New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel


Ceremonial Attire

By Jess Torres

01laquinceanera“Coming of age” ceremonies are as internationally universal as clothing itself. xin_0405031515052281109832These celebrations that praise a young person for reaching a certain age are filled with laugher, dance, food, and unsurprisingly, special garments. Some coming of age ceremonies are culturally relevant and not commonly seen in America, such as the Japanese ceremony of Sejin no hi and the Latin America quinceañera, while many of the other ceremonies are religiously important and are familiar to teens all across the Untied States, such as communion and bar and bat mitzvahs. Many of these events become exceptionally lavish, albeit sometimes unintentionally, with hundreds of dollars spent on the young person’s clothing alone. Many immigrant families with young daughters in America have even chosen to participate in the American tradition of “Sweet 16s.” Although culturally and religiously meaningless, these Sweet 16 ceremonies have acted as a way to celebrate the lives of their children in a nonspecific, adaptive way but still hold the same tradition of expressive and expensive dress.

Ceremonies Around The World

Seijin no hi


Man and woman wearing hakama and furisode

Seijin no hi is a Japanese tradition with deep historical roots. In Japan, Coming of Age traditions reach back to the 700s, when a prince marked his transition by putting on new robes, using clothing to outwardly represent his change. More traditions, including ones for females, continued up until the age of adulthood was set for both genders at 20 in 1876. Coming of Age Day, or Seijin no hi, became a national holiday in 1948. Though still extremely popular in Japan, participation in the event has been declining in recent years, with only 1.2 million people turning 20 for the holiday last year due to Japan’s disproportionate population demographics. However for the young adults who still do participate, it is an all day event marked by specific, and often expensive, dress. For men, what they wear is not as important. Men can choose to wear more traditional hakama, or garment worn over a male kimono. However, interestingly, most men choose to wear a Western business suit to mark the occasion, which shows the pervasiveness of Western dress. For Japanese woman, what they wear during Coming of Age Day is a large affair and more traditional than what the men wear. Furisode, a type of kimono with long sleeves, are usually rented by woman or purchased for a hefty one million yen, or roughly about ten thousand dollars. Because of the lofty price, many women choose to rent the furisode instead of purchasing it, much like American women do with their gowns for events such as debutante balls. Although traditional, furisode also keep with the times, as modern furisode change styles every few years, usually designed with light colors, flowers and other youthful, feminine patterns. Even the footwear varies for a special event such as this. The women wear zori, which are a type of Japanese sandals that can be made of straw, wood, leather, cloth or synthetic materials. These sandals are considered formalwear, and can vary in price from cheap rubber ones that cost 100 yen, or about one dollar, to the elaborate ones worn to ceremonies like Seijin no hi.



A young girl celebrating her quinceañera

Hop on a plane from Japan and travel across the Pacific Ocean and one will encounter an entirely different coming of age celebration, specifically for young girls. Quinceañera-s are an important part of many young female Latin American lives and are very similar to the American Sweet 16. A quinceañera is celebrated once the girl reaches 15 in a large, festive fashion, and mark a girl’s transition from girlhood to womanhood. Although the way in which quinceañeras are celebrated differ across many Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, one thing generally remains the same: the dress. Quinceañera dresses are exceptionally lavish and generally one of the more expensive parts of the entire ceremony. The dresses are normally ball gowns, with a tighter corset top and a large, bell shaped bottom, similar yet more traditional and conservative than many Sweet 16 dresses. One of the most important parts of the quinceañera celebration actually involves the shoes the young girl chooses to wear called the Changing of the Shoes. The father or chosen male relative ceremoniously changes the girl’s flat shoes to high heels, symbolic of her transition into womanhood. Though less symbolic, many girls also choose to wear tiaras, which can sometimes equate the dress in price if they are purchased.


“American” Ceremonies

Immigrants Celebrate Their History in New York

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My best friend and her sister, Lyla, at her communion

Unlike Seijin no hi and the quinceañera, there are many coming of age ceremonies that are quite ubiquitous in American culture, especially New York. More specifically, two religious ceremonies known as communion in the Catholic faith and the Jewish bar and bat mitzvah are quite common, and it’s rare to find a New York teen who hasn’t attended one of these events or participated in one themselves. It’s important to not only look at these ceremonies as simply parties, but rather as a way for immigrants from oft-persecuted and marginalized groups to celebrate their faith and heritage. As Foner discussed in her book, both the Russian Jews and Irish Catholics were largely forced from their homes and forced to flee their countries, flooding the immigration waves of 1880 and 1920. Even Italian immigrants faced persecution from the largely Protestant New World.  Concerning specifically Catholics, James T. Fisher explains in his book, Communion of Immigrants: A History of Catholics in America, “America is a nation of immigrants and the story of Catholics in America is largely the story of an immigrant church.”

I sought out the opinions of current immigrants on these ceremonies. My best friend, the child of two Brazilian immigrants, recently invited me to attend her younger sisters communion over the weekend of May 2nd. I learned the communal dress can actually become quite a point of contention. My best friend’s younger sister, an eight-year-old named Lyla, cheerfully received her communion in a glowing white dress fitted with lace sleeves and small flowers for garnish. When I asked her mother about the cost, she admitted she opted for a cheaper dress for around one hundred dollars, with some dresses she observed upwards of three hundred dollars, a price she thought ridiculous for the event and size of the garment. However, after also purchasing shoes and a veil, her tab quickly doubled to two hundred dollars, and she was shocked at how quickly the clothing expenses added up for a one day event. Similarly, parents of boys and girls who celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs find the clothing expenses adding up quite quickly, as the girls face a similar problem to their Catholic counterparts and the boys of both faiths must rent or purchase suits. I asked her why she decided to spend so much for one day, and how this ceremony would have been conducted in Brazil, she gave me an insightful answer that I thought fit my narrative well: “In Brazil, I would not have been able to do this. We didn’t have money there, and here we do. I wanted to see her in a pretty dress, so I bought one.” As Ann discussed in her profile of Russian women, the idea of coming from a country where you had so little to now be able to afford such a luxury is an “I made it!” moment for many immigrants.

Aside from the religious ceremonies, another interesting trend to observe is the American Sweet 16. The Sweet 16 is symbolic of America itself, as a girl of any culture or religion may choose to have one, and have even become a stand in for other celebration in many immigrant families, particularly Latin Americans, who no longer think it necessary to celebrate in such a traditional way. Many immigrants have even created a sort of fusion between the quinceñera and the Sweet 16. For immigrants who may not be able to celebrate coming of age the way they do in their home countries, such as the Japanese, where finding a furisode or hakama in America can be difficult, the American Sweet 16 offers a non-specific, well rounded option. However, Sweet 16 dresses can be just as expensive as the lavish quinceañera’s or the elaborate and pricey furisode.

A coming of age ceremony can be extremely important for a young child, teenager, or an adult. What makes these events so important and what connects all of with a common thread, literally, is the attire worn to these events. Whether it is a traditional Japanese garment, a lavish ball gown, a small white dress, or a suit, what a person chooses to wear can say a lot about themselves and even highlight the affluence of their family, a point of importance for many immigrants who can use these ceremonies as a way of showcasing how they have made it in America.


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