Lifestyle

A Brief History of... The Christmas Jumper

By Oliver Gudgeon | Tuesday 12th December, 2017

At a time when there are not one but two varieties of Louis Theroux-themed Christmas jumpers on the market (‘All I Want for Christmas is Louis Theroux’ is my favourite), it’s probably worth signalling that Christmas jumpers have reached some sort of peak. So we’ve put together a brief history of the garment.

Believe it or not, the Christmas jumper was once a secretive item of clothing that lived a quiet lifestyle at the back of the wardrobe. Each one in existence would tell the story of an embarrassed recipient and an overzealous knitting grandma. But in recent years, there has been a seismic shift in our relationship with the woolly winter wear. So who is responsible for freeing the Christmas jumper from its loneliness?

Some people point fingers to the likes of Noel Edmonds and Gyles Brandreth, who would wear their best Christmas jumper on live TV for Christmas entertainment. Somehow - somehow - neither of the two managed to start a trend and many found them a little cringeworthy. Many people agree that the turning point in our attitude to the Christmas jumper was 2001. When in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget Jones meets Mark Darcy for the first time, she is initially horrified by the cartoonish Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer emblazoned on his stomach. But few could deny that the enduring charm of Colin Firth (playing Mark Darcy) put a convincing spin on wearing Christmas jumpers.

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To understand why Colin Firth/Mark Darcy’s Rudolph is significant, we have to look back a little further. The roots of the Christmas jumper go back to twentieth century Scandinavia, where thick knitwear was required to keep fishermen and skiers warm. The classic geometric pattern emerged around this time, too. Seasoned travellers brought this type of design to America. And in the 1960s, the style became popular when the woollen patterns we would probably now associate with Christmas jumpers was worn by Hollywood movie stars like Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper. But while these jumpers featured skiers, alpine trees and snowflakes, etc., they were not yet the typical Christmas jumpers we see today as they could be worn all year round.

The rise of domestic knitting, a popular skill in the nineteenth century (Queen Victoria was a prolific knitter), plays an important part in this history - it also explains why the garment spent so much of its time in hiding. For the passionate knitter, a Christmas-themed jumper was the perfect solution to Christmas gift giving. If you can knit, you have time to knit and you want to give Christmas gifts, why not knit something? Makes sense right?

Alongside the benchmark set by Colin Firth/Mark Darcy came a trend that would pave the way for Christmas jumper wearing. Many people had not worn the garment they had been gifted because they wanted to spare themselves feeling like a festive fool. But the change that occurred was one to do with a change in cultural perspective. Rather than make Christmas jumpers actually attractive, people embraced the jumpers’ ugliness. Suddenly, Christmas jumpers became incredibly popular.

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The trend all started in Vancouver in the early 2000s. Given the number of second-hand and thrift shops emerging at that time, a group of undergraduates thought it would be funny to have a fancy dress house party in which everyone turns up wearing the ugliest second-hand jumper (or sweater, seeing as it was in the States) they could possibly find. The idea was contagious, and was carried along by the emerging hipster scenes in many different cities across the US and worldwide. The Christmas jumper was now no longer something to be stored away, but an icebreaker at a party.

Enter the 2010s, and this is where the big brands start to pile in. Given the availability of cheap yarn, high-street retailers saw an unmissable opportunity to cash-in on the trend. Now, of course, Christmas jumpers are a staple of winter collections. You can win ugly Christmas jumper competitions having spent less on your Christmas jumper than you did on your pack of 12 Christmas crackers. But it’s not just typical high-street shops that are in on it, designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Ralph Lauren have weighed in on the trend as well, selling Christmas jumpers for almost a thousand pounds.

In 2012, the charity Save the Children launched Christmas Jumper Day. Before we knew it, the press was littered with images of celebrities like Cheryl Cole, Richard Branson and Matt Damon donning their woolly wear, and the last Friday before would now have a new meaning. Companies and schools began participating in the annual fundraising event and the wearing of Christmas jumpers became a mainstream cultural activity.

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The massive perspective that led to the Christmas jumper renaissance is a bit of a half-truth. In my opinion, nothing has really fundamentally changed with our relationship towards it. I think the Christmas jumper has simply come to find its place as a symbol, within the festive season, of our collective want to be jolly and generous. It was not necessarily the Christmas jumper itself, but a refreshing sense of humility that was being added to the twenty-first century cultural wardrobe.

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