Playing dress up or being dressed up?

A provocation paper

The British Academy
Jul 3, 2020 · 14 min read

Dr Aude Le Guennec, Assistant Professor in Design studies / Fashion Anthropology, Heriot-Watt University, School of Textiles and Design


In one corner of the classroom stands a rail where fancy dresses are hanging. Their shiny, glittery materials appeal to the sparkly eyes of the dreamy pupils. Suddenly, all the stories to be imagined jump to their constantly stimulated minds. Learning through play invites itself into the classrooms. The creative child, as modelled by Maria Montessori[i] is constantly interacting with everyday material culture. Children manipulate, create, dream and, through their activities and games, reveal their spontaneous approach to the world. Clothing has a major role to play in this process.

Yet, despite its importance in a child’s development, the capacity for the child to have a voice in the way they dress tends to be left at the door of the family home. Moreover, the fashion industry reveals a disconnect from and a lack of consideration of children’s views on their everyday dress. Shaped by the adults, and based on the adult’s fashion apparel, the industrialisation of children’s ready-to-wear clothing in the flourishing post-war context has ignored the specificities of a market which is not only driven by the necessity to dress a variety of social identities but also to adapt to a child who, technically and socially is, by definition, acting, being and becoming.

Why is it that fashion is excluded from the conversation on children’s education despite its social impact and influence on the definition of children’s social identities? Why should clothing not be considered as an educative part of children’s material culture? Why should the creation of children’s outfits be left solely to adult’s designers when the stimulation of children’s creative ability is recognised as beneficial for their physiological development and social understanding of the world?

This article, underpinned by historical and anthropological approaches[ii], will question the absence of consideration of children’s views in the creation of their everyday fashion.

Handling clothes

The daily handling of their clothes is a fundamental aspect of children’s lives and a major challenge for their carers, helpers and educators, especially in a school environment. Undertaken over the last five years, interviews and observational field work with teachers and nursery staff in both the UK and in France have revealed the complexity and time-consuming task of dressing or undressing at school[iii]. Several times during the day, children take off their coats, put their slippers on; dress up again to go in the playground or for an outdoor learning session; they change into their gym kit, put their trainers on; they get changed if dirty; and the young ones get themselves comfortable for a nap. Fastening buttons, closing zips, manoeuvring an awkward sleeve, tying the shoelaces, making good decisions regarding what to wear and how to wear it. Despite the current debate across Europe on the responsibility of the school to address the failure of parenting by supporting children in the learning of these common skills, these are all the activities that, from an early age, children have to do on a daily basis in a socialising environment. From their interactions with their peers and from their confrontation with the consumer culture within and outside of school, children learn the norms and the rules of a society where the dress code shapes the identity: they learn that attending school in a super-hero outfit is definitely not appropriate; that they need to dress up to go to a party with their friends; that they have to keep their coat on because it’s too cold, or because it’s not appropriate to take it off. Understanding clothing as a socialising tool is as crucial as using clothing to develop children’s motor skills. Most of the time, they are helped and guided by an adult in these tasks. Their progress and autonomy in what needs to be considered as a daily learning process is encouraged. Encouraged, but never monitored.

Forgetting the children

As an anthropologist coming from a different culture and therefore a different approach to education, I sought to better understand my close social environment and the context in which my dual culture children are educated. To do this, I have scrutinised the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, explored the Play Scotland website, looked at the Scottish Book Trust portfolios and went through the pages of the Ready, Steady Toddlers handbook[iv]. Nowhere does the mention of clothing and dressing up appear to be a support for education in Scottish state nurseries and primary education. However, the NHS Children and Young People’s Occupational Therapy Service mentions clothing as a way to acquire fine motor skills which is a pre-requisite learned at home, prior to starting the first year of Primary School[v].

Despite the importance of playing dress-up in their everyday life and the availability of fancy dresses for the play time of the youngest children at school, the educators don’t seem to believe in this inspiring and socialising activity as a learning material. Nor are the interactions between children and their clothes considered as a support for learning. Interestingly, alternative educations such as the ‘Learning through play’ pedagogy, consider the act of being dressed up as an educational path[vi]. The socialising power of pretend games based on playing dress-up is also taken into account in this education system focused on the child’s agency and interaction with the environment. Why do we leave the question of clothing to the non-traditional alternative education? Should it not be offered to all children and support their induction to the world?

