‘You can’t wear that!’
JTS hosts conference on women, clothing, and Jewish identity
Coming of age is a tough time for daughters — and their mothers. There’s puberty, competition, miscommunication, and the growing need for independence.
And then there are the clothes.
In “Our Tribe & Joy,” the family blog I write for New Jersey Jewish News, few posts get as many reactions as the ones about moms, daughters, and clothing issues.
In “Straps for the strapless,” I wrote about the pre-bat mitzva party-dress fitting for my daughter, who on the blog is called “Big Girl.” She wanted a strapless dress; I thought she was too young to go without. The seamstress attached some dark spaghetti straps.
“My Big Girl was unhappy, but I wasn’t budging,” I wrote. “I even got a compliment from one of the shop owners because I stuck to my guns. She said she liked how I talked to my daughter sweetly but firmly and explained why I was making the decision. I was flattered, especially because she’s the one to see the whole spectrum: from the mom who runs the show without acknowledging her daughter’s feelings to the mom who gives in to her daughter’s any whim, no matter how short or low-cut that whim may be.”
In “Appropriate dresses,” I wrote about my annual fight with my newly minted teen about what length skirt is appropriate to wear to synagogue. She kept gravitating to minis; I kept having to repeat my mantra about there being “appropriate” dresses for shul and parties and how the two don’t always mix.
(Are you starting to sense a theme?)
I was vindicated when we went to my cousin’s daughter’s bat mitzva in Akron last June. Beautiful 12- and 13-year-old girls were wearing cute, knee-length sun dresses with short sleeves or wide straps and shrugs. No one was wearing a prom dress, and no one was rocking hooker heels.
After the service, at the party, they took off their flats or kitten heels and put on the socks handed out by the hostess, and they didn’t spend their time hiking their clothes up or down. After looking around at her cousin’s friends just before the service began, Big Girl leaned over to me, completely astounded.
“Mom,” she said, “they’re all wearing appropriate dresses.”
Apparently I’m not alone in viewing the issue of clothing through the lens of relationships between Jewish mothers and daughters.
On March 11, the Jewish Theological Seminary is hosting a day-long conference, “What to Wear: Women, Clothing, Religion.” Scholars of fashion, Jewish history, the women’s movement, and religion will explore clothing in all its facets.
“Always a source of delight and anxiety, clothing is a source of never-ending fascination,” wrote JTS scholars and conference organizers Carol K. Ingall and Shuly Rubin Schwartz. “More important, dress and fashion serve as a mirror that reflects the society we inhabit and the values we hold.”
I have been asked to sit on a multigenerational panel — along with my mother and my daughter — for a discussion called “You Can’t Wear That! — Clothing and Coming of Age.” Another family trio will join us on the panel — the mom is educator Dr. Miriam Westheimer, and her mom’s name is Ruth. I keep saying how excited I am to be on a panel with Dr. Ruth, and my mom keeps insisting that Dr. Ruth is going to be on a panel with me.
Explaining my excitement to my daughter was a little tricky. “She’s really famous; it will be an honor to meet her.”
“I never heard of her. What is she famous for?”
“Well, she used to talk about sex on the radio.”
The conference will also feature another local speaker, Rabbi Francine Roston of Congregation Beth El in South Orange. She will join the Rev. Dr. Katherine Rhodes Henderson to discuss “Women Clergy and Self-Representation.”
“Our Tribe & Joy” has given me a public voice, for which I am grateful, and a slice of micro-fame, which I have also savored. (I was recognized by a stranger. Once. And someone at a Jewish education conference told my sister she just had to read the blog, not knowing we are sisters.)
This will be the highest point yet. I can’t wait to talk about my daughter’s adolescent clothing choices while my mother talks about mine — and my daughter complains publicly about both!