There was a time when no right-thinking fashion follower would have gone anywhere near a novelty Christmas jumper – sartorially, it was considered firmly beyond the acceptable boundaries of good taste. Now, the festive wooly or ‘it knit’ is not only the last word among the fashion cognoscenti, but it has also spread seamlessly into the mainstream. Comedy snowmen, skiing polar bears, dancing Santas – there is now no escape.
In stores and online this winter is a vast – some might say overwhelming − variety of the cute, the kitsch and the wacky, all flying off the shelves. On the high street, Topshop is offering a range of ‘fun but chic’ options including a sequin-bow number. Elsewhere, there are jaunty elves, prancing reindeer, laughing Christmas puddings, sequins, glitter, flashing LED lights and much, much more.
Marginally less gaudy but also hugely popular is the Nordic or Fair Isle look, popularised by the Danish TV detective series The Killing, in which cult figure Sarah Lund’s Faroese pullover became a star in its own right. With a nostalgic, hand-knitted feel, this style of pullover is also not without its fair share of festive snowflake or reindeer motifs.
Perhaps inevitably the flamboyant Christmas woolly has been embraced by the look-at-me, Instagram generation, which has helped to spread the Christmas-jumper love. Needless to say, festive-sweater selfies are de rigeur this year − usually done with a strong sense of irony and a raised eyebrow. As a trend, it is now bigger even than the ubiquitous onesie − another novelty garment that has been improbably championed by the fashion pack.
The festive jumper began life in the last century, sported by crooners Val Doonican and Andy Williams on their Christmas television specials. It rose in popularity again during the 1980s, and then in North America in the early 2000s when the ‘ugly-Christmas-sweater party’ took off, with guests competing to wear the most hideous garment. The festive-knit frenzy spread fast, with fans searching in vintage stores for ugly-jumper perfection.
In the UK, it wasn’t until 2001 that the festive sweater reared its ugly head, in the film Bridget Jones’s Diary. In a scene at a holiday family party, Mark Darcy (played by Colin Firth) turns to greet Bridget. He is wearing a startlingly unattractive knitted garment emblazoned with a giant red-nosed reindeer head. Bridget is appalled, though later the lovely Darcy is vindicated when it transpires that the jumper had been a Christmas gift from an elderly relative rather than his own choice. As Bridget might have put it: Phew!
So how did this once-despised and embarrassing item – only tolerated because it was a gift from grandma − become such a sought-after look? Well, the fashion world has been having a love affair with kitsch for a while now, and so was already primed – ‘statement’ jumpers and sweatshirts featuring cartoonish motifs have been a reliably hot look for a few seasons. The Christmas ‘it knit’ was inevitable.
As designer Markus Lupfer, who has created luxury, hand-sequined, motif knitwear for several years, puts it: “The Christmas theme just works so well with the sparkly element, and people react really well to them, so we bring them back each year with a new version. They are light-hearted and fun and also a little bit special − they are a definite conversation starter. And they make you smile.”
Editor of UK fashion magazine Glamour, Jo Elvin agrees. If done with good humour, the boundary between good and bad taste can blur successfully. “In Britain we love self-deprecating humour. We love that the holidays are an excuse to eat, drink, be merry and now enjoy the cheesy tradition of a Christmas novelty knit.”And this year, UK charity Save the Children has cannily tapped into the mood, commissioning some top designers – among them Vivienne Westwood, Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, Paul Smith and Burberry − to create some bespoke festive knits as a fundraiser for their Christmas Jumper Day. Elvin is impressed by the designs: “There’s a creation for every different Christmas occasion, from a glamorous night out, to drooling on your nan's sofa after too many sherries.”
She also sees a more sincere, non-ironic meaning. “My guess is that in recent times because there has been a lot of economic doom and gloom, the collective consciousness has taken comfort in things that remind us of cosy, cheery times. And clever designers have discovered that they can pair this need with creations that are not only fun but also actually quite beautiful.”
Certainly, a rose-tinted, nostalgic view of comfy Christmases past is summoned up by many of the more authentically homemade-looking, retro creations, often with a Fair Isle print. These vintage styles have long been spotted on the streets of Williamsburg, Portland and London’s East End, as worn by the occasionally-mocked but influential hipster crowd. Versions of this look are now widely available in the mainstream, for men as well as women − Jack Wills’s Barnacre crew and Ashkirk Fairisle crew have been selling fast. Other, ‘heritage’ brands − such as British country-set label Barbour − have always offered them, but have seen an increase in sales − their Martingale crew knit complete with authentic elbow patches, springs to mind.
Cathy Kasterine, fashion director-at-large at UK Harper’s Bazaar, is a fan of this Christmassy “itchy jumper” trend, as she calls it. In her view, the revived fashion interest in the look is largely down to designer Isabel Marant, purveyor of a ‘boho’ aesthetic, who for the past few years has been creating “Geeky, boyfriend jumpers that look a bit like something you’d find at a jumble sale but that are actually really well-cut and luxurious.”
“It’s a very English thing,” says Kasterine. “We like eclectic style and mixing things up to dress a look down – for example an understated jumper with a pair of sexy trousers and an amazing pair of shoes. It’s a cooler, cleverer way of dressing. If you wear everything expensive-looking, it looks a bit ‘fashion victim’.”
And what about the dancing-santas-and-reindeer end of the spectrum? What’s the appeal for the fashionista there? “With some fashion people who Instagram themselves in their Christmas jumper, they are kind of saying ‘Look at me, I can wear this, and still look good, I can pull it off’,” she says wryly. “But mainly it’s just a funny thing to buy – it’s silly. And Christmas can be quite traumatic, so we all need a laugh.”