. There would be no pushing, no shoving, no fistfights.

When the doors finally opened, Christina and I were swept in by the tide, like corks bobbing in the ocean. The shrieks were deafening.

Ahead of us, thousands of beautiful dresses, glittering with beads and diamonds, hung neatly from racks. One minute I was running, the next minute I was on the floor, having tripped on the train of a dress someone was dragging. When I staggered to my feet, every single rack was empty. Like a swarm of locusts, aggressive brides and their helpers had flown up and over every rack and picked them clean. Even Christina was gone!

I walked around in a daze, admiring the bounty of other brides. Then I saw Christina, wearing an ear-to-ear grin and nearly buried in a sea of tulle and taffeta. She had managed to snag 10 gowns.

Our elation was deflated when we gave the collection a closer inspection. Half the dresses were way too small. The rest were so laden with beads and pearls, they looked as if they had been designed for a Vegas showgirl. One dress had a train so long, I didn't think it would fit inside the small church where our ceremony would be held.

Christina and I haggled, swapped, and traded with other brides for more than two hours. I tried on about 60 dresses, but none of them was exactly right for me. I eventually walked away empty-handed.

This story does have a happy ending, though. In the end, I bought my wedding dress on the Internet. It was truly the dress of my dreams: simple, elegant, and at a significantly reduced price. All this from the comfort of my own chair - caution tape and loudspeakers nowhere in sight.

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