Catching up with an old colleague last week, I noticed that this intense, brilliant force of nature, who has dedicated years of her life unflinchingly working to combat some of humanity’s most sordid problems, was wearing novelty Christmas pants. That morning, her steely eye must have picked out in her closet the trousers with printed Christmas trees, candy canes, and wrapped presents, and her acetylene-acute mind would have deemed them good.
For these weren’t holiday pants in the restrained, SafeSearch version of the concept, not the tasteful dark red and green check that nice catalogs suggest around the holidays. Nor were they in that mannered preppy-pastel palette, or excused as part of the flex of today’s high-fashion ugliness-as-elegance esthetic. No, these were garish, brazen, accessible and affordable. And in a word, amusing.
I don’t judge. Well, that’s a lie I tell myself. Clothing, every last thread of it, in how it is worn, assorted, maintained, rumpled, cut, knit, spun or woven, is a story of symbols, a semiosis that would overwhelm any latter-day Sherlock Holmes. Rather, I suspend judgment, negate it, situate it in its own context, the same way I do the universe of signs that clothes themselves are. The old clichés what your clothes do signify no longer apply: anyone judging you on your shoes probably isn’t making the right judgment, and the sort of people who make a big deal about dressing well being a sign of respect for others inevitably care more about doing so for themselves.
Even recognizing the symbolic weight of even the lightest clothes, the holidays remind us that sometimes the reductivists are right and clothes are just clothes. Even weighty carriers of meaning can be played with. The holidays are one of the least subversive times to do that, to feel the joy of expressing humor or simply exuberance.
Social borders must have been more fluid at festivals, especially a Yule celebration to break a cold, damp and dark monotony. Today’s influencers use the season to make a show of airing out the multiple they own. Festivals and celebration generally come with some form of ceremony – and today even a dinner jacket is basically ceremonial wear, with the holidays providing some an excuse to break out those they own in tartan or colored velvet. Since holiday ceremony also accompanies holiday excess: heady mixtures of drink, of costume, of people.
Holiday clothes have meant so many things: permission not just to wear the extravagant but also the rustic, such as the fair isle and Icelandic-style sweaters that came to be adorned with snowflake patterns. Back in the 1990s Hermès’ winter catalogs proudly advertised cashmere sweaters with large hand-inlaid horse designs, whose excruciating ugliness belied enormous price and the enormous technical skill required to knit them. I wonder if someone actually bought those. Certainly, he or she could never have done so without feeling self-conscious.
But all holiday wear, all celebratory wear for the season, is self-conscious, ironizing whether intended or not. A would-be swell in a velvet dinner jacket and decorated slippers treads in the footsteps of unimaginative Hooray Henries of decades past, a prep manquéin a snowflake sweater knows its pattern is ungainly, has probably sought it out for that express purpose, may even have spent hours or years researching some disappeared hand knitter whose forebears the Duke of Windsor did a charity by donning their once-obscure work.
So it is that I remembered, late, to wear just once my usual holiday tie, woven with patterns of holly leaves (no doubt hoping to get out of a smooch, my partner corrected me when I thought it was mistletoe). We can all greet the season with a bit of relaxation.