Every time I add a new item to my wardrobe, I give something away. Except for the little black dresses. I started buying them in my 20s and haven’t stopped; I can’t seem to part with them or the memories they carry. Weddings. Bar and bat mitzvahs. Brit milahs. Every I do, mazel tov and bracha a hopeful promise. With each event, my sisters and I, following in our mother’s perfectly curated footsteps, swapped fashion notes and photos, and often came prepared with more than one outfit, you know, just in case.
I was the one who reliably showed up in black, as did my Bubbe Rose when I was growing up. I can only guess that she wore black to mask her zaftig curves, or perhaps wearing black was an understatement, a way to blend and assimilate, as she did with her not-a-trace-of-an-accent English.
When I was a child, my mother never missed a Yom Kippur yizkor service. Each year she carried her sorrow out the door, dressed in a different black dress with matching hat, shoes, purse and gloves. I imagined her alone in a rigid pew, repeating the names of her parents and two younger siblings who had journeyed to heavenly realms: Harry, Eva, Beatrice, Saul. My mother’s earthly garb so grave as she remembered her loved ones, swaddled in pure white. I would lay on the living room carpet itching for her return, too young to grasp the value of mourning. As I grew older, I came to recognize the beauty, not to mention joy, that accompanies the solemnly worn black dress.
They say every woman needs a little black dress in her closet. I agree. The LBD is elegant, slimming and goes with everything. You can dress it up with pearls and heels or dress it down with silver and slip-ons. Coco Chanel is said to have started the trend, but Audrey Hepburn made the black dress a household name in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Today, every designer has at least one. And I have too many.
Nobody warned me that with each passing decade, the LBD would take on a different shape, an altered meaning. That the flirt of spandex would give way to the senescence of silk. That by the time I hit 60, the LBD would become the go-to garment, not for cocktail-party glide, but for repeating the Kaddish prayer so many times I can recite it in my sleep. That the prayer would be chanted not only for my ancestors, but for my peers. And that the death of a peer, once an anomaly, would become a trend.
As I stand in my closet, I sift through my collection of black dresses, like a mother palming the forehead of a beloved baby. The fragrance of amber and rose perfume is nested into the fibers. My hand comes to rest on the velvet dress my friend Lindi bought for me in Paris. A deep V-neck with a flirty hem. I wore it to my mother’s celebration of life over a gold silk vintage blouse. That was over 10 years ago. My siblings and I also wore black kriah ribbons over our hearts during shiva, a symbol of how torn apart we were after our mother’s death. When shiva ended I thought, shouldn’t I wear it for the rest of my life?
Today, I am getting dressed for yet another memorial. My college best friend lost her husband of 42 years to lung cancer. I want to appear somber yet elegant; my mother’s fixation on appearance is sewn into the fabric of my being. I settle on a bell-sleeved dress with a splash of spandex and a flattering drape. Gray ruffles border the edge of the sleeves and hem. It belonged to my friend Lucy who died in her 50s from a cruel sarcoma. Her husband gave it to me after her death. Wearing this dress to today’s memorial will plait past and present. It will help me honor Lucy in a way that keeps her, and the other girlfriends I have lost, alive, though what I really want is for people to stop dying. Hand me a remote with a freeze button. Put everyone I love on death restriction.
The ancient Romans started the custom of wearing black to funerals. They wore a dark toga, known as a toga pulla, to mourn the loss of a loved one. And since the Middle Ages, black has been associated with solemnity. Going even further back in time, according to Nachmanides, Moses advised his successor to wear black as a sign of mourning after his passing. Today, even though religious Jews trend toward black clothing, it is not considered mandatory for mourning. Still, for me, it is the go-to tone when paying my respects.
Black isn’t even considered a color. More specifically, it is an achromatic color without hue (from the Greek akhrōmatos: a-, without and khrōma, khrōmat-, color), a result of the absence or total absorption of visible light. The absence of light, isn’t that what we mourn at a funeral?
If only I could slide back to a time when the LBD represented not grief, but joie de vivre, when instead of mournful words, we cried “l’chaim!” Nobody warned me about the risk associated with having a large, loving family and a cache of friends as jam-packed as the garments in my closet. I’ve already lost too many and with each passing day, risk losing more.
Like my mother, every Yom Kippur I sit alone in a pew, dressed in black. I repeat the names of lost ancestors. Harry. Rose. Leonard. Mildred. I repeat the names of friends. Danza. Elsie. Laurel. Lucy. The lists grow longer with each passing year. And like I imagine my mother must have, I too draw comfort from intoning the ancient Kaddish prayer. As we backstitch the threads of a life, exquisite patterns emerge. And woven into the fabric, the white of the shroud, the black of the kriah ribbon and a swirl of dazzling colors that will never fade.
How many more black dresses will I accumulate before my time comes? Before I am the one being remembered? When you take your place in the pew, please wear red. And dance until you drop.