By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; E08
Jessica Brawn drove 28 hours to make her appointment at Chevy Chase Bridal last weekend.
The 21-year-old Fletcher, Okla., resident was surfing the Internet looking at dresses when she came across an announcement about a wedding gown giveaway for military brides.
"I was like, 'Oh, that can't be right. That's not possible,' " said the student and Air Force Reservist, whose fiance is about to deploy to Afghanistan with the Army.
After reading accounts from women who'd gotten dresses through the program, she called the organization, Brides Across America, booked an appointment and plotted her route to D.C.
In an era when the bad behavior of limelight-seeking brides has become a television mainstay, the July 10 event seemed like an alternate reality -- one touched by gratitude on both sides of the exchange.
Heidi Janson, a boutique owner and sales trainer who grew up in the bridal industry, started Brides Across America three years ago after hearing from a soldier in Afghanistan who felt like overseas efforts were being forgotten at home. Janson called on fellow bridal shop owners and designers to contribute dresses to a giveaway in New Hampshire. That weekend, more than 60 dresses were distributed to female soldiers and the intended brides of male soldiers who'd been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"There's so much waste, because it sits in the closet," Janson said of the dresses, which are often samples or discontinued styles.
The organization hosts twice-yearly bridal events in two dozen cities across America. They have given away more than 3,000 dresses ranging in price from $500 to $6,000 and expect to distribute another 2,000 gowns by the end of this month.
Nicholas Kassman, owner of Chevy Chase Bridal, donated several of the 20 dresses that were given away at his shop last weekend. Sales clerks styled the flip-flop-wearing brides-to-be as they would any customer, adding trains and veils and tailoring the dresses with temporary clips. Any alterations would be done at half the usual price.
"A lot of these girls don't have the wherewithal to be able to go out and afford to buy a wedding gown of that sort," Kassman said of the brides, some of whom traveled from places such as Georgia and Charlottesville for the event. "And I'm sure they have lots of other wedding expenses. . . . It's really the least we can do, to be able to help in some very small way."
Kassman will host another Brides Across America event in November.
Brawn wasn't entirely sure her cross-country trip would be worth it. She had a pretty specific vision in mind when she arrived at the shop, after waking at 5 a.m. and driving almost five hours from a relative's home near Norfolk. Though she wasn't certain when her big day would be, she knew that her groom would be in his dress uniform when they wed and that they'd walk beneath an arch of swords after the ceremony. She wanted a gown befitting the occasion, something that would make her feel like a princess.
She bounced out of the dressing room in the first dress, one chosen by a stylist. "I've never tried on a wedding dress before," she exclaimed.
Standing in the next one, a full-skirted strapless dress with a rhinestone belt that she'd spotted as soon as she walked in the store, Brawn started to cry.
"It was the best feeling I ever had," she said. It got better when they bagged the gown, asked to see her fiance's deployment papers, and sent her on her way. No charge.