What does research tell us?

What are children learning through fashion and clothing? This is the question that a group of interdisciplinary European researchers and design practitioners have asked in the context of the research project Dressed for School[vii]. This project is based on the observation of the clothing behaviour of nursery and primary school children aged three to ten in various European countries from the beginning of the 19th century onwards. It puts into perspective the considerations regarding school uniforms and everyday dress and demonstrates the educative role of clothing. As part of this project, design practitioners have reflected on today’s interactions between children and their clothes in a school environment. For example, Marion Taillard, in her Honours project in Applied Arts[viii] has created an educative uniform for early years French children (three to five years old). The uniform prototypes subtly address the need for an outfit that is adapted to the handling skills of children and to the required adaptation of clothing to the activities that they have to undertake during the day. Three overalls, one for each age group, have been designed to accommodate these needs and to support the development of the child. Whether the zip is fastened from bottom to top to facilitate the manipulation, or put at the back to benefit from the help of a friend in a peer dressing-up game, the overalls adapt to and reflect children’s technical abilities. Detachable sleeves, removable napkin and bibs help the transformation of the outfit during the day. This smart interchangeable uniform contributes to the differentiation of the age range while supporting the various roles played by children at school and also fostering their technical skills. Focused on children as users and co-handlers, these uniforms indicate the importance of young children being included in the design of a positive and educative material environment. From both the child’s and the carer’s points of view, this experiment has been extremely insightful. This demonstrates the importance for the designer of taking into account children’s expectations, their levels of social interactions and their abilities to create an object that they will understand, appropriate and treasure.

The exceptional experience of children’s clothing during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown

Having the opportunity to explore children’s spontaneous behaviour is not easy in a context where their everyday clothing is often chosen by adults. However, the exceptional nature of the global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the necessary home schooling of millions of children across Europe, has provided a window to observe children who are socialising in different and unexpected ways, including their experiences of unsupervised dressing-up or self-selection of outfits. Recording the clothing choices of children when the dress codes are lifted has provided a different picture on how they behave in a context where their appearance is less a matter of identification to their peers or a necessity to adapt to specific activities. A survey of children from six to twelve years old and an invitation to photograph their favourite ‘lockdown’ outfits has been launched in the UK and in France and run over April and May 2020[ix]. Supported by the company IDKids Community, this survey has provided a snapshot of more than one hundred children, from a variety of social and geographical backgrounds. Between the favourite football strips as a daily uniform and the fancy dress costumes allowing the youngest children to identify with their preferred characters, the results of the survey reveal the importance that children place in the narrative of their outfits. Only a couple of children from the UK mentioned the need to wear their school uniform to support their home-learning journey. We could then ask: is school uniform a necessity for children or a priority for the adults as educators?

The lockdown has also provided an opportunity to envisage the unusual inclusion of clothing into the learning programme of home-schooled children. Looking at engaging the youngest pupils and their parents in daily activities, and exploring ways of working with domestic material accessible from home, a teacher from the Maternelle School of Pantin (a nursery school in Paris, France) worked with Studio Abi to propose a series of workshops around the notion of playing dress-up[x]. Each brief invited children to propose solutions to a specific problem, that they could solve with the help of the adults as facilitators: to create a camo outfit invisible in the background; to build a den with old clothes and linen; to dress-up as works of arts or as their favourite fiction character in an unexpected manner and without using the fancy dresses and accessories available in shops. The outcome of this participative and intergenerational experience highlighted the bonding power of clothing and the transmission of skills and narratives between the generations simply happening thanks to the manipulation of a piece of cloth. Once again, it seems as if the absence of peer interactions during the activity encouraged the exploration of the playful aspects of fashion without pre-conceived ideas. This fostered children’s creativity and their ability to co-design an inspiring material environment.

