They’re all born naked, and some never look quite right in anything but a birthday suit.
Children come in two sorts. The difference between the varieties is evident not when they are naked — not that difference — but when they are fully clothed.
There are, in my experience, Dressers and… not undressers, no … Non-dressers. A Non-dresser can easily be spotted at the school gates: skirt slewed round to one side, tights a-wrinkle and a snarled-up spare tyre of vest and cardigan round the middle, occasionally revealing an expanse of bare flesh.
An uncaring dipso who has hocked the iron to buy liquor
The Dresser, on the other hand, looks as though his clothes were actually bought for him, as though his socks really are a pair because they come the same distance up each leg, and as though his mother is not an uncaring dipso who has hocked the iron so she can buy Liquor.
I had one of each type. A boy Non-dresser and a girl Dresser. My son had to be checked before he left the house each morning to ensure that his trousers were facing the right way round and that he’d got a sock on each foot. My daughter, however, would select unaided which vest co-ordinates with whatever sweater she chose to match her mini-kilt. But the difference is nothing to do with gender; I’ve known many cases the other way round.
Regrettably good taste doesn’t accompany the ability to dress oneself
Characteristics can emerge very young. The Dresser infant will positively assist you by presenting alternate arms and then pushing them through and round the corners of a stiff little cardigan. The Non-dresser won’t even lie still on her changing mat long enough for you to work out the complex arrangement of poppers round the crutch of her stretchsuit.
Young Dressers find great joy in selecting their own outfits. Regrettably, good taste does not automatically accompany the ability to dress oneself. I have had to go round Sainsbury’s in Norwich with a niece who’d attired herself in a pair of velvet shorts, Wellies, a checked gingham tablecloth cloak and an eggbox hat (made at nursery) on her head.
Wouldn’t notice that the vain old ruler was starkers
Both types seem to retain their early attitude to sartorial elegance as they grow up. Imagine them in the crowd when the Emperor appeared in his ‘new clothes’. The Non-dresser wouldn’t notice that the vain old ruler was starkers, and the Dresser would probably say, ‘I don’t know what he’s wearing, but it certainly needs ironing.’
New clothes have a special appeal for the Dresser: fresh frocks on shop hangers; stapled-together socks; brand-new folded shirts concealing a dozen deadly pins; soft furry sweaters — all magic on that first time of wearing, and none of it ever the same again.
There’s fascination in old clothes, too. Younger siblings long for the borrowed finery of an older brother or sister, believing that Beauty will be inherited with The Blue Dress, and Wit with the Peppa Pig T-shirt.
Some get a rotten deal, though. My mother used very occasionally to dress her four close-in-age daughters in identical ‘best’ dresses, leading us out on high days and holidays like a graduated line of quads. Ooh-aah from the passers-by. Ugh from the youngest of the four who had to work her way through quadruplicate hand-me-downs.
My own daughter inherited so many pass-downs from older cousins and bigger girlfriends that when given something she hadn’t worn before, would asks politely, ‘Who gived this?’
I’ve found one activity that’s good for both types — dressing up. Dressers are, of course, expert and accomplished dressers-up. And Non-dressers get practice with buttons and net petticoats (a skill scarce needed nowadays).
Most parents and grandparents go gooey at the sight of a toddler stomping playfully in Daddy’s giant boots. It’s more disconcerting, though, when you see your 5-year-old nephew clacking round in your black stiletto slingbacks with far more aplomb than you ever did.
The more practice they get, the better
Still, you’ve got to let them practice. And do up their own coat buttons, even if it’s wrong and takes ages. The more practice they get, the better. The temptation is to assist a Non-dresser. Don’t. If they aren’t retrained young, they’ll never get the hang of it, or the zip or the button of it, either.
I know of one mother who was required to provide ten complete changes of clothes for her son’s ten-day school cruise in the Norwegian Fjords. He returned home with nine sets still immaculate and folded in his suitcase.
The only sure way I know to encourage a Non-dresser is to lay out his clothes — every garment — on the end of his bed, and withhold breakfast until he’s attempted to insert himself in each one. You can help him along with this easy-to-remember set of rules: Y-fronts face the front; labels go at the back; every button has its own buttonhole and, finally, does it look the same both sides?
Ah, I meant to say, you must lay out the clothes in the right order, so that he or she comes to the underwear before the outer garments. Someone forgot to tell Superman’s Mum this bit, you know. That’s why he wears his knickers on the outside.