Clothes are not just for Christmas

(Or the Sociological Significance of the Christmas Jumper)


A friend of mine recently bought a Christmas jumper. It is navy blue with a red and white embroidered pattern running horizontally across the chest. He is very excited. My friend is slight, but the jumper is large, which apparently makes it more comfortable. This was an important consideration for my friend, who intends to wear the jumper everyday of the festive period. He anticipates that the jumper, when worn in front of an open fire, will engender season-appropriate feelings of mirth and merriment. If this happens, it will be a fine example of the transnaturing power of clothing; that is, the ability of dress to ‘give a nature to what previously had no nature [or to] take an existing nature and transnature it.’[i] Alas, I suspect the jumper is nowhere near as tasteful as my friend believes and that this is, in fact, a typical tale of Christmas getting the better of people. Shortly after I was regaled with the story of this ‘successful’ shopping venture, a colleague told me about his neighbour, whom he had seen decorating the exterior of his house with fairy lights. This is not uncommon sight at this time of year, but my colleague was surprised that his neighbour had chosen to undertake this task just hours after learning that his wife had left him. These two vignettes reinforce my view that the ‘Christmas spirit’ is akin to an entheogenic drug, which supplies bounteous qualities of enthusiasm and goodwill, but has the unfortunate side of effect of paralysing people’s cognitive faculties.

Fair Isle Jumpers

The plight of the recently lonely neighbour is heart wrenching, but of passing moment for a blog concerned with dress. It is the jumper that I want to focus on. A man’s (conscious) decision to wear a gaudy and ill-fitting jumper is, generally and mercifully, limited to the festive period. The Christmas sweater is a sartorial aberration, and is marketed as such. If people wish to ‘feel like a kid at Christmas’ they can shop at websites like Retrofestive, which has a specific section for ‘Ugly Christmas Sweaters,’ and choose from eleven different styles of knitwear.[ii] The company also sells a book, Rock Your Christmas Sweater, which features ‘full-color photos of people (and pets!) in hilariously awful Christmas sweaters accompanied by funny captions.’ But as is so often the case, exceptions prove the rule. The phenomenon of the Christmas jumper reveals much about the social significance of cloth and dress. So, here comes the sociology…

To Conform

Bridget Jones' DiaryA man’s decision (voluntary or otherwise) to wear a Christmas jumper is, in the first instance, about conformity. Think of Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) in the film Bridget Jones’ Diary, who grudgingly dons a black roll-neck sweater featuring a large red-nosed bust of Rudolph, because he is expected to. Social situations work best when there is a ‘veneer of consensus,’ as Erving Goffman has explained. This means that people within a particular group conceal their individual wants ‘behind the values to which everyone present feels obliged to give lip service.’[iii] Creating an ‘interactional modus vivendi’ is important, especially among larger gatherings of people (i.e. at Christmas), because it promotes cohesion and thus leads to a more constructive relationship, whether personal or professional.[iv] Goffman’s study supplements the research of Norbert Elias. In two books and many more articles, Elias endeavoured to chart the evolution of human manners and behaviour from the Middle Ages into modernity. He showed how financial and military growth facilitated the creation of monopolies, as powerful warriors assumed control over the coercive apparatus of rule, chiefly the use of force.[v] The creation of these monopolies, which prefigured the formation of states, reduced violence within society and increased human interdependence as commercial, cultural and political bonds were established between different groups of people. As society became more complex, people’s habitus, their ‘automatically functioning self-restraint’, changed.[vi] People were increasingly concerned about their behaviour within society and wished to avoid inflicting shame and embarrassment on themselves and others.[vii] In other words, and to link back to Goffman, they understood the need to develop an ‘interactional modus vivendi and to conform.

The means by which a ‘veneer of consensus’ is established is complex. Much depends on perception. Upon entering a new social situation, people create an impression by the expressions they give and by the expressions they give off. Expressions that are given refer chiefly to verbal communication; expressions that are given off cover broader forms of communication, but refer mainly to behaviour.[viii] Whilst Goffman and Elias do not talk at length about clothing in their work, a person’s style of dress informs the perception that others have of them. Cloth, and thus clothing, has a singular ability to fashion a sense of individual identity and group compliance, as Jane Schneider and Annette B. Weiner, explain:

Worn or displayed in an emblematic way, cloth can denote variations in age, sex, rank, status, and group affiliation. As much as cloth discloses it can conceal, however, homogenizing difference through uniforms or sackcloth, or superimposing disguised identities through costumes and masks. Cloth can also communicate the wearer’s or user’s ideological values and claims. Complex moral and ethical issues of dominance and autonomy, opulence and poverty, continence and sexuality, find ready expression through cloth.[ix]