Listening to children

As identified by Winicott[xi], it is through manipulation that children appropriate the objects designed for them. The connection between children and their material environment and the ability for children to learn from and bond with the objects is therefore facilitated by the way children are included in the handling and use of artefacts. This is even more important for clothing. Looking at the history of childrenswear, it is through the democratisation of the print industry that children have been able to gain easier access to attractive story-telling garments. Following from earlier experiment in luxury fashion, pioneer childrenswear brands like the British Ladybird in the 1930s have prioritised the creation of patterns inspired by children’s illustrated literature to attract their young customers[xii]. However, the creation of appealing clothes for children doesn’t always take into consideration the functionality of these garments and their ability to support the acquisition of fine motor skills. Two decades ago, the French mail order company Vert Baudet decided to focus on children’s physiological development in the creation of educative outfits: the range I can dress myself stimulates children’s autonomy thanks to the design of smooth fastenings, smart reversible tee-shirts, and educational printed patterns and encourages children’s social and sensori-motor development in a friendly and playful way. The success of popular sequins tee-shirts with versatile patterns, of super-hero hoodies which are the ‘must have’ items of brands such as the Spanish Yporque, or the textured tops of the Scottish We love shapes, can be seen as part of this effort to include children not only in the manipulation of their garments but also to get inspired creatively by their ability to project themselves into a world of stories, sensations and dreams. These outfits are not toys or fancy dress: these are examples of what an inclusive design process should look like in childrenswear. These attempts show not only a willingness to please and attract children, but also to stimulate the creation of a strong bond with their material environment. Furthermore, a design process which includes children in the creative stage gives children an opportunity to learn about a new aspect of their society.

Clothes and nostalgia

Do you remember the ugly scratchy jumper that your granny gave you at Christmas? Looking back, despite its horrible texture, you loved it because there was this little apple tree button to fasten the collar; you loved it because it offered you so many stories to tell. As an adult, in the embellished memories of your childhood, the little bit of herself that your granny put in the jumper is key to creating a link between you, as a child, and her, as a representative of the family tree, of these roots which support the development of your individuality. This example illustrates the importance of emotional and nostalgic design to create a bond between the generations, and to support the growth of a confident future adult[xiii]. Focused on the transformation of the child into a responsible adult, the parents and educators look at their childhood as an example to follow and at the past as an ideal to recreate[xiv]. In this process, the material culture magnifies this intergenerational connection. Based on a definition of nostalgia as a social factor, the Japanese concept of Kansei design models the interactions involved in the process of making an object[xv]. The young knit designer Naomi Endicott is particularly interested in this generational bond, and she has prototyped a collection where family history is embedded in the design of multi-generational outfits[xvi]. The creation of a family uniform worn by both adults and children, as explored by the brand Le vestiaire de Jeanne, shows the importance of dress codes to strengthen the relations between family members and enhance the sense of belonging. Therefore, telling stories about fashion history, personified by the family story, is an engaging way to teach children about society and the importance of understanding the past to inform a responsible future.

Children’s participation

Fostering the social responsibility of young children is explored by the award-winning designer Maija Nygren. In her inclusive design project The convertibles, Maija invites children to participate in the making of their garments, not only through their customisation but also through the construction process of modular outfits[xvii]. Inspired by Montessori’s theory, Maija offers an opportunity for children and their parents to bond creatively in the conception of an ‘emotional’ outfit appealing to their senses. This inclusion of children in the design process of their material culture provides the opportunity to address their needs and to support their aspirations. The memories in the object and the pleasure that comes from this shared moment with the adult helps the appropriation process. It is a way to learn about the habits shaping our society, to nurture the relationships between the generations, and to inspire a more sustainable future. Including children in the making of their ‘second skin’, the conception of garments which help define their emerging identity, is a way to enhance their awareness of the world that they will have to create. Therefore, locating the fashion industry closer to the users may ingrain the habit of listening to the feedback of customers in educative processes, and in constant interaction with the adult. Then, looking at alternative ways to consume children’s fashion, and exploring challenging models of circular economy, is a necessity.

Towards inclusive design

Clothing and fashion are educative tools for future adults growing up in a society which is full of challenges and uncertainties. The role given to the child in the design, purchase and use of their material environment[xviii] should be carefully scrutinised in a children’s industry wishing to be respectful of their agency[xix] and supportive of their need to negotiate fairly their place within society. Therefore, the understanding of the subtle relationships involved in the day to day interactions within our communities and revealed in the dress codes is as important as the feeling of a stimulating and playful range of sensations through the textures of a pleasant gown. This will happen if the fashion industry makes an effort to include children in the conception of the material culture which will support not only their physiological development, but also their socialisation. This will be fostered by the inclusion of clothes and fashion related activities from nursery to high school in a curriculum, where the daily contact with this material environment is purposeful, rather than accidental. This will be applied through the careful analysis of the tensions between the adults — as educators, designers, makers, carers and citizens influencing the social and political development of our communities — and the younger generation who aspire to a different world. This includes looking at equal access to fashion and clothing across genders, ethnicity and class to address existing inequalities. The perspective on inclusive children’s material culture will support the education of future adults who are aware of their world, of their environment, of their role in the society and who are trustful of the adult’s ability to lead them towards a confident and respectful future.

