Finding the perfect dress

dressI am starting to think about The Dress. Not just any dress, but the dress that my daughter will wear to shul when she becomes a bat mitzvah. The dress, of course, must be perfect, pretty and in Lily’s case, not pink. It also must be different, dazzling and make her feel divine. That’s a lot riding on one garment.

I am thinking about it because Lily informed me in November that, “All the girls who have January bat mitzvahs already have their dresses.”

A silence followed this revelation as her father and I did the calculation.

“So you’re saying that because your bat mitzvah is in February we’re really lame because we haven’t started looking?” my husband responded. I gave him The Look. I didn’t see any “we’re” in this. Like he’s going dress hunting with a 12-year-old girl? I don’t think so.

The Dress began to loom large in my mind. What would it be like? At our synagogue, dresses sort pretty much into two broad categories: princessy or tarty. The princessy dresses break down further into poofy confections or taffeta-modest with a bolero. The tarty barely cover tushes and, well, those are for the girls going to a dance party on the “simcha bus” straight from shul.

None of these, I imagined, would fit my daughter’s personality. Lily has an independent streak a mile wide. She’s not belligerent, but she likes to be a little different. From the time she could dress herself, her socks rarely matched and she prefers it that way.

So we checked out the Betsey Johnson outlet at Woodbury Commons. This was before we decided to have a Kiddush luncheon instead of a night party. The dress was just right. It had sleeves It was cute and girlish without being ridiculous. But it was a size 0 and Lily is somewhere in the netherworld between children’s and junior’s sizing. It was too big.

But then we decided we were not having a night party, so that dress was no longer the right dress for the occasion. I stopped worrying about whether or not my seamstress could tackle alterations on black lace.

I couldn’t help but wonder, why it had to be this way. There was very little agony when my son Nathan became a bar mitzvah. We got him a suit, had it hemmed and were on our way. But when a girl becomes a bat mitzvah, suddenly everything is riding on a perfect cloud of tulle and satin.

Walking home from synagogue one Saturday, I began talking about The Dress with my friend, whose daughter was about to become a bat mitzvah in December.

We’re going to a fitting at Princess Precious,” she said, sighing.

“A fitting?” I wasn’t even fit for my wedding gown. I bought it, a sample, at a consignment shop and maybe that says all you need to know about my shopping habits.

“Yes, a fitting. We had to have an appointment to even try on the dresses,” she said wearily, clearly about as enthralled with her search for The Dress as I was about my impending one.

bat mitzvah marPerhaps a trip back in time, to visit my nearly 13-year-old self is in order. I, unlike my daughter, hated clothing and shopping was an experience I’d liken to a root canal. I was neither cute nor petite, but rather, very near my adult height of 5-foot-8 inches. I had no figure, wore gold, wire-rimmed glasses and had frizzy hair because there was, as yet, no product that could tame my curls and no one had told me I should just stop brushing them. In short, I was about as gawky and homely a pre-teen as you could imagine.

And I had weird ideas about clothes. The hemlines had plunged the year of my bat mitzvah, but no, I wanted a skirt above my knees. Well, try finding one when you’re fighting a trend. I didn’t like floral prints or shiny fabrics. I hated lace. In short, if it was girly, I wanted nothing to do with it.

When I mention the suit I wore to my bat mitzvah to my mother, she gets a glazed look on her face and shudders. The experience is clearly too painful to relive. I remember only one shopping trip, but there must have been others. She took me to the original Neiman Marcus store in downtown Dallas. I stood in the junior’s department surveying the clothes, thinking this was some sort of shopping stop of last resort. Here I stood at the most expensive store in the city, someplace my usually frugal mother would not normally take a growing child. I knew we had run out of options — that I’d failed to find The Dress, and that when it came to girl stuff I was a dismal failure.

I did end up with a suit. It was a mostly black plaid, with thin red and yellow lines blocking their way up and down the fabric. It had a velvet collar and I wore it with a yellow shirt. And it was well above the knee.

With hindsight, I clearly could have done better. But I had stuck to whatever I had thought was “me” no matter how awful that “me” then was. The Dress, or in this case, The Suit, lives on, thankfully, only in photos that I care not to share with anyone.

So perhaps the idea of shopping for The Dress with my daughter is a little fraught. Never mind that Lily is cuter than I was, has loads of good shopping sense and great taste. She doesn’t quite know what she wants, but she will not blunder into The Suit, nor will she be a cookie cutter girl.

When my daughter stands on the bima, whatever she is wearing, she will be completely herself.

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