With the holiday period now over, most of us will have packed away the tree ornaments, pulled down the tinsel, and consigned all Christmas paraphernalia to the attic for another year. This year, however, there is one festive favourite that never saw the light of Christmas Day. The iconic Christmas jumper, which over centuries has earned its place as an integral part of festivities, underwent a dramatic decline. For the first time in nearly a decade, the sale of the seasonal sweater has fallen, revealing it as a further fashion casualty of the pandemic. With harsh regulations prohibiting the usual celebrations, it appears the much-loved garment has fallen off the wish-list. However, this plucky pullover has proven to endure the test of time, and undoubtedly will again grace the Christmas dinner once normality returns.
The origins of the Christmas sweater have been traced to Iceland and Scandinavia during the 19th century, although not in the gaudy form that we have come to know and love. According to cultural historian Benjamin Wild, hand-knitted sweaters characterised by contrasting bands of geometric patterns were worn within fishing communities, supposedly to differentiate the wearer from other neighbouring groups. The expansion of the knitwear beyond its parochial beginnings was due to its association with skiing, an up-and-coming seasonal pastime that expanded in the early 1900s. As the sport disseminated across Northern Europe, it attracted celebrities like Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman to take to the slopes, donning the colourful knitwear as they did. And just like that, a star was born; the knitted jumper had become a shining symbol of Hollywood glamour.
As with many of our traditions, the modern Christmas jumper was significantly shaped by the post-war commercialisation of the festive holiday. In the wake of the Second World War, Christmas was transformed in line with increasing prosperity, consumerism, and technical advancement. New technologies enabled knitwear to be mass-produced with greater speed and efficiency than traditional looms, and the innovation of synthetic fibres that were easy-to-wash and relatively inexpensive further enhanced its appeal.
Knitwear had featured within Western dress for centuries, but the boom in knitted jersey fabrics in the 1960s saw it become popular among fashion-conscious youths. In parallel to its rising popularity during this decade, knitwear was increasingly associated with Christmas as such items were featured in seasonal advertising campaigns and televised Christmas specials.
Christmas jumpers from the 1970s onwards were garish in design, but they had not yet reached the dizzying heights of the early 21st century. Such sweaters were never ‘cool’, but were looked upon fondly for their whimsical Yuletide spirit. In the 1990s, however, the festive icon faced a brief hiatus. The gaudy garb was suddenly an embarrassing fashion faux-pas that was relegated to the closet except on Christmas Day. The jumpers themselves became more subdued in colour and design compared to previous decades, echoing the begrudging reluctance of the wearer.
However, the Christmas sweater witnessed a dramatic revival in the early 2000s by an unexpected saviour. The rom-com classic Bridget Jones (2001) has been credited with the latest surge in popularity, propelling this wintery woollen into unprecedented levels of kitsch. The film, now broadcasted every Christmas without fail, included a particularly heartwarming scene in which a young Colin Firth is dressed in a charmingly dorky turtleneck adorned with a cartoon reindeer. In an instant, the jumper is reimbued with festive joy.
From this moment, the Christmas jumper has been unashamedly embraced in all its glory. The official party line is clear – the uglier, the better. Designs became more colourful, embellished, and humorous as consumers seemed to revel in the tastelessness that was once castigated. The trend was quickly apparent throughout the clothing industry. Highstreet chains began to release their own versions each winter season, designer interpretations featured on catwalks, and even supermarkets jumped on the bandwagon.
This latest upsurge has been linked to the influence of ‘the hipster’, a stereotypical figure that ironically consumes ‘retro’ artefacts from the recent past. The element of irony, however, has been much debated. While some suggest the contemporary styling of the Christmas jumper is a sophisticated play on its traditionally ‘twee’ qualities, others have argued it has more to do with a deep-rooted longing for a lost era. According to Angela McRobbie, the resurgence is ‘about some desire for authenticity, ordinariness and to be exonerated from the relentless demands of fashion.’ Therefore, the cosiness of the Christmas jumper extends to emotional as well as physical comfort, constituting another sartorial representation of a rising nostalgia in the modern day.
Over the years, the Christmas jumper has been interwoven with the uplifting spirit of the festive period. Along with log-burning fires, mulled wine and Hallmark movies, the jumper is an irreplaceable source of joy. Retailers can rest assured that the recent decrease in sales is a direct result of lockdown restrictions and not a repudiation of seasonal spirit or its associated customs. Conversely, such merriment is of even greater importance during these difficult times. It remains hopeful that Christmas jumpers will be supplying the much-needed jubilation for the next holiday season - and will be just as ugly as ever.