Life & Culture

The long lost Yom tov outfit

Jan Shure mourns the loss of a High Holy Days tradition


The ritual of buying a new Yom tov outfit — whether in a shop or online — is, alas now almost obsolete. The festive shopping habit has been diminishing for decades — most modern wardrobes already include formal, shul-appropriate clothes, reducing the need to buy new.
And then pandemic and climate emergency combined to push the idea of Yom tov clothes-buying a bit closer to oblivion.
Even the annual ritual of buying a new Yom tov hat has virtually vanished. Jewish women continued to shop for hats long after women in the wider population had stopped buying them except for weddings or Royal Ascot. But now there’s a less formal synagogue headwear sensibility, making chichi chapeaux redundant. And hat sections are shrinking in department stores, and millinery shops have almost disappeared. So hat shopping is done for too.
A new Yom tov outfit may remain a necessity for children and teens who’ve outgrown last year’s clothes. But here, too, many parents are opting for planet-saving recycling by putting their little ones in outfits passed on by friends or family or letting trend-aware — and climate-crisis activist — teens wear pre-loved and swapped pieces from Big Sister Swap, Vinted or Swopped.
The 1950s and early 60s seem impossibly glamorous, based on the their depiction in dramas such as The Crown (and let’s face it, Yom tov dressing was always quite regal) — all curvy figure-hugging jackets draped in fox-fur or mink and those adorable little cocktail hats. It’s easy to forget, therefore, the harsh reality for children or pre-teens in the era, that there was no children’s “fashion” and no teen fashion, even for little princesses.
Girls of any age between three and 13 were expected to wear a simple frock, possibly ruched or smocked, paired with white ankle socks. For “best” — including Yom tov — the dress might be upgraded to a confection in organza, or, back then, nylon — probably embellished with frills. If you were in your teens, the dress was a cut-down version of something your mother might wear, again worn with little white socks.
Luckily for boomers, many hit their teens at that moment in the 1960s when a fashion revolution was starting. Mary Quant, Biba and many other brands and shops — some founded by Jewish entrepreneurs, including Lee Bender’s Bus Stop; the Zelker family of Polly Peck; Jeffrey Wallis’s Wallis Shops and the Lewis family’s Chelsea Girl — were making high-fashion clothing for fashion-starved teenagers, with some of the fashionable outfits appropriate to wear to shul.
Dame Maureen Lipman remembers shopping trips with her mother, Zelma, to the Hull branch of C&A or the city’s department store, Hammonds. She recalls always holding on tight to the cubicle curtains, “to stop the assistant barging in and, heaven forfend, catching a glimpse of my bosom-less chest.”
Shopping in Hammonds entailed visiting many departments, including the hat department for matching clothes and hats. Maureen rejected what she called “dog’s dinner, brimmed hats” but remembers getting a shoulder-bag which was “deemed essential.”
Hot, tired and hungry — today we’d call it “hangry” — she recalls being promised “a toasted tea cake in Hammonds’ gracious café” to tempt her into the store’s shoe department where she remembers a showdown over shoes.
Maureen wanted “a lavatory pan heel” telling Zelma, that “Valerie’s mam lets her have…” This was met with “Well that’s as maybe… you can have an ankle strap and a bow.” To which Maureen retorted: “I don’t want a stupid bow. I want a teacake and heels, and it’s not fair!”
But on Yom Kippur when 12-year-old Maureen walked around “all three shuls with my mates” she admits to feeling “a certain ‘suit superiority’ in navy grosgrain with tight waistband, pleated skirt and white broderie-anglaise collar.
“I was, in my mother’s words, a ‘bobby dazzler.’ On the Day of Atonement, the sin of pride was already in the air.”
Super chic north Londoner designer Susan Graff, 73, says her “shopping crazy” mother was constantly buying clothes for her and her sister including “beautiful outfits brought back from the South of France” and little “coats and [skirt] suits made by the local tailor” in Finchley, north London, where she and her sister Linda (Linda Kelsey, the writer and former glossy magazine editor) grew up. “They weren’t necessarily for Yom tov, but we always had the right clothes for the right occasion.” She also remembers being taken by her mother to childrenswear shops across North London, including Judy’s, Maisie’s and Sonia Lyman. By the time she was 13 or 14, she was, she says, “far too tall for kids’ shops” so was taken to Polly Peck in Bond Street where her “fashion life really began.” She remembers feeling “like the bee’s knees” in her first purchase, a Chanel inspired navy blue bouclé coat.
Immersion in such an elevated aesthetic may well have led her to become head designer of up-scale childrenswear brand, David Charles. Co-founded with her husband of 51 years, the brand closed in 2020 after almost 50 years as a go-to brand for the children of — and maybe even grandchildren of — boomers, for Yom tov and special occasions.

I imagine most mothers over a certain age remember the sweet joy of buying pretty Yom tov dresses for little girls and the anguish when these girls turned into lippy teenagers who only want to wear very short, tight skirts, or grungey jeans.
Award winning stand-up comedian, podcaster, producer and writer Rachel Creeger, 50, the UK comedy circuit’s only female observant Orthodox Jew, grew up in Chigwell, Essex, and says that while she “wasn’t bothered about clothes” when a child, she and her siblings were usually bought new clothes for Yom tov. Married with two adult children and now living in Barnet, Creeger says she “definitely felt the expectation to turn up in your finery, for Rosh Hashanah in particular.”
Initially she and her sister were bought clothes in regular shops, but as the family became more religious, the girls were taken to Stamford Hill to buy dresses from “amazing entrepreneurs” — women who sold modest clothes from home.

“You would be ushered up some stairs into a large bedroom crammed with rails of fancy dresses, all with high necklines, long sleeves and skirts well below the knee.
Eventually, Rachel — these days resident MC at a North London comedy club — and her sister were allowed to choose their own clothes “subject to maternal approval” and involving shopping trips to “precincts, not malls” in Ilford or Romford. She and her sister both loved one shop in particular, the name now long forgotten, but its “slightly off-beat clothes” didn’t always win maternal approval.
Actor/writer Deli Segal, whose one-woman play about life as a Jewish single, Pickle is returning to London’s Park Theatre in November, followed by performances in Manchester in December and in Radlett in January, is just 32. This means she is able to recall childhood shopping trips to Zara as well as H&M and Miss Selfridge. Growing up in North London in a Reform family, she recalls being taken by her mum to buy new outfits for shul and always having input into her choices. “I loved to choose things myself even from a young age.”
An especially cherished choice was an embroidered velvet waistcoat, seen in our picture.
Deli no longer buys new clothes for Yom tov. Indeed, she rarely buys new clothes at all.
“I’m shocked by how much ends up in landfill. I’m trying to buy less in general and avoid fast fashion as much as possible. I buy a lot of clothes from charity shops or vintage shops.” She also wears clothing from her grandma who had “amazing style and kept lots of beautiful dresses and outfits from the 60s, 70s and 80s.”

Segal says she has “kept some clothes” from when she was in her teens.
Her friends “often tease” her about it but she believes that “if you like something, it still fits and it’s in good condition, why not wear it again?”
This is an excellent philosophy for the planet, but for the future of Yom tov shopping and the fashion industry, not so much…

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