Who Shall I Be Today? A Passion for Playing Dress-Up

By Erin Gehan
Issue 124, May/June 2004

Meg in her German Girl outfitMy five year old, Meg the zookeeper, just boarded the bus to kindergarten. Luckily, a zookeeper simply wears khakis. Yesterday she was dressed as Anne of Green Gables, complete with braids in her hair, a straw hat, and a calico dress. The previous morning she’d wanted her hair in a ponytail, along with white blouse, black vest, and pants she could untuck from her knee socks when ready to step out of that day’s character, a colonial boy. My mother never realized how easy she had it when we battled over my wearing tight jeans to school!

Thankfully, tomorrow is Saturday—I won’t need to rein in Meg’s imaginative outfits to conform to the school dress code. If my daughter awakes and insists on wearing her kimono with nothing on underneath, as she did last Saturday, she can go right ahead. She’s a stickler for authentic detail. When we bought the kimono, she questioned the salesman: “What would a real Japanese lady wear under this kimono?” He smiled nervously. Her badgering persisted, until the salesman was relieved by a young Japanese saleslady. She whispered to Meg, “Nothing at all.”

While her eyebrows went up at that, for authenticity’s sake Meg wore nothing but her kimono. It was a challenge for a young lady who once cried, “Mommy, I simply cannot go another day without a pair of proper bloomers!” Bloomers would have been quite right for the costume she desired during our trip to Disney World. While other little girls begged for princess gowns, Meg longed for the salesladies’ yesteryear uniforms on Main Street USA. “Excuse me,” she inquired. “I love 19th-century dresses. Do you have any in size 4–5?” While I don’t know the intricacies of child labor laws, it’s safe to say that Disney is not putting many kindergarteners in uniform these days.

We couldn’t send Meg home that night with the souvenir she wanted, but Lord knows my husband, Don, and I do what we can to support our daughter’s passion. Whenever possible, we support her Method-actor approach. I recall a steamy day last summer when Meg, seeking the “real feel” of that day’s costume, wrapped her slender little body in a jump rope and pleaded with me to pull on the two ends as tightly as I could as she held her breath. After the jump-rope corset was fastened, Meg explained, she could layer on the rest of the clothes and finally perspire like a true Victorian.

When Don and I attended Back-to-School Night, we enjoyed the poster on which all of the children in Meg’s class had answered the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We identified her response right away. Amid a field of future firefighters and veterinarians, Meg was the only student who aspired to be a Rich Victorian Lady.

While on some days wealth gets the focus, on others poverty prevails. During her Annie phase, I caught Meg red-handed (she was bleeding at the knuckles), scrubbing her dress on a rock in the backyard, determined to make it more ragged. We dubbed it the Orphan Effect. Nor does she entirely shun princesses. After pulling together a mean Cinderella-before-the-ball ensemble, complete with tattered apron and kerchief, my child—who has never once cleaned her room—asked, “Shall I scrub the terrace or do the laundry now, Mother?”

Faced with the laundry issue, my patience grows threadbare. Some evenings I’m faced with ten discarded costumes to launder or put away. Yes, I washed the brown hand towel that we transformed (with minor cuts for arm holes) into a Brownie vest during an emergency costume creation last night. The towel had toothpaste on it. But what about the American Indian costume? The last two times Meg wore that number, she stained the hand-wash-only, pseudo-suede fabric while making “dye” from berries in the backyard. From what Meg tells me, children from the Lenni Lenape tribe in New Jersey made dye that way 400 years ago. I have to wonder if the Lenni Lenape mothers scrubbed out berry stains by moonlight as their computers chirped deadline reminders.

Then there’s the question of what to put away. When six of my silk scarves have been tied together into an elaborate Indonesian costume (“I think it really looks like hand-dyed batik cloth, Mom!”), should I untie them and return them to my drawer of long-forgotten scarves? Or should I donate them to the dress-up trunk and give those gorgeous scarves a chance at a second life?

Despite the craziness, I’ve always known in my heart that this dressing-up business is healthy. After all, it’s good, clean (well, maybe not clean) fun that’s a far cry from seizure-causing computer games and trance-inducing TV. What I didn’t realize was that Meg’s Diana Ross–style approach to changing clothes was improving my mental and social well-being.

Last month, we invited a couple (he’s a lawyer, she a finance whiz) over for a game of Cranium. I feared that my stay-at-home-Mom cranium wouldn’t pass the test of a grown-up game. Don pulled the first card from the deck and challenged me to define batik. Old soft-skull here didn’t even need the multiple choices to answer “Indonesian hand-dyed cloth!”

Days later, at a high-browed fundraiser, I approached a circle discussing Halloween costumes—specifically, the buttons one mother had purchased for an Amish costume she was sewing. “The Amish don’t wear buttons or zippers,” I blurted. “You’ll need hooks and eyes to be authentic.”

I’m brilliant! I know the braided loop on a traditional Asian costume is a frog. (Meg’s frogs often need mending.) I know the names of my town’s founding families (after strolling through the old cemetery while Meg, wearing her Colonial Williamsburg dress, pretended to be visiting her relatives’ graves). I know that Amelia Bloomer caused a scandal in the mid-1800s when, tired of long dresses, she began wearing balloon-legged trousers and shorter skirts. Her “bloomers” became a symbol for a reformation of women’s clothing, and for the women’s-rights movement in general.

I wonder what will become of my favorite teacher, Meg. Many predict that she will emerge into a fine actress. A neighbor foresees a career as a costume designer. Considering Meg’s scholarly approach to the whole thing, I lean toward sociologist. After all, yesterday, after she’d been banished to her room for misbehaving, she couldn’t resist running down the stairs to share what she’d just discovered in her library book, Colonial Times from A to Z. “This is out of control! You won’t believe it, but I discovered something in common between people who wear kimonos and the American colonists. Colonial people wore no underpants!”
I really do learn something new each day.

For more information about imaginative play, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “All the World’s a Stage,” no. 106 and “The Wildflower Day Camp,” no. 52.

Erin Gehan writes from her 200-year-old home in Bernardsville, New Jersey. (Meg’s favorite thing about her house is that real old-fashioned people slept in her very own bedroom.) Erin and Don have two daughters, Meghan (now 6) and Carolyn (4).

Photo provided by the author.

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