Underwire: February 2022 ‘What do Clothes Mean?’

If you’ve been a client of ours for more than two weeks and read our emails, no doubt you will have heard about Glamour Gowns, the annual event where we dress hundreds of young women and men living in foster care in brand new attire for their Senior Prom. If you missed the email about volunteering, here’s the link. No worries if you can’t make it this year, but for those who can I’m excited to see everyone February 20th at our Volunteers Training Brunch.

Some of you might be quietly wondering, “of course supporting girls in foster care is admirable… but why Prom?” Yep I’m looking at you, my fellow Second Wave Feminists. Many of us looked askance at our own proms, with their queasy confluence of historical sexism and class stratification by way of Halston gown–I went to Beverly Hills High–and either refused to take part or arrived in ostentatiously rented vintage costumes. With Lucite pumps. As you have guessed, I fell in the latter group, along with most of my compadres in the theater department. Oh, to be eighteen and have the comfort of one’s convictions! Prom night and a Prom dress might indeed seem frivolous and fraught with inequalities, but symbols and clothing can mean many different things depending on your circumstances.

My favorite aunt is twelve years older than me. At 20 months, she and her three older siblings were sent to live at the Hebrew National Orphan Asylum of New York after her parents became very ill and were unable to care for them. Her father placed them in the asylum with the restriction that the siblings could only be fostered as a group, not split up. This never happened, and all three of Aida’s siblings grew up in the institution. For ten years Aida witnessed the revolving door through which many of her asylum-mates were taken to be placed with foster families only to return.

When the last of her siblings aged out, and her father now dead, eleven year old Aida was told that she could be given to a foster family. She answered that she would try it once, but if she was returned she vowed never to be fostered again. She was brought to my grandparents by Mrs. Simons from the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or ‘the Joint’ as everyone called it in those days. Established in 1914 to aid starving Jews in Ottoman Palestine, the Joint expanded through the Holocaust and the Cold War years to become one of the largest and most important charitable organizations in the world. My grandparents fostered many of my father’s siblings through the Joint and Aida was their last child.

Aida has told me many stories of her life before and after coming to live with my grandparents. She had imagined that her new family would live in a large house with a white picket fence, and she was shocked when they mounted the stairs to their tiny Bronx apartment. When she was introduced to my Grandma Bernie she held out her hand and said very seriously, “I will stay here but I would like to call you Mom.” Bernie pulled her into her suffocatingly large bosom, crying “Oh, darling, that’s what I want too!”

The story that has become canonical in our family is the one about the warm winter coat. Grandma Bernie, seeing the only outerwear she came with was a light sweater, took Aida downtown to Klein’s Bargain Basement.

Aida had arrived in summer. It was hot out, so Aida asked Bernie why they were searching through the discount racks for a winter coat. “Cuz it’s gonna get cold when winter comes and coats will be more expensive then!” When Aida started to cry Bernie thought it was because the smallest coat they could find was three sizes too big. In fact, Aida says the realization that Bernie was planning for five months in the future meant she wasn’t going to be returned. She finally had a family.

Aida, 16 with Jenette, 4
Aida, 20 at her wedding

So back to Glamour Gowns. There is something that happens every year that is remarkable to witness: when the girls first enter the room filled with brand-new dresses, shoes, and accessories, they are hyped. The noise level rapidly increases with their excitement. Everyone is joyfully snatching items to try on–it’s all free and they can choose whatever they want. It’s a melee. But then, as they start to try on the different styles–disco bling-y, fairytale princess, clean and classic–things get quieter. A girl moves more slowly, concentrating on herself in the mirror staring back. Maybe she takes in a comment from her volunteer Personal Shopper on how this color brings out her eyes, or that neckline suits her figure. You can sense a click when a young woman starts to see herself with fresh eyes.

I’ll always remember a thin girl with homemade tattoos, pants worn low, and a hoodie with a crazed cartoon devil on the front. She began trying on her options, a fairly random selection, and she came to one in a subtle shade of taupe, a simple strapless dress in the style of Jackie O. She stopped and stood in silence, gazing at herself and said, “This is it. This is me.”