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Mission Impossible: Dressing My Daughter Modestly

My daughter is only three. Why are all the shorts and skirts available short enough to show underwear?


Dressing my fashionable three-year-old is a daily project. She’s a feisty toddler with opinions about everything—especially what she wears. I love that about her.

Thankfully, it’s not too hard to please us both on weekdays. She’s thrilled to wear endless pink and anything Hello Kitty, and I’m pleased when she dresses weather appropriately. The larger challenge, I’m finding, is dressing my preschooler on Saturday mornings, when our family heads to synagogue. It should be fairly simple to find a cute dress for a three-year-old, yet I’m learning it’s anything but.

Perhaps I missed a memo. I’m familiar with the casual short-dress-over-leggings look, which is fine; the dress recalls the oversized T-shirts we wore with stirrups in the ’80s. This is different, though. Dresses meant to be worn solo, or with tights, have been downsized, as well.

Is there demand for mini-skirts among the playground set? Are there parents who prefer shorter hemlines? Or do most parents just shrug as they plunk down their credit cards?

People Used to Make Beautiful, Modest Clothes

I remember learning about traditional Jewish rules of tzniut, or modesty, when my mother took us shopping for beautifully made Italian children’s clothing in Boro Park three decades ago. Clothes were supposed to cover up to my collarbone, within a two-finger distance of my elbow, and hide my kneecaps. Try applying those standards at your local Gap Kids or Macy’s, and you’ll find you’ve ruled out nearly everything, if not all of their dress displays.

Given that my daughter has long been fiftieth percentile for height among her age cohort, she embodies average, size-wise. She’s literally who designers should have in mind as they pin their new line of children’s clothes. However, it seems they don’t. We keep meeting dresses that wave to my daughter’s shins from high above her knees. For that reason, I’ve found myself buying dresses a size up, just to lend her knees some privacy.

It was, in fact, as part of my effort to shade those knees that we stumbled into some trouble this fall. On the first day of Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish new year, my husband and I were racing toward readiness. I dressed our newborn, while my husband hunted for an outfit the big sister could wear.

He found a hand-me-down navy blue dress with a silver diamond pattern and a big bow by the shoulder. Tres magnifique! It was labeled size 5. After hurriedly eyeballing it, I judged that the dress would suit our daughter’s current height and okayed her wearing it.

At synagogue, I zoomed downstairs to bring our daughter to babysitting, and I didn’t take another look at her dress until we were at her classmate’s house for a play date later that afternoon. The dress was indeed near her knee. However, the dress was also huge at the top. The round neck kept dangling off to either side as our daughter played, leaving her with a conspicuously naked shoulder at most times. My husband and I were mortified that we had inadvertently put our little girl in an off-the-shoulder dress. Presumably it wasn’t designed that way; it just hung loosely because we had slipped a size 5 dress on our three-year-old in an attempt to dress her modestly.

It’s frustrating. It’s as if designers and retailers met and agreed that every American girl should look like an aspiring Kardashian. As if to underscore my point, Babies R Us has begun selling Kardashian Kids, “a collection designed for babies and girls up to size 5T.”

Exhibitionism Isn’t Attractive On Anyone

No one is too young. If a girl can walk upright, she’s old enough to show off what her mama so recently gave her—as if exhibitionism is both attractive and empowering. But what’s attractive about dressing little girls as scantily clad miniature women? And what’s empowering about coercing young girls into sharing their anatomy with everyone?

The scary part is: it only seems to get worse. The clothes marketed to tweens and teens are even more provocative and awful. Tasteful, modest dress, by contrast, showcases a girl’s beauty, making her look lovely and even elegant.

Just because we live in the TMI era doesn’t mean it’s desirable, or wise, to share every private thought and body part. If we respect our own dignity, we believe that we don’t exist for others’ gratification. I want my daughters to know that they are beautiful, but I also want them to know that they are so much more than just their bodies.

Part of respecting that special human wholeness is dressing modestly—especially at synagogue. Religious services are a transcendent experience, and appropriate dress signals respect for ourselves and our surroundings. These are important lessons I hope to impart to my daughters. In the meantime, the search for age-appropriate cute dresses will clearly continue, because I am raising lovely young women, not Kardashians.