Dressing-up Clothes

These are a natural adjunct to imaginative play and also provide for a good deal of incidental learning. Different textures, colours, trimmings, fastenings can be introduced quite naturally. The children’s interest in dressing up appears to have two aspects. One is dressing up for the sheer fun of it so that one sees girls in frilly hats quietly playing at the sand tray and boys in cloaks at the construction table. My favourite memory is of a three-year-old boy who was fascinated by a set of very simple, different coloured net tutus. Everything he did, which mainly comprised watching plus some sand and water play, was carried out with four different tutus at his waist, one worn as a frill round his neck and one on his head as a hat. There were only six in the set – had there been more he would undoubtedly have ,<?^§V<^-” ”V-N, ^wj <drT^ found a place for them too. The other kind of dressing up is where a child wishes to pretend to be a specific character and needs some kind of symbol to reinforce this – a cowboy hat, bridal veil, milkman’s cap and apron, nurse’s cap, soldier’s bus-by, policeman’s helmet. It is no accident that the words hat and helmet occur so frequently. Very often the hat is the most interesting, most easily identifiable part of any uniform and children just need this one item. A complete uniform or set of clothes would be too elaborate and take too long to put on. Their real interest is in the game and the quicker they can get on with it the better. The other point is that something worn on the head is an unaccustomed weight or touches the face so that children remain aware of its presence long after a comfortably fitting tunic would be forgotten.

There are some commonsense basic rules for dressing-up clothes. They should be simple to put on, a safe length, not have cords round the neck, have huge fastenings and openings and any interest features should be trimmings rather than an elaborate basic shape. Ideally they should be washable. It is better to have just a few and frequently ring the changes; they should be kept in good condition and – most important – they should be well presented. A iumble of scruffy, creased, indeterminate garments in a large box is not likely to inspire anyone. Some kind of stand or hanging arrangement at a suitable height works well. A full-length mirror is very desirable: we all like to look at ourselves in new clothes.

For the child who dresses up just for the fun of it the attraction seems to lie in beautiful fabrics, interesting trimrnings and glowing colours. Thus there is no need for elaborate garments. A simple tabard of gorgeous brocade, a cloak made from shimmery curtain material by sewing a piece of rufflette or similar tape to the neck edge, tutus made from three or four layers of nylon net about 9 inches deep by 3 yards long gathered into a yard-long band of 2-inch braid then elastic threaded through will take about half an hour to make. Ponchos take less material and if made of really interesting fabrics and generously fringe-edged are popular. Cloaks can double as long skirts if the length is right and enough Velcro is used for the fastening to give one or two inches of play. Pieces of fabric and a supply of large safety pins are useful ‘raw’ materials. Lace and braid can often be bought cheaply from haberdashery departments at sale time; old nightdresses and petticoats can often be stripped of their still sound trimmings. Even small samples of material are useful if someone can make them into a patchwork garment.

Hats can be furry, frilly, flowery, lacy, floppy, flowing with chiffon, heavy, hard, soft or light. Even simple felts can be made heavy and sparkling with buttons, beads and sequins. Schoolgirl felts can have plaits made from old nylons or wigs made from rug wool sewn into them. Bridal veils can be made in two minutes from lace or net curtains by threading enough elastic through the slot which carried the curtain rod to draw up this edge and tying tightly to make a little top knot. Before the elastic is cut another loop can be tied sufficient to anchor the veil to a child-size head. If two more minutes can be spared to make a few flowers from gathered lace to be sewn on to the top knot (in a different coloured cotton which can be seen easily and so easily removed for laundering) this is even better. If the real thing can be supplied no work is involved at all but it is wise to check the length. It is possible to see children in nurseries wearing better veils than many brides wear to walk down the aisle.

The term children is used deliberately since boys as well as girls may take a fancy to a particular hat. This passes and the interest may be transferred to male headgear or may disappear altogether . The majority of parents take this in their stride and accept it as no more odd than a previous predilection for perhaps a piece of vacuum cleaner or other unlikely object. A few, and they are often fathers, become very worried about it. If we can reassure them that this is quite common, is usually only a passing phase and that there is nothing’ wrong’ with their son this may help. If this does not persuade them we must remember that those parents have every right to be concerned about their child. If they did not feel deeply about it they would probably not have plucked up courage to discuss what for them is a taboo or distasteful subject. It is our job to find or make something equally attractive to the child which will be acceptable to his parents. This may be the one time when a rather super Quality-Street-type soldier’s uniform is indicated or a bishop’s cape and mitre in glorious colours and fabrics.

Other accessories would be shoes, handbags, stoles (rather than a narrow scarf which could possibly get twisted round a neck), very pretty gloves and lots of jewellery. Shopping bags and baskets fit into this category and also overlap into family play and shopping. At home children probably achieve a collection by asking for what they would like. In the nursery mothers usually respond very well to an appeal for dressing-up material.