Governments and policy makers can help support an inclusive and educational design respectful of children’s identity and agency through the implementation of policies which encourage the inclusion of fashion and clothing as educational and learning materials within the primary and secondary curricula. There could also be greater incentives and support for research on new models of school uniform, and new interdisciplinary university and college programmes that bring together expertise on children’s material culture from across the social sciences, humanities, and creative arts. Lastly, support and encouragement could be given to inclusive design initiatives and circular economy projects within the children’s fashion and toy industries, to promote alternative and inclusive designs and to give a voice to children as both users and creators of their material culture.

The British Academy has undertaken a programme of work that seeks to re-frame debates around childhood in both the public and policy spaces and break down academic, policy and professional silos in order to explore new conceptualisations of children in policymaking. Find out more about the Childhood Policy Programme.

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[i] Montessori, M., L’enfant, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1936.

[ii] Le Guennec, A., ‘Du musée à la thèse : vers un modèle d’étude du vêtement d’enfant’, Tétralogiques, no. 23, 2018, pp. 115–142.

[iii] This will be disseminated in the ouputs of the research project Dressed for School (Heriot-Watt University and National Museum of Education, France), to be released in Autumn 2022.

[iv] Play@Home, Glasgow, NHS Scotland, 2014.

Ready, Steady, Toddler, Glasgow, NHS Scotland, 2007.

Scottish Book Trust, [website], (accessed 12 February 2019).

Scottish curriculum for Excellence, [website],, (accessed 12 February 2019).

[v] Children and Young People’s Occupational Therapy Service, NHS Borders,, (accessed 1st June 2020).

[vi] For the “playing child” see Brougère, G., Jeu et éducation, Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995.

[vii] National Museum of Education, France and Heriot-Watt University, UK

[viii] Taillard, M., ‘Ma première blouse: un vêtement scolaire pour l’enfant à l’École Maternelle’, mémoire de diplôme supérieur d’Arts Appliqués, E.N.S.A.A.M.A. Olivier de Serres, Paris, 2013.

[ix] Lockdown survey:

[x] (accessed 1st June 2020).

[xi] Winicott, D. W., Jeu et réalité, Gallimard, Paris, first ed. 1971.

[xii] Pasold, E. W., The legend of Scarlet Ladybird: the story of Pasolds, Langley, London, 1960.

[xiii] Norman, D., Emotional design, New-York, Basic Books, 2003.

[xiv] Quentel, J.-C., L’enfant, problème de genèse et d’histoire, De Boeck Université, Paris-Bruxelles, 1997.

[xv] Lévy, P., ‘Beyond kansei engineering: The emancipation of kansei design’, International Journal of Design, vol. 7, 2: 2013, 83–94.

[xvi] Endicott, N., ‘A kansei design methodology for genderless children’s knitwear, MA Thesis, Heriot-Watt University, 2018.

[xvii] Nygren, M., ‘The convertibles, a study of knitted circular knitwear fashion through consumer engagement’, MA Thesis, Heriot-Watt University, 2018.

[xviii] Cook, D. T., The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer, Durham, N.C.,Duke University Press, 2004.

[xix] Qvortrup, J., Studies in modern childhood: society, agency, culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Reframing Childhood Past and Present

Over the last 150 years, the experience of being a child in…

Reframing Childhood Past and Present

Over the last 150 years, the experience of being a child in the United Kingdom has changed hugely in terms of how children are viewed, valued and cared for. During this period, policymaking and research relating to children have also undergone dramatic changes.

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Reframing Childhood Past and Present

Over the last 150 years, the experience of being a child in the United Kingdom has changed hugely in terms of how children are viewed, valued and cared for. During this period, policymaking and research relating to children have also undergone dramatic changes.