The following is a longer version of a piece that I was commissioned to write for George at ASDA. An abridged version appeared in the Sunday Express.
Few Christmas traditions generate as much amusement and attention as the Christmas jumper, with the possible exception of the Brussels sprout. And like the sprout, the jumper’s ability to provoke is at the heart of its growing appeal. Last year, George at ASDA sold over one million festive themed jumpers. This year, they are anticipating to sell even more with an expanded range of over fifty designs for men and women, children and pets, which include favourite seasonal figures, winter landscapes and popular characters from Peppa Pig, Where’s Wally to Darth Vader. Such preparations are necessary: for many people in Britain the Christmas jumper has become jolly serious, with some of its most discerning wearers starting their online knitwear search three months before the Big Day.
The festive knitwear we enjoy today, which features 3d-designs, bright colours and bold patterns, has been popular for the last twenty years. The reindeer rollneck worn by Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) suggests the winter woolly has even reached cult status. How the Christmas jumper became this potent symbol of Christmas cheer is a global tale – at times surprising – of sport, High Society, science and rebellious style.
The Christmas jumper can be traced to the heavy, warm sweaters that were hand-knitted in Scandinavia and Iceland before the twentieth century. Characterised by contrasting bands of geometric patterns, which are popular in today’s Fair Isle knits, the jumpers distinguished men from different communities, one suggestion – now largely debunked -is that this was to identify their bodies if they drowned at sea. Had these jumpers been worn by fisherman alone, it’s doubtful the style would have spread fast or far. The jumpers became widely known because they were associated with another popular – and more upbeat – subject: The Scandinavian sport of skiing.
Skiers needed warm clothing as much as fisherman and as their sport developed during the first half of the twentieth century, initially in northern Europe and then in Austria, knitwear with bands of geometric patterns, their colours influenced by forest landscapes, became common skiwear. The influenza epidemic that ravaged the world between 1918 and 1919, claiming the lives of more people than the First World War, boosted the sport of skiing – and its style – by encouraging a greater focus on health and wellbeing. As affluent travellers returned from the ski slopes of Europe with their colourful knits, the humble jumper was elevated to a symbol of luxury and glamour. Hollywood stars, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, popularised the look and lifestyle of skiing for a majority of people who lived the dream by knitting jumpers for themselves.
The combination of practicality and panache did much to promote wool and knitwear sales after the Second World War. Cheap, colourful and customisable, knitted jumpers were an attractive and commonplace wardrobe staple in the lean post-war years. Scientific advances and the development of synthetic fibres also made it possible to create jumpers that were warm, lightweight and flexible, which only enhanced their appeal. With a little
more assistance from Hollywood, the scene was now set for the festive jumper to make its debut during the 1960s.
The shawl collar cardigan, which was popular throughout the Sixties, and a must-have item in any Prepster’s wardrobe since, featured in a variety of Silver Screen contexts, worn by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (1964), Robert Vaughn in The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1965) and Alain Delon in Les Aventuriers (1967). At the same time, the fashionable cardigan – and knitwear in general – became increasingly common in Christmas advertising campaigns as models replaced suits and dresses with up-to-the-minute style to entice consumers to buy a wide range of festive goods. The winter woolly was now associated with Christmas.
Whilst jumpers were increasingly worn during the festive season, they were still a long way from the multi-sensory sweaters we know and love today. As Kurt Griswold confronted angry neighbours, disinterested family and a mean-spirited boss to create the perfect holiday in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), he wore jumpers decorated with geometric patterns rather than reindeer heads, snowmen and Santa. Macaulay Culkin’s jumpers were no more festive when he defended his family residence from the “Wet Bandits” in Home Alone (1990), although he did have an impressive range of bobble hats, one of which included a repeat reindeer design. Christmas jumpers were similarly plain in the television-movie Christmas in Connecticut (1992), directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and starring Tony Curtis. And yet, just ten years later, Colin Firth wore his striking black rollneck featuring a red-nosed Rudolph in the first of the Bridget Jones movies.
The pop-culture and catwalk of 1980s-Britain explains why festive knitwear developed attitude, and provides the final link in the story of the Christmas jumper. Throughout the Eighties there was renewed interest in vintage vogues. Boy George and the New Romantics, who wore dramatic and historically-referenced clothing, characterised this trend. In part, they offered a challenge to the period’s consumerism, which latched onto big-name brands, and the severity of Punk. Knitwear, which was authentic, affordable and flexible, provided an ideal means to create looks that were diverse, playful and individual. Fashion designers recognised this. Of course, the connection between knitwear and fashion was longstanding. In the 1950s, Coco Chanel had presented her knitted suit. Before her, Jean Patou had produced brightly coloured sportswear and Elsa Schiaparelli designed jumpers with abstract patterns. Fashion designers of the 1980s continued this tradition, but injected the angst and energy of the decade into their creations. The result was bright, heavily patterned jumpers like Joseph Ettedgui’s ‘Tiger’ turtleneck sweater and Patricia Robert’s multi-coloured patchwork Romany cardigan. The appearance of edgier knitwear on the catwalk made it widely desirable. Similar styles were soon adopted by stars of the Small Screen, including Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show, and by a variety of British television hosts, from Gyles Brandreth to Noel Edmunds.
The Christmas jumper has always had a particular appeal among Britons because of their enjoyment of quirky and playful humour, although it has become a source of merriment in America, where ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’ contests are held. Across Europe, traditional styles of jumper, which resemble those worn by twentieth-century skiers, have remained popular throughout the festive season. In recent years, the geometric pattern that characterised these early winter woollies has become more common in Britain.
It would be interesting to ask Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come about the future of festive knitwear. Three-dimensional printing and wearable technology would definitely make the winter woolly a greater sensory experience and the demand for novelty statement pieces, particularly among men, increases year-on-year. The influence of Christmas jumpers on other clothing areas, including jersey T-Shirts, sweatshirts and dresses, even accessories for pets, is likely to be another growth areas in years to come and ASDA, one the largest suppliers of festive knitwear, has begun to anticipate the trend this year as part of its expanded collection.
But to return to the present, the first two weeks of December are among the busiest for Christmas jumper buying in the UK and Christmas Sweater Day, which is an opportunity to support the work of Save the Children by fundraising in festive knitwear on 16 December, is fast approaching. So, some serious decision-making is called for if you’re planning to join the 19 per cent of Britons – 12.3 million people – who will be wearing a Christmas jumper on Christmas Day.