Sunday 18 August 2019

Say Yes To The Communion Dress: It's the 'bridal boutique' experience for children... but is it all just innocent fun?

Shops are offering a bridal boutique experience to kids choosing outfits for the big day - complete with photo-friendly podiums. But is it all just innocent fun?

Get the look: Kym Smyth, sales assistant at Arnotts, in the Communion section. Photo: Mark Condren
Get the look: Kym Smyth, sales assistant at Arnotts, in the Communion section. Photo: Mark Condren

Kathy Donaghy

We're familiar with the concept from our TV screens where a bride-to-be goes shopping for the perfect dress for her big day with family members in tow to help her choose 'the one'.

Now in what feels like a throw-back to the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, the bridal experience of boutique shopping is being adapted for girls shopping for their Holy Communion dresses.

Floor-to-ceiling mirrors, comfy sofas for parents and family members, rails of dresses to choose from as well as shoes, tiaras and veils to try are among the ways the bridal experience is being replicated for youngsters.

Arnott's department store in Dublin sees up to 30 families choosing communion dresses and suits on a busy Saturday in the run-up to Holy Communion season.

Just after Christmas last year the department store on the city's Henry Street introduced its 'Say Yes to the Dress (or suit) podium' for families on the hunt for communion dresses and suits.

Set up in a dedicated space in the children's-wear department, the new Communion experience is complete with podium, mirrors and paddles that say 'yes', 'no' and 'maybe' to dresses which range in price from €240 to €395.

According to children's-wear buyer at the store, Jenny Erwin, buying Communion clothing is a family affair and that's why they introduced a bigger area with sofas and paddles for family members.

She explains that it's not just the girls who are opting for the experience - fashion-conscious boys also enjoy the podium experience.

And she says it's all about making the children feel special. "They are so excited. The first thing they do when they get the dress on is twirl around. They try on everything, first the dress and then the veil to see what they'll look like on the day itself," says Erwin.

At McElhinney's department store in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, choosing a Holy Communion dress is not that different from choosing a bridal gown.

The store, which has an extensive bridal department and sees brides-to-be travel from all over the country for an appointment, has a dedicated family space for trying on Holy Communion dresses which range in price from €100 to €475.

Shoppers are given a one-hour slot during which time they can browse the Communion dress section guided by an assistant. Childrens-wear buyer at McElhinney's Róisín Nic Giolla Chomhaill says it's not unusual for large family groups to come for the communion dress shopping experience.

Nic Giolla Chomhaill explains that the space was expanded and revamped last November to cater for Communion shoppers. A flower wall with mirrors most of the way around make up the private fitting space for children trying on the dresses. "We want to make sure they are getting the best experience," she says.

Drogheda-based mum-of-four Siobhan O'Neill-White says it's not that unusual for whole family groups including mums, aunts and grannies to go shopping for Holy Communion dresses. For many people this is a rite of passage, she says.

However, O'Neill-White, who runs parenting website, says the prices being paid for Communion dresses has gradually been increasing as we move further away from the bust years.

She says when it comes to Communions, mothers will lead the way. "We don't encourage spending loads on a Communion dress but I do love the idea of mammy, granny, and aunties going with the Communion girl for her dress and accessories. This is a family tradition we have and each person buys the child one thing. So I would buy the dress and then granny and aunts would all buy something like shoes, umbrella, underwear, jewellery etc. It makes everyone feel involved and it cuts down on the costs for mammy," she says.

Day out: Siobhan O’Neill-White says Communion dress shopping is a family affair
Day out: Siobhan O’Neill-White says Communion dress shopping is a family affair

O'Neill-White says what happens is usually driven by mums and the reality is that the child doesn't really care where the dress comes from. She points out that parents should remember the dress only ever stays on for a few hours as children get back into their normal clothes to play once the ceremony and photographs are over.

However, psychotherapist and author Stella O'Malley urges caution when it comes to buying into 'say yes to the dress' type shopping experiences for kids.

She says the phenomenon encourages a child to put on a show and this in the longer term is not healthy.

"I say this from a place of kindness but the mothers need to look at themselves. If you keep on asking kids to perform like that, it can create anxiety," says O'Malley.

She believes that mothers need to ask themselves if they are not trying to make up for something they didn't have in their own lives by choosing this type of experience for their daughters. "The most dangerous thing for a child is the unlived life of the parent," she says.

O'Malley points out that she's not knocking the fact that little girls love to dress up; there's nothing wrong with that, she says. However, she says parents do need to ask why they want their children to participate in a performance-based show when it comes to Communion dress shopping.

"The freedom of childhood is the freedom not to care what you look like. That should be guarded. In the Garden of Eden Eve lost her innocence when she cared what she looked like. Once children care what they look like, they're into adolescence," she says.

O'Malley says making it all about the looks and ensuring that there are great photos is not what it should be all about. "Great photos are not such a great reality," she says.

Irish Independent

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