It’s spring. It’s Passover (practically). It’s prom season, and I reprise my role as Anna’s personal shopper. My job as my darling girl’s lady-in-waiting has evolved over the years. At first I bought her clothes as part of my maternal obligation to her. Along the way I had a lot of fun dressing up my first child. I can’t remember what I wore yesterday, but I remember all of those adorable outfits I assembled for Baby Anna.
We happily moved through toddlerhood and childhood with me still shopping for my little girl. And then we hit tween-hood. My girl had strong opinions, one of which is that she didn’t want to dress like me. In what is a role reversal that I think of as particular to those of us who straddle the baby-boomer generation, Anna thinks I’m too funky. Yes, she’s more conservative in her tastes, but I’m hardly radical in my dress. I like to say she’s elegantly simple, and I’m appropriately daring. We’ve always been on the same page with regard to propriety and, yes, modesty. Anna had a vision of her prom dress, and I had a vision of my daughter in her prom dress. But a couple of weeks ago our sensibilities crashed and burned in a fitting room in Bloomingdale’s. She tried on dress after dress. My selections looked beautiful on her. She thought otherwise. By the time we got home we were hysterical, and poor Ken had to play referee.
The next week, I explored the emotional fallout of our shopping excursion in New York City at the conference “What to Wear” held at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The organizers paid significant attention to teenage girls and the concept of tsnius – modesty – as both empowering and repressive. To be clear, this was a conference with a pluralistic mission, and one that provided space and time for teenagers to have a private seminar.
My favorite session of the day was the seminar “Concealing and Revealing: The Torah We Learn From Clothing,” led by the British fabric artist Jacqueline Nicholls. Nicholls elevates clothing to an art form through which she also connects to aspects of Torah. She’s created a group of diverse pieces for her first clothing series, the Kittel Collection. A kittel is ultimately a shroud, but in this life men wear one on Yom Kippur, the day of their wedding and, in some traditions, at the first seder.
Nicholls reclaims the kittel for women by feminizing a traditional male garment – the white shirt. She marries form to content by giving these garments obvious feminine shapes. I was taken with a kittel that Nicholls designed as a little girl’s party dress, replete with a Peter Pan collar, and an egg-shaped bottom symbolizing fecundity.
But the piece that took my breath away was a stand-alone corset refitted as a Torah cover in Nicholls’ Torat Imecha – The Maternal Torah Series. Nicholls brilliantly captures the symbolic tension between the Mishnaic saying, “Listen to the instructions of your father, but don’t forget the Torah of your mother” and the restricting relationship women traditionally have with the Torah.
The day Anna and I tumbled into the house as emotional refugees from the mall, we calmed down by listening to the instructions of the father of the house. Ken reminded us that our goal was one and the same: to have Anna feel happy in her new dress. The Torah of our mother included an addendum to the Ten Commandments: Honor Your Daughter and Son.
Ken’s intuition was right. Wearing new clothes is a mark of renewal and deserves a blessing – in this case the shehecheyanu to thank G-d for bringing one to a season of joy. For Anna and me, it’s also the season of shopping madness merged with the season of prom chicness.
After the conference, I went to Saks Fifth Avenue – the ultimate emporium of beauty and fashion. I had to run a gauntlet of women offering me free makeovers before I found the escalator to the fourth floor – the prom floor. All prom, all the time, and 20 percent off to boot. I took pictures of several dresses and e-mailed them to Anna. We narrowed down the choices to two lovely dresses. I’m happy to report that we have a winner, and that mother and daughter are doing very well.
Before leaving the fraught subject of fashion in the eye of mother and daughter, I want to note a couple of beautiful textual references that Jacqueline Nicholls wove into her presentation. According to the Zohar, the soul is a self-constructed garment. And in the traditional prayer lauding “a woman of valor,” a mother dressing her children is a form of protection.
Yes, I want to be that parent whose child’s security extends to feeling good in her clothing and, frankly, in her own skin. If that means going through racks of tulle and ruffles for the perfect dress, then feel free to call me over-protective.