By JOEL McNEECE
Bonnie Tunnell’s dresses have been worn by Miss USA, Miss Mississippi, Mrs. Mississippi and countless pageant winners at every level. “I’ve been very fortunate,” Bonnie said. “This started as a hobby and turned into something much bigger.” This month marks the 20th anniversary of Bonnie’s Pageant Fashions in Bruce.
Bonnie’s store, next to Joe’s Market on Hwy. 32 across from the Bruce High School auditorium, attracts girls from all over the state.
“Our customers have been very good to us,” Bonnie said.
The shop evolved from a need for dresses for Bonnie’s girls when they were in pageants.
“When my girls were little you couldn’t rent dresses back then,” Bonnie said. “You had to get them made.”
When Bonnie’s husband Joe bought the store from Blue Logan, she had space to put in a dress shop. The first year Bonnie’s operated as a consignment shop, but then she decided to change to new merchandise.
“A lot of girls don’t want to wear something someone else has already worn,” Bonnie said.
Bonnie began going to market several times a year searching for the hottest styles to bring back to Bruce. In recent years the business has changed and now she only goes to market once a year, but salesmen come to her in Bruce.
“We’re constantly bringing in new merchandise, trying to give our customers what they want,” Bonnie said.
Bonnie’s daughter Amelia goes with her to market now to help keep an eye out on the styles for the younger girls.
“We get a lot of requests that we take with us to market to try and fill,” Bonnie said. “It’s become a lot more challenging when you’re trying to be more conservative on what you spend and getting dresses your customers can afford.”
More than 2,000 sparkling, colorful dresses in every style imagineable fill the store from wall-to-wall.
“When I first started the business, beaded dresses with big puffy sleeves were the big thing,” Bonnie said. “The beads are coming back now. I don’t think the puffy sleeves will ever come back.”
Strapless dresses, halters, even one-shoulders are among the hot new trends, Bonnie said.
“The only thing with the one-shoulders is they are very hard to fit,” Bonnie said.
Another big change has been the quality of the dresses.
“It’s an endless job putting beads back on dresses,” Bonnie said. “Every box we open has beads in the bottom of it. I guess China has got too much of the business today. The quality just isn’t what it used to be.”
Bonnie’s mother, Erma Bryant, does most of the alterations now. Bonnie’s focus continues to be on the customers.
“I don’t like yard work, or cooking. I like meeting people,” Bonnie said. “That’s what I enjoy most is the interaction with the girls that come in. I have girls who rented dresses from me years ago coming in with their daughters. That’s very special to me.”
The few spots on Bonnie’s wall that aren’t covered with dresses are filled with photos and newspaper clippings from proms, homecomings, pageants and other occasions where her dresses have been worn.
Bonnie said the struggling economy has decreased the number of pageants compared to past years. She said prom season is by far her busiest time of year.
“We still have a fair amount of pageants and homecomings, but everybody goes to the prom,” Bonnie said.
Bonnie enjoys attending pageants also, because it helps give her more ideas of the kinds of dresses the girls like, but that has curtailed in recent years also.
“Our hours have gotten so much longer here at the store that it’s not as easy to get away as it used to be,” Bonnie said.
This year has been the worst yet for homecomings because of the constant rains, Bonnie said.
“We’ve had so many dresses ruined this year because of the mud from schools all over,” Bonnie said. “That’s something we’ll have to look at for next year.”
In addition to muddy conditions, there have been numerous other last-minute disasters over the years. There have been broken zippers five minutes before girls are getting on buses to go to prom, ironing mishaps, but perhaps one of the bigger near misses involved Joe.
Bonnie was contacted by a bank about coming and looking at the merchandise left from a dress shop that had been re-possessed.
“I wanted to go to see what they had, but we were just so busy I couldn’t get away,” Bonnie said. “Then Joe decided he might need to go because it might be a good deal we would miss out on.”
“I had to put a stop to that,” Bonnie said. “Joe doesn’t know anything about these dresses.”
Bonnie said she could never have imagined 20 years ago she would still be doing this.
“It’s really been rewarding for me,” Bonnie said. “All because of my customers.”