TRIED & TESTED; Are you a Disney fairy, an M&S superhero or a blow-up pumpkin? Our junior consumers size up the options
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The Independent Culture
Let's face it with an old sheet for a cape, his Dad's hat and a plastic sword, any six-year-old can be a superhero. Or a ghost. Or a cowboy. But the power of children's imaginations doesn't mean they are immune to the lure of shop-bought fancy dress. In our trial of children's ready-made dressing-up costumes, we found miniature versions of professional uniforms - nurse, policeman, fireman etc - were disdained by the young as hopelessly old-fashioned. Even for the spooky season of Hallowe'en, costumes relating to screen heroes were the most coveted items.


Our six principal dressing-up fans were Fred (six) and Joe (three) Caplin; Amy (seven) and Arthur (four) Gallimore; and Beth (eight) and David (six) Jones, together with their parents and assorted friends.


We chose a diverse selection of costumes with and without accessories and assessed them in terms of both instant and long term child-appeal; wearability and comfort; and cost and quality.


Marks & Spencer, size 2-4 pounds 19, 4-8 pounds 20

There is no accounting for children's tastes - or is it that good old M&S are wiser than the rest of us? Most parents questioned thought that their children would be tired of superheroes Batman and Superman. They were wrong. All the boys on the panel preferred these simple, two-piece, silky knit costumes ("They're not much better than pyjamas, really" - Carol Homden) to all the others chosen. At the trial session, they fought over who should wear Batman and who Superman. Once they had decided, they fought each other in their new personae.

"The trouble with these superhero costumes is that they make the children so aggressive," complained Claire Gallimore. But only one criticism came from the boys: "They don't have belts," said David Jones. A batbelt is particularly powerful, apparently. A week later, Arthur Gallimore was still wearing his oversized Batman costume, not the least fazed by the fact that the one he carried away was three sizes too big and slipped down around his ankles most of the time. The Caplin boys were also reported to be entranced by the M&S costumes, although their mother commented: "The fact that the capes come attached seems practical at first, but it isn't such a good thing when the costume has to go in the wash, because then they can't wear the magic cape to the shops."


Ideal Air Fun, around pounds 25

These inflatable costumes for all ages keep the wearer cool as well as making them appear spherical, by means of a battery-operated interior fan. Naturally, the wearer is pursued by an irritating hairdryer noise wherever they go, and the drawstrings at the costume's extremities have to be tightly closed in order to achieve the proper effect, otherwise the jolly pumpkin is "more of a humiliating pear" (Simon Gallimore). But everyone agreed that these costumes were a brilliantly funny and suitable for both adults and children on a Hallowe'en spree. "We can't wait for trick or treat - we should make a fortune in these. You could easily recover the pounds 25 outlay," reckoned Julie Jones.

The natty hats are well-elasticated so they don't fall off, and it was discovered that the adult sizes can easily be worn by children of six to eight, whose legs disappear under the airy globe. A bizarre corollary of looking like a punchbag, however, is that children find the desire to hug, pat or punch you irresistible. The witch costume was less popular than the pumpkin - "Everyone knows witches aren't fat, they're thin," said Claire Gallimore - and more enthusiasm was generated by the other inflatable costumes illustrated on the box. A Sumo wrestler outfit and Father Christmas seemed to be the most desirable.


Disney, pounds 24.99, magic wand pounds 1.99

An "utterly gorgeous piece of lime-green froth with sparkly straps", as one parent put it, the Tinkerbell costume was most admired by the adults, who thought any little girl would be thrilled to wear a lurid net tutu. The girl panellists were more reserved in their praise, summing up the Tinkerbell costume as "pretty, but a bit scratchy" and taking it off after a few twirls.

Was their indifference related to their ignorance of the classic Disney character? Amy Gallimore described Tinkerbell as "Peter Pan's friend", but had no notion of what happens to her (did she mean Wendy, maybe?) Beth Jones said Tinkerbell was her favourite character from the film of Peter Pan, adding emphatically, "But she doesn't wear such a bright dress in the film - she's only bright when she has fairy dust on her." Nonetheless, she wore the costume often during the following week, "with a T-shirt underneath," said her mother. The panellists all found the yellow plastic wand "unexciting - and expensive, even if it is luminous". Julie Jones was not the only parent to note that costumes from films "are enjoyed as a reprise of the movie, rather than sparking any imaginative play in the way that traditional costumes do. They just wear them to parties for effect."