Reza ShahHistory is rich with examples of clothing being used to promote conformity. In twentieth-century Iran, for example, the government of King Reza Shah promoted, and enforced, a rapid process of Westernisation in dress, which included the abolition of the woman’s veil.[x] The conformity to western vogues and the suppression of native costume was an attempt to promote nation-building and to demonstrate the progress that Iran had made under Shah’s leadership. It was no coincidence that the announcement of the unveiling policy coincided with the opening of a new teaching training college in Tehran. Before the assembled audience, which included women who had been told to unveil, Reza Shah explained that the ‘knowledge and learning’ that women, in particular, would acquire from the college would enable them to become aware of their ‘rights, privileges and duties to serve [their] homeland.’[xi] In Shah’s mind there was an indissoluble connection between Iran’s quest for modernity and the fostering of a suitable national dress that all of his subjects would wear. To paraphrase Benedict Anderson, Iranians would ‘imagine each other as a community if they all looked alike.’[xii] Fostering a sense of unity is often crucial if a new idea, or regime, is to establish itself. It has been suggested that President of South Sudan, the world’s newest country, wears dark suits in conformity with other European political leaders to communicate his aspiration to emulate Western modernity.[xiii]

But conformity in dress is not solely a story of novelty. Much of the time, it is about custom and tradition. Throughout time and across the globe, from thirteenth-century England to nineteenth-century Bali, sumptuary legislation has tried to enforce sartorial vogues among differing social levels.[xiv] Obtaining, or enforcing, sartorial conformity with regards to what can be worn, by whom and when, has always been an important means of supporting social hierarchies. Dressing in accordance with one’s rank is especially pertinent in political systems that have a deified or anointed ruler at their apex. The ruler is often set apart by a series of sartorial conventions all of their own to signify their heightened status;[xv] for example, the purple worn exclusively by Byzantine emperors and his immediate family.

But knowing the rules of the sartorial game (inevitably) allows people to break them. To create the impression of (professional) success today, people must give off (intentionally or not) the expression of wealth. Almost invariably this means the acquisition of material goods. A paradigm exists here because people tend to accept, or conform to, the notion that certain items, from fast cars to a tailored wardrobe, are bought by rich, and (?thus) successful, people. If this outlook is fostered by publications like The Daily Telegraph’s How to Spend It, it is supported scientifically by a recent study by Ohio State University, which appears to show that feelings of social exclusion promote status expenditure. The lead author of the study, Philip Mazzocco, explains:

Anyone who is feeling low status is going to try to compensate. And in our capitalistic, consumption-oriented society, one way to compensate is to buy high-status products.[xvi]

The conclusions of this report comment on a present phenomenon, but sensitivity to signifiers of wealth and status is hardly a new concern. People in the medieval period were equally aware, and envious, of those who seemed to have more. Relying on an audience’s understanding of the correlation between dress and status, medieval literature made great play with clothing to indicate a character’s changing fortunes. In a twelfth-century version of Tristan and Yseut, for example, Tristan’s exile and poverty is accompanied by the removal of his clothes, to signify his lack of status.[xvii] In the story, Tristan and Yseut, ‘very sophisticated manipulators of appearance’, also use costume to disguise and deceive.[xviii]

So, clothing indicates a person’s conformity with the ideas and expectations of the social grouping of which they are, permanently or temporarily, for business or pleasure, a member. We can therefore understand one sociological reason why the Christmas jumper is worn. Tristan and Yseut’s use of dress to deceive introduces the second sociologically significant reason why men may choose to wear a Christmas jumper this season: to challenge.

To Challenge

However individual a person tries to be, their dress tends to designate conformity with a particular social status or lifestyle (attained or desired).[xix] This (often) subconscious conformity can be challenged if a person chooses to wear something out of character. There will be many reasons why somebody acts out, sartorially speaking, but a decision to challenge, and change, a current clothing conformity will probably stem from a desire to express compliance with a different style or vogue, chiefly because a person wishes to identify with another social group, which they wish to join. In the case of the festive period, the decision to don a Christmas jumper signifies the temporary suspension of workaday concerns, which is symbolised by conformity to working attire among colleagues, and the acknowledgement and acceptance of the ‘magic’ of Christmas among friends and family.

People had until wait until the eighteenth century and Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion for the eloquent statement that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but the concept was understood long before, at least as it related to raiment. For where there was compliance in dress, so there was also challenge in dress. This point was demonstrated annually in many north-west European cities on 1 January, when the ‘Feast of Fools’ was celebrated. The New Year did not start at the beginning of January until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752,[xx] but 1 January held significance from pagan times. It was a considered a time for new beginnings, as the two-faced deity Janus, who looked backwards and forwards, demonstrated.[xxi] The Feast inverted social and religious symbols, most notably by a having a young boy dress and parade as a bishop. The frivolities in January were particular, but the dress of court gestures, which was bright and multi-coloured, provided a regular demonstration of misrule and challenge to authority. Jesters often wore costumes of green and yellow; colours associated with chaos.[xxii] In both examples, the challenge posed by a difference in dress was short-lived and the apparent rejection of social hierarchies actually served to reinforce their relevance and pervasiveness.

