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December 1, 2011


by admin
Princess dress-up duds

Contributor: Storey Zimmerman

Also by this contributor: “PG-13 Movies” 

The only specific memory I have of Pre-Kindergarten is of the legendary purple dress. The purple dress was my favorite plaything in the toybox at school. Whenever we would be released for recess, I, along with almost every other girl in our class, ran straight to the dress-up area to grab the purple dress. My best friend, Su, and I fought over the purple dress almost constantly, resorting to violent outbursts at some points just so we could be the one in the pretty dress. Eventually, our teacher had to designate specific days when the dress would be mine, and other days when the dress would be Su’s.  We were obsessed with this dress and looking pretty.


Children like to play dress-up. Adults like to play dress-up. Even dogs like to play dress-up. (OK, maybe that’s not true, but people like to make their dogs dress-up).  This is evidenced by the fact that Halloween is such a huge cash cow for companies. Costumes give people a chance to be someone they aren’t. They allow people to imagine their life differently for a little while, to get away from themselves. When you search for “children’s dress up clothes” on Google, 1,210,000 results show up. Going through the first 4 pages, every single result is for a store where you can purchase dress-up clothes for children. The first one that I clicked on was where you can purchase “children’s dress up clothes and costumes for princesses, fairies and even dress ups for dolls!”[1] The largest genre of dress-up clothes that I’ve seen is princess dress-up, followed by fairy dress-up, THEN comes occupational dress-up outfits. Most of the sites are targeted at girls, with a small portion of dress-up clothes for boys.


Princess dress-up duds

Playing dress-up in itself is not a specifically gendered act, but the types of clothes that children might wear while playing have a gendered tone. I remember that the boys in my Pre-Kindergarten class didn’t share the same excitement as the girls over the purple dress, but they DID play dress-up with us. In our classroom, we had some masks, ties, capes, fireman hats, cowboy hats, and old men’s shirts that the boys played with a lot of the time. The girls also played with these things, but the boys never crossed over to play with the girls’ dresses, purses, and high heels. If any of the boys did pick up the girls’ toys, they were chastised by the other boys in the class, so the situation was just avoided altogether.


Karin Martin observed children in a preschool and discovered that “Children interpreted each other’s’ bodily adornments as gendered, even when other interpretations were plausible.” [2] In her observations of 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds, she discovered that the 3-year-olds experimented more with gender than the older children did. A pair of 3-year-old boys played in dresses and one boy carried around a pocketbook. The 5-year-old girls dressed up solely in women’s clothing, trying to look older and “fancy”1.


Kenneth Zucker, et al. performed an experiment where children were read stories about a certain boy that expressed four sex-type behaviors ranging from exclusively masculine to exclusively feminine. Boys reading the stories said they would rather be friends with the exclusively masculine boy and their friendship ratings became more negative with each addition of a feminine behavior. The girls preferred the exclusively feminine boy as a friend. [3] This provides an explanation as to why boys in the classroom tend to stray away from playing dress-up with the girls, or at least with the girls’ outfits.


My boyfriend, who has 3 sisters, told me that he remembers playing dress-up with them all of the time. He remembers distinctly that he wore dresses just as much as he wore his fireman hat. He had no problem dressing like a girl when with his sisters, but only with his sisters. This is most likely because his sisters were more likely to play with him if he did things they liked.


Dress-up Dazz-up (as I used to call it as a 4-year-old little girl) is a very popular form of play for children as well as adults, and is even encouraged to catalyze the development of children’s imaginations. It may be true that it is perpetuating the separation of genders in young children, but no more than the play with baby dolls versus trucks or play kitchens versus outdoor play, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

[1] “Children’s Dress Up Clothes Princess Dresses Fairy Dance and More”, n.d., Little Dress Up Shop

[2] Karin A. Martin, “Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools,” American Sociological Review 63, no. 4 (1998): 494-511.

[3] Kenneth J. Zucker et al., “Children’s appraisals of sex-typed behavior in their peers,” Sex Roles 33 (December 1995): 703-725.




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