Today is World Book Day – a worldwide celebration of books and reading marked in over 100 countries all over the world. To mark the occasion, throughout this week children have been heading to school dressed up as their favourite literary characters. Former history lecturer turned school headteacher and mother of three children, Dr Helene Knupffer, PhD, inherited a passion for costume design from her grandmother, fashion designer née princess Nathalia Wolkonsky. Here she discusses the history of World Book Day, and weighs up the joys and challenges creating your own World Book Day costumes.
World Book Day has become an institution in schools within the UK. It is celebrated in several countries, and particularly in Spain and England, where it initially fell on April 23 (St George’s Day), the day of the remembering of Shakespeare and Cervantes as well (in a historical coincidence, Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date — 23 April 1616 — but not on the same day, if we consider the difference of calendars used at that time). Institutionalised by the Unesco in 1995, World Book Day is now a traditional fancy dress day in many schools, where children come dressed as their favourite book characters.
I work as a head teacher in a small independent bilingual school in Notting Hill but I also happen to have a deep passion for costumes, ever since at 7 years old I created myself a special badge ‘President of World Costume Designers’. My career and family life have drifted me from the professional path of costume makers, but I find in my current position many occasions to pursue this passion.
On World Book Day, children are usually keen on replicating their favourite literary characters and making their own costume out of bits of clothes and with a great attention to detail. In my own experience growing up in France, as a child picking a character from books or classic cinema has always been a great inspiration. French little girls still find Catherine Deneuve‘s Robe couleur de Soleil in Peau d’Ane by Jacques Demy – 1970 just fabulously magic. And the main reason is because the character is from a book, it is associated with words; and the written word is eternal compared to other mediums like film or television. I also have a very deep emotional relation to Russian fairy tale characters and love sewing traditional costumes, which are impossible to find in a non-caricatural version outside specialised import boutique websites.
We all have our own preferences when it comes to book characters and there is something quite exciting about designing a costume from scratch, just trying to resemble as much as you can to the illustration you found in the book you love. It is like embracing the book by the magical wand of your own imagination. Creating something unique. It has certainly to do with the affirmation of your own mind and beyond, the concretisation of your own dreams. It is even often a challenge to gender identification.
Of course, there are pros and cons to both handmade and store-bought costumes. A store-bought would obviously often be shinier and cuts down a lot of the hassle when it comes to fancy dress. The measurements are right, all accessories are included, it gives a nice wow effect, kids are happy. It is also (sometimes) the cheapest solution and one click away if ordered online. For a more sustainable option, you can also often find them in charity shops.
Handmade costumes, on the other hand, have the advantage of being cost effective if you recycle existing clothes from your closet, but can get expensive if you start sewing from a specific fabric. When you start adding details and accessories, the bill can grow quite fast, not to mention the time spent sewing or crafting the item. But the end result can look much more realistic and the sense of pride of a child that has designed his or her own costume is certainly worth the world.
The costumes are more comfortable if you use existing clothes as a basis, much more sustainable as well. A nicely sewed costume will also last generations and better survive those outdoor playtimes. When it comes to World Book Day, older children are often willing to join the makers club too.
Image credit: World Book Day
So, if you and your child are a bit crafty and are up to it, take the challenge and DIY your World Book Day costume. Here are a few tips for designing your own fancy dress:
- Choose your character carefully – historical characters often just require the right colour of cape and few accessories.
- A white shirt and some black pants would make a good basis to pretty much any costume.
- If you sew, choose a nice cotton toile or even upholstery fabrics to get a realistic effect, basic 70’s jumpsuit, skating skirt or simple dress patterns would make the trick.
- Pay attention to shoes, hair style and accessories.
- Explore book illustrations to get the little details right.
- Try to imagine the costume is actually a real set of clothes.
- Popular characters lately would be Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, Alice in the Wonderland or Where’s Wally.
- Avoid the Frozen ones – as chances are you will have four Elsas and two Anna’s already in your child’s class.