Extravagant, garish and irredeemably ostentatious Christmas jumpers will shortly be gifted and unwrapped in many households in the UK over the festive season. Already last year’s editions have appeared at parties and other workplace events, often requiring a donation to charity as penance for wearing such tasteless attire.
How has this 21st-century Christmas ritual suddenly happened? There has been no inspiration evident from Parisian or Milanese couturiers for Santa Claus prints, embossed reindeer sweaters or snowman-patterned knitwear. The standard rules of consumer behaviour regarding the dissemination of a trend have been largely bypassed.
If anything, celebrities who would normally influence the general public in adopting such festive fashion finery seem to have been much less relevant than usual. Instead social media has played a big part. Selfies and other tweeted pictures of frolicking members of staff in restaurants and clubs have led to the Christmas sweater phenomenon becoming viral.
What is fashion anyway?
You can explain fashion in many different ways, but one of the best definitions is this one from the Oxford Dictionary: “A popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration, or behaviour.” Christmas sweaters are certainly popular, if only for a few days a year. They promote, or are intended to promote, behaviour that is fun and appropriate to the festive season.
Having said that, Christmas jumpers are some distance from our usual notion of fashion. At other times of the year, and in most typically “fashionable” contexts, they would be regarded as tacky and uncool. Neither are they designed to emphasise a particular part of the body, for sexual attraction or other reasons, which is a key component of many fashion trends.
They are fashionable only in an ironic or post-modern sense. Their purpose is arguably to satirise the style-establishment’s view that looking good is a serious business and that clothing is not just worn to keep warm. And they are far from the first fashion to have been initiated by consumers as a deliberately ironic rebuttal of the mores of the established order. So what follows is my countdown of six ironic fashions, some of which are now almost completely adopted by the mainstream. It might be asking over much to expect Christmas jumpers to make the same transition, but fashion history suggests you shouldn’t rule it out entirely …
6. Full beards
Facial hair in general goes in and out of fashion, but the extravagant beards now sported by western European and American “hipster” men, which mimic the whiskers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, are deliberately ironic. The fact that Islamic fundamentalists also wear long beards adds to the frisson.
Once largely only adorned antipodean tribespeople, sailors and bikers, tattoos used to be regarded as very much a lower-class phenomenon. Now studies indicate that more than 20% of the UK population, both male and female, have one. Much of the popularity of tattoos is attributable to the huge media attention focused on musicians, sports stars and models who are pictured showing off their buff and immaculately inked bodies. Every new tattoo acquired by Rihanna, David Beckham or Cara Delevingne will quickly be copied by a fan somewhere in the world.
Punk (and later grunge) apparel was deliberately anti-fashion, though paradoxically the king and queen of punk, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, were already established in the music and retail industries some time before the phenomenon really took off. Punk style was ripped T-shirts, safety pins, bin-liners and bondage trousers. These days, defamatory and sometimes provocative slogan prints, reminiscent of punk, are staple ingredients of modern chain-store clothing ranges.
3. Underwear as outerwear
This was originated by Coco Chanel in the 1920s, who took the jersey T-shirt worn then by women as a vest and redefined it as a chic outerwear garment. In the 1980s, Jean-Paul Gaultier designed the infamous stage costume for Madonna with the conical bra-cups. Now, such costumes are de rigueur for risqué female pop stars and the visible bra-strap is part of the fashion vocabulary of almost every teenage girl.
2. Geek-chic spectacles
As worn by every celebrity from Alexa Chung to Jay-Z, these have been the key eyewear style worldwide for the last ten years. The shape is copied from the typical frames worn in the 1950s, and the continuing popularity of black Ray-Ban “Wayfarer” sunglasses was a key influence. In the UK this shape was associated with the NHS, which makes the wearing of this style by good-looking fashionistas especially ironic. Nowadays wearing nerdy spectacles is a choice, rather than the fashion death-sentence it was when I was growing up!
These are the ultimate post-modern, ironic fashion product. Denim jeans were invented by Levi-Strauss in the 19th century, and quickly became the work clothing of choice for miners and cowboys because of the fabric’s durability.
They gradually became assimilated into the fashion mainstream as actors, who were playing cowboys in films and on television, began to enjoy the ease and comfort of the jeans cut over a more traditional trouser fit, especially once they were worn in. Later Marilyn Monroe wore jeans, making them sexy and desirable. Now jeans are made deliberately “distressed”, simulating the ravages of outdoor work that few of those that can afford the high prices top jeans brands command would ever willingly undertake.