When Bain told her the truth, the onlooker stared at her, mouth agape.
“This woman flipped her lid,” Bain told The Washington Post on Sunday evening. “She just sat there for 10 minutes saying, ‘I can’t believe this.’”
She was not the first to inquire about the dresses Bain gathers each year. After all, they are gorgeous, intricately designed and hang gracefully from the women sporting them.
What most don’t realize is they’re made almost entirely of toilet paper.
“People always think they’re real,” Bain said. “It’s the funniest thing.”
Each year, professional and amateur designers create wedding-ready bridal gowns out of Charmin toilet paper in hopes of being chosen for an actual runway show in New York, where models don the, well, toilet paper before an excited audience. It began 12 years ago as the brainchild of sisters Susan Bain and Laura Gawne as a means to generate buzz around their wedding website, cheap-chic-weddings.com.
For the past six years, though, Charmin and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not have sponsored it, and real money is at stake. The winning designer receives $10,000, second place gets $5,000, and the third place winner walks away with a cool $2,500.
This year’s contest — officially titled the 12th Annual Toilet Paper Wedding Dress Contest presented by Cheap Chic Weddings and Charmin — took place Thursday at the Haven Rooftop at the Sanctuary Hotel in Manhattan. Designer Van Tran of Brooklyn was crowned the winner, with Judith Henry from Woodland Hills, Utah, and Donna Vincler from Brentwood, Tenn., placing second and third.
Bain said contestants can use only toilet paper, tape, glue, and a needle and thread to make the dresses, which must be wearable “by a person who can walk” in them.
She and her sister put out a call for entries in March, giving designers eight weeks to send in photographs of a gown. They received 1,501 entries, which they narrowed down to 15 to review in person.
Amazingly, each year, they survive the journeys from all over the United States to Florida, where the sisters live.
“These things are put together like clothing. You can’t believe how strong they are,” Bain said. “They’re shipped all over the country to us, and then we ship the top 10 to New York, and they get shipped back to us, and they last.”
Of those 15, 10 were chosen for the in-person contest that took place in Manhattan on Thursday.
One of the keys to making the dresses, Bain said, is ensuring that they are strong enough to actually be worn. Toilet paper’s main quality generally is not its strength. Bain said that some designers use the thin, single-ply variety but that so many contestants get creative with the rules.
Once, a designer mixed together water and two gallons of Elmer’s white glue, creating a poor man’s paper-mache. Another laced the toilet paper with tape to strengthen it.
Bain warned prospective dressmakers to be careful with these tricks though.
“If you use too much duct tape, it gets too heavy, and it doesn’t work,” she said.
There’s no limit on how much (or little) paper is employed, as long as it’s wearable and offers appropriate coverage. The least Bain has seen used is four rolls; the most is 72.
When Bain and her sister began the contest 12 years ago, it was merely an online photo contest based on an age-old, goofy bridal-shower game in which friends of the engaged spend five to 10 minutes making a “wedding dress” from toilet paper. Bain wondered what would happen if someone put actual effort into creating a dress from bathroom tissue.
But it was all promotional. She never expected Charmin or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not — two longtime sponsors at this point — to reach out.
“It’s actually become a bigger part of the business than our website,” Bain said.
She certainly never expected someone to get married in one of the dresses, but that’s exactly what happened in 2007. Normally, she keeps the entries, or they end up in one of the world’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museums, but that year, Charmin gave away a wedding via an essay contest.
Lexington, Ky.-based Jennifer Cannon won. Charmin flew her and her fiance, Doy Nichols, to Manhattan to tie the knot, but there was one little catch. She had to wear that year’s winning dress. Oh, and the ceremony took place in a public restroom in Times Square.
“You may kiss the bride,” the officiant said, according to the Daily Independent, “but please don’t squeeze the Charmin dress.”
Or, get it wet.
Bain said they go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the dresses stay dry, because toilet paper is designed to disintegrate in water. Since the contest began, they’ve been lucky.
Hopefully that trend continues, because a light shower could give a whole new meaning to “rain on your wedding day.”