Editorial: However you dress it up, costumes are important

28th November 2014 at 00:00

I have a confession to make: I love dressing up. Not just for special occasions but every day. Mad hats, crazy coats, daft dresses - if there's anything wacky, I want to wear it. It is not something that has diminished with age; if anything, it's got worse. The saddest thing about this obsession is that I have never been invited to a fancy-dress party. Not one. Ever.

It is easy to dismiss dressing up as play or harmless fun, but it does have a serious role. For the very young it fulfils an important psychological need, allowing for experimentation and fantasy. Teachers report other benefits, too, such as increased confidence, expanded vocabulary and improved writing skills.

Dressing up can also help with pastoral care, exploring trauma or inner conflicts. Lisa Jarmin, who wrote our TES Professional feature, experienced this with a child in her class who had lost her mother in a car accident. The girl would take on a helper's role, Jarmin says: "She liked to play that she was rescuing others. It seemed to soothe her anxieties about helplessness."

Dressing up also has educational uses for older children. It seems that languages, history and English lessons can all benefit - as can drama, of course. But is it an issue getting secondary pupils to dress up at this difficult, more self-conscious time? Louise Bailey, a former head of drama, is adamant that she encountered no embarrassment from her students. "In fact, they relished the opportunity to wear some skanky old bridesmaid dress and don a wig that looked like roadkill. Hey presto! The best melodrama those 12-year-olds had ever seen."

And what about teachers? Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov insists that teaching is a performance art. We certainly know that practitioners have to take on a multitude of different roles in the classroom - instructor, carer, nurturer, chastiser. But do they also like to go in for a bit of dressing up?

It's a brave teacher who will don a costume in front of a class, and an even more courageous headteacher. But that's what Jenny Smith, headteacher at Frederick Bremer School (subject of the recent Educating the East End television series), did for World Book Day. Even dressed as Aslan the lion, she managed to escape with dignity and respect intact, but you do need to have strong relationships in place to hold on to that mantle of authority and stay in control.

It is control over one's environment that is at the heart of dressing up. Psychologists point out that a major reason for kids loving to play at being superheroes such as Superman or Batman is that it allows them to vicariously control their domain. Using these fictional figures, they can vanquish villains or be kings or queens and rule their own world.

It's a lesson I learned at an early age. People will always pick on someone or something different. Wave a pair of outrageous trousers at them and they won't even notice the big ears or the crooked nose. You can seize control by deciding what you want them to look at.

So my weird wardrobe is here for the long haul and I'm staying firmly in control. Unless, of course, I get invited to that fancy-dress party.



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