Keeping Up With the Bat Mitzvah Dresses

I did not have a Bat Mitzvah. Having one wasn’t even an option for me. I was brought up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in the 1950s and my parents did not join the nearby Conservative temple until it was absolutely necessary to Bar Mitzvah my younger brother, Arthur. Most Jewish parents did not feel an obligation to do so for their daughters. At the time, I did not think I was missing anything.

My brother’s Bar Mitzvah, in 1957, was an opportunity for me to come home from college and wear a delicious lace and mint green confection of a cocktail dress. I felt utterly beautiful. Arthur’s Bar Mitzvah album, now yellow with age, is filled with pictures of family and friends celebrating as well as Arthur wearing his first suit and me in my special dress — which returned to college with me for all of the “formal” sorority dances. This album is all that remains of his Bar Mitzvah. I was so proud of my brother for his performance and, frankly, not at all envious that I had not had the same opportunity.

Years later, after I married, my husband and I immediately joined a Reform temple on Long Island where we lived. This began my real identification with Judaism. We have been married almost 50 years and I can proudly say we have always affiliated with a synagogue. Our three daughters went to Hebrew School, had Bat Mitzvahs (wearing their own suitable dresses), and now our granddaughters are having their Bat Mitzvahs. But the dresses! They have changed dramatically.

When my daughters had their Bat Mitzvahs in the 1970s and ‘80s, they wore long sleeved, high-necked affairs that went all the way down to the floor. The dresses were manufactured by Dorissa of Miami and bought at Lester’s in Brooklyn, and they could be described as sweet and appropriate for their age, possibly reflecting “Little Houses on the Prairie,” which was popular at the time. Our youngest daughter had her dress made by a neighborhood woman who was a seamstress. All the girls wore flats.

It’s hardly news that, since then, the Bat Mitzvah dress has undergone a dramatic transformation. The dresses are flashier, more provocative and skimpier, the girls are trying to look sophisticated and mature but instead resemble underage hussies. The heels are too high and the girls balance precariously, as if on stilts.

How did the present day apparel evolve? I decided to do a little anecdotal research of my own. First, I spoke with a saleswoman at an upscale children’s clothing in Westchester who argued that girls are more confident these days. They like showing more skin. She referenced the obvious culprits, like Facebook, Instagram and You Tube, all of which encourage us to see and be seen. Another salesperson, also from Westchester, suggested the inspiration for these fancy dresses come from the enormous emphasis on fashion in today’s world. Case in point: awards shows like the Tony’s, Oscars, and Emmy’s. Another young salesperson from a store devoted to dressy clothes on Long Island said that almost every dress is strapless, and the dresses are crazier than you would expect. She actually called some of the fashions “ridiculous.”

All this got me thinking about how things have changed since I watched my brother have his Bar Mitzvah in the 1950s. I realize that, regardless of the era, the Bat Mitzvah girl wants to shine. This is her big chance to stand out and show everyone that she is on the cusp of being a young lady, even if there may be padding under the bodice helping along what’s to come. I certainly felt that way as a guest at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. My daughters felt the same way at their own Bat Mitzvahs, and my older granddaughter showed herself off in a hot pink strapless gown that she had to keep hiking up all night long.

My youngest granddaughter selected a pink chiffon dress with a huge crinoline underneath and lace peeking from the hem. It was strapless and had sequins sewn on the bodice ending at the waistline. When I saw her in it, my heart melted, tears came to my eyes, and my doubts vanished. Suddenly, I saw a glimpse of her as older than her 12 years. She looked beautiful and every girl should have that chance — to glow, to shine, to be celebrated in every sense of the word. She reflected the tremendous change in Bat Mitzvah fashions, only this time I suddenly found it was acceptable. Fashion has changed, times have changed, and grandmothers have to change to keep up.

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