Cross DressingAnother, more persistent and serious, form of sartorial challenge is transvestism. Transvestism has a long history, but as a form of popular entertainment (generally, women dressing as men) it flourished in the early to middle-eighteenth century, chiefly in France. The popularity of cross-dressing performance peaked around 1860, but it retained a following through to the first half of the twentieth century.[xxiii] The challenge posed by women dressing as young males was initially perceived as playful; quite literally, a bit of a laugh. The ‘discovery of adolescence’ changed this. A consequence of profound social and economic development, ‘the growing consciousness about youth released powerful intellectual responses as much from writers as from psychologists and educators.’[xxiv] A growing concern about adolescent sexuality merged with the palpable sense of ennui that is evident in much ‘fin-de-siècle generational thinking.’ This thinking ‘called for a new sort of youth who would ensure the future of the nation. The reformed young man would have to rebel against their fathers and prefer action to thought, muscles to brains, and belief to speculation.’[xxv] The experience of the First World War crystallised these thoughts and turned critics against cross-dress performances, which were increasingly considered to be subversive. Whilst cross-dressing remains an important element in the stage persona of certain musicians today, the threat it appears to pose has not diminished. This probably stems from an uncertainty about which social or, more directly, which gender group the man or woman is identifying with; conventional mores would suggest that it has to be one or the other, not both simultaneously.[xxvi]

DrakesSo, a challenge to sartorial convention indicates a desire to break free of an existing ‘veneer of consensus’, usually to express conformity with a different set of ideals and a new social grouping. We can therefore understand another sociological reason why the Christmas jumper is worn. The paradox that a sartorial challenge actually indicates a desire for conformity may help to explain why trends in fashion catch-on, for although people want to be individual, they rarely want to be different. This could explain the current vogue for Fair Isle jumpers among men, which are, in essence, Christmas jumpers made respectable. The January 2013 issue of British GQ features a special ‘trend’ article on Fair Isle jumpers, which are apparently no longer ‘Christmas geekwear’.[xxvii] But if this means that the sociologically significant Christmas jumper is becoming de rigueur – and my friend’s enthusiasm for his jumper indicates that it could be – will it soon fade into Christmas lore? I doubt it. But even if the jumper were rehabilitated, men and women (though for some reason, especially men) will still be expected to wear fluorescent-coloured paper party hats. It will be long time yet before dodgy dress can be separated from the Christmas holidays.

[i] A. Rosalind Jones & P. Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge, 2000), 4.

[iii] E. Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (London, 1959), 21.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] The best introduction to Nobert Elias’ work is, S. Mennell, Norbert Elias: Civilization and the Human Self-Image (London, 1989).

[vi] N. Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, tr. E. Jephcott (London, 1994), 117.

[vii] Ibid., 365-421.

[viii] Goffman, The Presentation of the Self, 14-15.

[ix] Cloth and the Human Experience, ed. J. Scheider and A.B. Weiner (Washington, 1989), 1-2.

[x] On Reza Shah’s coronation, see D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 240-41.

[xi] H.E. Chehabi, ‘Staging the Emperor’s New Clothes: Dress Codes and Nation-Building under Reza Shah,’ Iranian Studies, 26 (1993), 218.

[xii] Ibid., 225.

[xiii] T. McConnell, ‘Seen not herd’, Monocle, 52:06 (2012), 58.

[xiv] F. Lachaud, ‘Liveries of robes in England, c.1200-c.1300’, English Historical Review, 111 (1996), 279-98; C. Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton, 1980), 32.

[xv] B. Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of the Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (London, 1922), 86-91; A.B. Weiner, Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving (Berkeley, 1992), 36-40.

[xvi] ‘Who likes bling? The answer relates to social status.’ Accessed: 19-xij-2012.

[xvii] M.L. Wright, ‘Dress for Success: Béroul’s Tristan and the Restoration of Status through Clothes,’ Arthuriana, 18 (2008), 3-16.

[xviii] Wright, ‘Dress of Success’, 12.

[xix] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1975), 347-48.

[xx] This is the date when Britain and its empire adopted the Calendar. The Calendar was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII.

[xxi] B.L. Wild, ‘A Gift Inventory from the Reign of Henry III’, English Historical Review, 125 (2010), 541-2.

[xxii] M. Pastoureau, ‘Formes et couleurs du désordre: le jaune avec le vert,’ in his, Figures et Couleurs, 23-34 at 27-9; H. Pleij, Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After, tr. D. Webb(New York & Chichester, 2004), 84-5.

[xxiii] L.R. Berlanstein, ‘Breeches and Breaches: Cross-Dress Theater and the Culture of Gender Ambiguity in Modern France’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 38 (1996), 350.

[xxiv] Ibid., 359.

[xxv] Ibid., 360.

[xxvi] M. Garber, ‘The Transvestite Continuum: Liberace-Valentino-Elvis’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (New York, 2009), 210-29.

[xxvii] ‘Highlands meets high fashon.’ GQ (January, 2013), 42.

1 Comment

  1. Great post! Thankfully the fact that it is often 30 degrees on Christmas day seems to have spared my compatriots from this rather frightening tradition. Bridget Jones was basically the first we knew of it. A new t-shirt and some vibrantly coloured flip-flops (or, as we say down here, ‘thongs’) is about as challenging as it tends to get.

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