Getting Dressed for a Modern Bar or Bat Mitzvah

I cannot figure out what I’m supposed to be wearing to bar and bat mitzvah parties these days. Likewise, I don’t know what to buy for my kids. “Just be comfortable,” I’ve heard more than one host say. Maybe my confidence is on the low side, but I’m not going to be “comfortable” if I’m overdressed or underdressed. And I have a message for anyone planning a party in the near future: The dress codes you’re putting on invitations are not making the situation any easier.

When I was on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit in 1989/90, my friends and I (and our parents) knew what to wear to services and celebrations without a suggested dress code. Most of us rotated three to four outfits that were too special for school. Even if the party was casual, you wouldn’t mistake our wardrobe choices at a classmate’s once-in-a-lifetime simcha for something we might also sport at sixth-period gym class. As for our parents, they dressed for a party. Period.

Many girls I knew owned one fancier dress. I remember off-the-shoulder or spaghetti straps being a big deal that school year – strapless if your parents were particularly lenient. We wore those for the occasional invitation stating a dress code of “black-tie-optional” or “black tie.” Yes, I attended a handful of oops-we-forgot-this-is-not-a-wedding blowouts back in the roaring early 90s in downtown Chicago. As for the boys, they wore suits to those formal parties, which they also wore to synagogue, or they at least wore sports coats on those Shabbat mornings.

Now, getting dressed for a bar or bat mitzvah is less straightforward, both for shul and the simcha. Our society is significantly more casual than the “old days” when I was dancing the Electric Slide on consecutive weekends. And that is why many invitations now arrive with a suggested dress code to help guests decipher the tone of the event.

But how does one differentiate between a code calling for “mitzvah chic” vs. “festive attire” vs. “party chic” vs. “club chic” vs. “cocktail chic?” I liked the wisdom Sheryl Sue Warren, owner of Invitations by Sheryl Sue in Minneapolis, shared with me. She suggested hosts use wording like “dress for a party,” which implies guests should step it up a notch. In today’s uber-casual world, that means, don’t wear jeans. And if hosts want guests to wear jeans, I personally would love it if they’d say, “wear jeans” rather than “casual chic.” Don’t even get me started on “dressy casual.”

I like the intention of a dress code. The hosts have a concept in mind and because their guests are not mind readers, the hosts want to demystify the plan. An issue arises, however, when that code does little to describe what to wear. Dozens of texts get sent between friends asking, What are you wearing? I appreciated the descriptions at Twin City Mitzvahs of the most common dress codes, but I still find myself perplexed about what to wear to certain parties and how to dress my kids.

When my son, now 14, attended parties last year, my husband and I argued with him about the sneakers he wanted to wear no matter what version of “chic” the invitation asked him to consider. If the celebration was at Pinstripes or Base Camp, we agreed with his choice.

“But this party is dressier!” I had to tell him more than once. I pointed to the two words on the bottom corner of the invitation whether they read “cocktail attire” or “party chic” or whatever clever version the hosts had chosen. We made him wear dress shoes in the beginning of the school year, but he begged us to reconsider when he was the only one. We acquiesced eventually when we saw that the adult men often wore sneakers, too.

Curious if the dress code suggestions were more of a Minnesota trend, I asked friends in various cities what was going on in their circles. One friend in Westchester, N.Y., said, “I think most dress codes are saying the same thing. Everyone wants to be unique. So while there are only a few different ways to dress, people are inventing a million ways to say each one.” A friend in Manhattan told me cocktail attire is standard no matter what the invitation says. “Women wear a dress that’s fun and not too formal or dressy pants. Men wear jackets, no tie.”

A friend in Chicago has seen “Saturday night chic” on a few invitations. Neither of us knows what that means. Jeans and heels? Black pants? A dress that’s more on the casual side? It’s anyone’s guess. She said, “For super casual, mainly kids’ parties, a bunch of invitations stated ‘jeans and jerseys.’” Now that’s a dress code I respect because the specificity spares everyone the rounds of texts asking for clarification.

Several friends in Los Angeles reported that it doesn’t matter what dress code you use on the invitation because women mainly wear dresses and heels and men wear pants with a button down shirt or full suits. One said, “I don’t find that women ever wear jeans to parties here, even dressy jeans. Men can get away with nice jeans if they are wearing a jacket and tie. I rarely see men in jeans though. The teenage girls almost always wear dresses and the boys range from full suits to khakis and polo shirts. I don’t think people pay much attention to the wording. It is more about the venue and whether it is a day or nighttime party.”

My friend in Cleveland said, “There’s a real range in what people wear to parties here. We’ve been to somewhere the attire is jeans and others where it’s cocktail and anything in between. A lot depends on location – bowling alley vs ballroom. And the kids can get away with anything. My daughter’s friends love wearing party dresses and sneakers. And I have plenty of friends who like to wear nice jeans and heels.”

Unfortunately, there’s no universal code that will tell me exactly what to wear nowadays, at least in the Twin Cities, which leans more casual than the coasts. The dress codes will remain as confusing to me as before I wrote this article. My daughters, like me, will wonder if their dresses are “too dressy.” My sons will continue to argue with me when I want them to wear sports coats to the service and nicer shoes to the dressier parties. My husband, nostalgic for the “old days,” will sometimes be the only man who refuses to wear jeans, even when the invitation calls for some version of “casual.” Alas, I will have to gain confidence in my own clothing choices and trust that a big smile and a readiness to celebrate my friends’ children are the only essential accessories anyway. I call that “gracious chic.” And it looks good on everyone.

Nina Badzin is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. Find her at ninabadzin.com and on Twitter at @NinaBadzin