Charlie Crow Costumes, pounds 20-25rrp

Marketed by its manufacturers as a "Hallowe'en wizard or witch costume", this purple robe with starry symbols, matching pointy hat and black detachable cape produced a marked indifference in the panel, despite the fact that the robe was easy to slip on over clothes and the hat rather fetching above small faces. The problem was one of image: the younger children didn't know what a wizard was, and none of the panel wanted to be a witch, because as Amy Gallimore said, "a witch is a bad person." Their parents thought they might change their minds with a little more tuition about Hallowe'en traditions.


Charlie Crow Costumes, pounds 20-25rrp

Chosen as a representative animal costume which also had cartoon associations, this fake fur, hooded Dalmatian outfit proved to be more of a treat for onlookers than for wearers. "It's too sore," said Fred Caplin, as the inside of the fur fabric rubbed on his bare skin. "It's too hot," said Arthur, who also peeled off the black and white spotted costume after a few minutes. The parents, meanwhile, thought their children looked "very cute and cuddly" (Carol Homden) as dalmatians and were keen to photograph them while they were wearing the costume. A permanent fan was subsequently found in Helen Fanthorpe (aged four), who had already "spent the whole summer holidays pretending to be a dog" according to her mother. Helen loved it, and said she wished it were winter now.


Disney, pounds 29.99, Buzz mask pounds 3.99

"I don't want to be Buzz, because he breaks his arm," said Arthur Gallimore of the Buzz Lightyear costume, illustrating the level of identification children can have with screen characters. Indeed, a strange phenomenon surfaced with regard to the Buzz character from Disney's Toy Story. The costume, which was the most expensive on trial, was deemed one of the "most realistic" by both children and parents - eerily so, according to Steve Caplin - partly because a hood and moulded plastic mask completely obscure the wearer's head. But two of the boys didn't want to play at being Buzz, even though they already owned - and loved - Buzz Lightyear toys. Steve Caplin offered an explanation: "When they play with the doll, they are being Andy (the boy hero of Toy Story). Why would you want to be Buzz? He's just a toy in the film, and realising it gives him a nervous breakdown." Quite. On the other hand, David Jones found the costume "very comfy" and enjoyed sticking his tongue through the mouth slit of the mask, even if, "You can only see forwards through the mask, not sideways, but on the video it is a round space helmet, so it wouldn't be a problem." On the whole, though, David would rather have been Potatohead from Toy Story, "because he's in charge when Woody's not there."


Warner Bros, pounds 20, mask pounds 4

This costume was the surprise winner of our survey. Produced by Warner Bros as a piece of film merchandise, it consists of a slinky black, super- comfortable catsuit with a pink bat logo and a detachable cape, and "no zippy bits, you just have to climb in - it's a bit like a boyish sort of outfit," said Beth Jones. Once on, the costume is sexy and realistic - "It beats Tinkerbell hands down," said Carol Homden. Having to pay pounds 4 extra for the small, black fabric mask did not go down well with parents - until it proved to be the most wearable, and therefore most enduring, accessory.

The ensemble was Amy Gallimore's absolute favourite. "It makes me feel springy and strong," she said, breaking into a series of balletic hops. "It would pass unnoticed in many offices in central London," commented her father, drily. Amy wore the outfit both at home and to a party (unheard of value) and reported, "You can eat your tea in the mask. You couldn't if you were Buzz." Beth liked the cape "because it flies out in the wind," and, still enamoured after two weeks, declared the Batgirl outfit looked "good with short boots, like Scary Spice." The ultimate accolade.


Batman and Superman from Marks & Spencer nationwide; Tinkerbell and Buzz Lightyear from Disney Stores, tel 01923 220022; Hallowe'en Wizard and Dalmatian from Charlie Crow Costumes, mail order 01782 417133; inflatable Ideal Air Fun costumes, tel 0116 264 1400; Batgirl from Warner Bros Studio Stores, information line 0171 432 7077. !