Circular, deep-pile carpeted, and softly lined the whole way round with hundreds of ivory and white silk dresses, the Bridal Room at Harrods has the feel of a padded cell. Its hushed air is a far cry from the rest of the store, where customers stampede up and down escalators and purchses are completed in around 13 seconds. Assistance in the bridal room, run by dress designer Tatters, is by appointment only. Goods ordered here usually take a minimum of three months to deliver. There are Empire-style chairs and barely a cash till in sight. Money is clearly not an issue.

'As far as many women are concerned, it may be the biggest and most expensive thing they're ever likely to wear, says manager Jennifer Middleton. 'They don't mind spending about two or three thousand on it. Buying a wedding dress might be the most important decision of their life.

'It's the biggest part of your wedding day, agrees Claire Nethercott, who is up from Kent for the day to look at dresses. 'My wedding is on 15 July. Hadn't she left it a bit close for comfort? 'Oh no, she said, staring at me as if Iwas mad. 'It's on 15 July, 1995. You've got to start looking early.

'It's the most important material thing of the whole day, pronounced Daniela Day, who had arrived with her mother to choose a wedding dress for the relatively close date of 10 December, 1994. 'For me, anyway. I don't care what everybody else looks like. . .I want to look like a bride.

Essentially this means getting an outfit which is (a) long and white or ivory, (b) accompanied by a veil or some such headgear, and most importantly, (c) spectacular.

'The importance of the dress took off with Lady Di's wedding. That's when it became really high profile, says assistant Sarah Game, who has worked in the bridal room for almost four years.

'I'm sure Diana would never dream of wearing such a vast dress now. The only people who have that particular look nowadays are Greek or Cypriot girls, but everybody wants a special dress. When most people come here, they have no real idea what they want, except that it must be really 'mega'.

Indeed, most women in the rooom appear shell-shocked at the prospect of themselves in a floor-length white number; yet once the idea of the luxury has sunk in, it all became quite good fun.

The changing rooms, for a start, are about the size of a small dining-room. There are floor-to-ceiling mirrors on all four walls, thus eliminating the bore of turning round to check the dress properly.

The feeling of exclusivity is enhanced by signs on the mirrored walls requesting No Photography. 'Copyright,' says Ms Game. 'People bring along dressmakers to copy our dresses from sketches or photos. We politely tell them it's not allowed. I once caught a woman quite openly measuring up the length of a skirt. We normally stay in the room with our customers; but even if they want to be alone, we can see flash bulbs going off over the top of the room, and we have to come in and stop everything.'

Three assistants and two fitters are permanently on hand, fluffing out skirts and trains, and providing a seemingly limitless supply of white shoes, veils and tiaras. Chairs are thoughtfully set out, one in each corner, for the accompanying mother, sister, or chief bridesmaid. This is not a moment which should be experienced alone.

'Oh God, yes, I've gotta have them with me,' explains Joanne Colman, who has come for a fitting with her mother and elder sister Louise. 'We're here because she doesn't know what she wants,' says Louise, helpfully. 'When I got married, I knew what I wanted. I didn't need anyone,' she continues. 'I must say, I do feel emotional,' says Mrs Colman, regarding her youngest daughter, who is dressed in a large white tulle skirt and a pale blue satin bodice. 'When they get dressed up here I cry my eyes out.' Joanne, however, is less than impressed. 'I don't like this colour. I'm not walking around in a colour,' she says crossly.

'And I'm not showing my upper arms like this, and it makes me look - well, big on my hips. Whose idea was this dress?'

'I don't know why I came,' mutters her sister.

An assistant tactfully floats up, bearing another vast dress draped across her arms like an ivory flag. Joanne is parcelled into it. Her expression begins to soften somewhat, particularly when a veil is put on her head. 'Ooh, I'd like to get married again,' says her sister, somewhat enviously.

'It always happens. Always when the veil goes on,' explains Sarah Game. 'When they're just in the dress, they look at the whole thing quite clinically, checking the neckline, the sleeves, and whether it looks right. But once they have a veil on, they sort of get all romantic, and start saying 'Oh God] I really am getting married]' Quite often, you look round and see the mother in the corner snivelling into her handkerchief. It can start everyone off - the aunts, the bridesmaids, and the bride - everyone just stands around weeping.'

Of course, not every experience within the glassed walls of the changing rooms is as idyllic. 'Oh, we've had big rows,' says Jennifer Middleton. 'We had one bride who ordered her dress, but then brought her mum in and pretended she hadn't already ordered it. Of course, the mother couldn't bear the dress and forbade her to have it.

'There was the most almighty scene. In the end, she had the dress; but the mother never came back. I don't know what happened.'

The bridal room has dealt with elopements, cancellations - 'very sad, we try to see if we can sell the dress off in the sale, but this rarely works'- and hastily arranged liaisons.

'The quickest we've made a dress is in about three days. It was for a lady who'd been after this man for years. He finally proposed, and I think she wanted to get hitched before he changed his mind,' says Ms Middleton.

With such overtones of intense feeling and drama surrounding each purchase, the room has a Mills & Boon headiness about it. The few men who dare to walk through do so with the similar haste they normally reserve for lingerie departments. Bridesmaids gather in clutches and giggle nervously; the star feature, the dresses themselves, assume the importance most people bestow on human beings.

'My friends say you'll know. You'll just know.'

'What? when you meet the man of your dreams?

'No, when you see the right dress,' says Lesley Reid, who is getting married in November and is trying on a dress for the third time, helped by her best friend.

'The whole choice is quite frightening. It's just so important to feel absolutely right. It's like indulging your wildest dreams. When I try a wedding dress on, I feel like I'm looking at a different part of me. The day will be one big flourish, my one big fling.

'For God's sake don't quote me on this, but I really think it will be like being a princess for a day.'

'I think it's terrifying,' said one woman quietly. She is sitting by a display bristling with gleaming tiaras and headbands. She looks miserably at her feet.

'Everyone's going to be looking at your hair and your make-up, and the dress is going to be the major thing. Terrifying.' A band of bridesmaids shouts hysterically from the depths of one of the changing rooms.

'Everyone's got an idea of what you should be wearing,' she says. 'But I've never considered wearing a wedding dress before. I don't have that kind of confidence. The whole thing is quite daunting.'

She swallows optimistically.

'But if you get the dress right, I think everything else will look after itself.'

Meanwhile, Lesley Reid stands in front of the vast changing-room mirrors. A different dress has caught her eye; a satin sheath with matching embroidered jacket. Her face is transformed. She grabs her friend and whispers excitedly. The moment of truth has clearly happened.

'I think this is it] I've not tried it before, but this is the one. How much is it? Oh, I don't know.' She looks at the price tag. 'pounds 1,651.00. But I don't care. This is the one.'

(Photograph omitted)