Fancy Dress – Why is Dressing Up So Important in a Child’s Development

Where did it all begin?

All kids like to dress up. Many adults do too but that in part is because we never lose that sense of fun in being a different character for the night. Playing out a role, rather like the Masquerade balls of the 15th Century, is something of a tradition in most countries across the world, even in remote parts of Africa where tribesmen dress up as animals or mythical creatures as part of a ceremony.

The painting on the left depicts a fancy dress charity ball, which was held at the Theatre Royal in Manchester in 1828. Painted by Arthur Perigal, it now hangs in the Salford Museum and Art Gallery.

Costume parties in America really took off in the late 19th Century amongst the elite, where no expense was spared in the elaborate costumes, which were mainly based on European Royalty (having no real history of their own to relate to at that time and a lot being of European descent).

This developed further in the 1940s with the advent of fan conventions, where ordinary people would dress up as their comic book heroes. Halloween became another good time for grown-ups to don costumes based on horror fiction, being too old for Trick-or-Treating.

In the UK, we prefer the term Fancy Dress parties. These became popular in the last quarter of the 20th Century, as many Britons saw what was happening in the States and wanted to replicate it. Halloween was never seen as a party event until the 1990’s and only in recent years has the rest of Europe and Australia taken it on board.

Early role play in children

It is not entirely clear when children started to wear fancy dress costumes, but imaginative (or pretend) play has always been a part of a child’s development. From 18 to 24 months, toddlers start to notice what you do and will mimic your actions, like talking on an imaginary telephone. They are pretending to be you!

Very soon, your child will take on more complex roles. These will be people they have seen, probably on the television, but sometimes in real life, like when they go to the doctor’s surgery.

At first, they may be generic roles, like a fireman or a nurse (not always gender-specific, though) and then they may become a particular character, like Bob the Builder or Anna from Frozen. Here (right), Jack is dressed as a pirate but he’s watching Pirates of the Caribbean, so in his mind he is probably Jack Sparrow.

These days, there are lots of fancy dress ideas for kids. Baby Knows Best has a great range covering virtually every generic occupation for girls and boys, from a doctor to a construction worker, policewoman to a nurse. Even pirates, like Jack. Or, you can choose a character fancy dress costume like Superman or Wonder Woman.

So why is Cosplay important?

Dressing up in order to act out roles helps develop lots of skills. First, in taking on that role, your child is thinking how that character would act and speak. If it is a film character, they will be remembering lines from the film. Musicals are great for this, as they will know the words to the songs even if they don’t fully understand the meaning.

When children play together, they have to decide who will play who. Who will be the goody and who will be the baddy? What will the rules of engagement be? With a boy and a girl, it isn’t really important who plays the doctor and who plays the nurse, but you must let them decide. It is their pretend world, not yours and gender is not an issue at this age (see my blog on raising kids in 2020).

Children often pick heroes as their role models, not necessarily superheroes like Spider-man or Wonder-woman, but those everyday heroes who put out fires, make sick people better. They may tell you that’s what they want to be when they grow up. Already they are thinking about what that job entails and it is sparking their imagination further.
So encouraging your child to dress up and play at being their favourite character will help their cognitive skills, vocabulary, creativity, as well as keeping them active.

A little more about Halloween

Halloween is a great time for kids to dress up and go Trick-or-Treating, but what is it all about? Well, Halloween is a shortened version of All Hallows Eve, which means the evening before All Hallows (or Saints) Day in the Christian calendar. However, the origins of Halloween as a night of celebration date back to medieval times with the Festival of Samhain, an ancient Celtic tradition when people would dress up to ward off evil spirits.

Halloween was introduced to America by Scottish immigrants in the early 1900s, and thus began the commercialization of the occasion. It died off somewhat in Britain and Europe, just as the celebration of All Saints Day on the 1st November became just another date on the calendar.

However, as with many things and mainly thanks to Hollywood, what happens in the States one year will happen in the UK the next (or in this case half a century later) and Europe inevitably follows.

Trick-or-Treating also has its origins in Medieval Britain, when the poor would beg for food and in return they would pray for the dead on All Souls Day, which is the 2nd November. Again, this all but died off until it appeared in America in the 1920s when the Scottish tradition of “guising” was introduced. This was when children disguised themselves as something frightening (to reinforce the “Trick” or threat) and went from house to house demanding “Treats”, usually sweets or candy.

The decorating and placing of pumpkins outside the home may seem a very American thing to do, but again, this was brought over by Irish immigrants in the late 19th Century. Back in Ireland, they wouldn’t have used pumpkins though. It would most likely be a turnip or a potato, hollowed out and carved into a face.

A candle was placed inside to provide the light and they called it Jack O’Lantern (as in Jack-of-the-Lantern).

Nowadays, people are quite creative in their carving, turning it into quite an art form.

So, contrary to what many people think, Halloween, trick-or-treating and dressing up is very much a British/Irish tradition that was introduced to America by Scottish immigrants, and then taken on board by the Brits in the late 80s. early 90s.