Shoes have to be chosen very carefully. High-heeled sandals seem particularly attractive to children but are quite dangerous. A lower-heeled shoe large enough to put their own shod foot into and which has enough upper to stay on easily should be reasonably safe. A further problem in many nursery groups is that the noise level is already too high without the addition of clip-clopping dressing-up shoes. Some groups advocate decorating child-sized sandals and dancing shoes with shoe dyes and stitched or stuck-on decorations. A great deal depends on the floor surface and each group has to work out its own ideas on this.

Special dressing-up clothes and sets can be bought for most of the popular characters children like to play. They are usually expensive and not very well made. The real thing, if possible, is much better providing it is safe (for example a real fireman’s helmet is very heavy and has a wide part to the brim which makes it a fearsome weapon if the game becomes a little rough). Cowboy outfits of a bolero and trousers can be made from a suitable material (felt is the obvious one but it does not wash or wear so well as drill or sailcloth). Leather or felt trimmings cut out with pinking shears, ric-rac braid, fringe and brass paper clip decorations are quick to do. A hat may be bought. Virtually the same garment except a tunic instead of a bolero plus a feather headdress will clothe the enemy. Feathers may be obtained from the fishmonger, which sounds a little odd but he is usually the person who sells pheasants and other game. They can be washed, or sterilized with Milton solution or even heated in the oven gently to make sure they are clean. They can then be stuck into a band of corrugated cardboard or for something more permanent into a band of folded fabric. Copydex is useful for this as it dries quickly. True policemen’s helmets are rather large and heavy. Children’s versions can be bought in various sizes and materials. There is a very good-quality plastic one available but it seems to be in the shops only at Christmas time as part of a set.

For anyone prepared to have a try with papier m&che made on the strip and glue principle a blown-up balloon can be a good basic shape to start with. After four or five layers of paper strip have been applied and allowed to dry, the rather egg-like shape can be trimmed and succeeding layers added to give the finished shape of the hat. Baking in a low oven followed by painting and adding the relevant trimmings completes the project. The important part of a doctor’s uniform is the stethoscope and medical bag but a white smock with a little white round cap could be added. Nurses definitely need an apron. These can be very simple and a red cross on the bib and pins to fasten it up add interest. The easiest way to make the apron is a wrap-around skirt with a Velcro fastening and a square bib attached. Dorcas-type caps can be made from men’s handkerchiefs and then they need cold-water starching. The rather more glamorous pleated cap has gone out of fashion now and even the Dorcas shape may be made of disposable paper in a modern hospital. Since cold-water starching seems to be a dying art it might be better to provide paper caps in the dressing-up corner.

A collection of soft work caps can usually be obtained by mothers asking everyone they know for these. If twenty or thirty mothers combine their efforts they should be able to keep up a steady changing supply. In fact they can be made very quickly from felt stiffened with a double layer of heavy-duty Vilene.

Kings’ and queens’ crowns can be made from covered buckram but this takes longer than making one with cardboard, or if everybody suddenly wants to play, from sugar paper. Kitchen foil and the button box or beads from an old necklace will make a quick decoration. For something rather special (which is usually done because the adult rather fancies making one than because the children need it) a strong card crown can be decorated in relief with all kinds of shaped pasta, matchsticks, washers or curtain rings stuck on and then sprayed gold. This was one of the results of the interest taken in the costumes for the Henry the Eighth television series. In fact the dressing-up clothes children specifically ask for are very often related to something they have seen on television.

To present a basic set of dressing-up clothes and accessories so that they are attractive, easily visible and can be kept tidy can be done in various ways. The nursery group which does not have to put the equipment away would find a permanent hanging cupboard useful. A height of about four feet six inches should be enough to have a shelf at the bottom for shoes, one at the top for hats and the back of the unit could well be one side of the play house. Other possibilities would be a moveable rack of the type used in department stores. An ordinary domestic plastic-covered wire rack is useful for shoes. A vegetable rack will hold handbags and jewellery. A plastic shoe hanger with pockets is a good idea for shoes. If a transparent one can be found this is also useful for keeping jewellery tidy but visible. Where everything has to be cleared away every day either a rack on castors or an adapted tea trolley is best. The tea trolley wi’l not hold so much material but will usually provide enough space for clothes for a small group of children . The dressing-up corner needs something to sit on when putting on shoes and some kind of dressing table is appreciated especially if a small safe mirror is attached. If this is a low chest of drawers then the storage space is useful for keeping in some of the clothes which cannot be displayed. For a child at home a specia drawer or an old suitcase might be provided or there may be room in his own clothes cupboard. Failing this, a cheap but sturdy coat-rack could be screwed into the wall at a suitable height. If even this is out of the question perhaps an under-bed storage box would be possible.