Society’s Infatuation with the Ugly Christmas Sweater

The ugly christmas sweater has been around for decades, but not until recently have these gaudily knitted garments become popular and almost “cool”. Even those of the Jewish faith have decided to join in on the party, with ugly Hanukkah sweaters sporting knitted menorahs in place of Christmas trees. Why has this ironic fashion trend caught on so strongly? It’s not just the hipsters doing it anymore; popular retailers like Kohl’s have started cashing in on the trend, too. Let’s first explore why a nostalgic item of bad taste like the Christmas sweater has blossomed into the popular item of adults aged 18-50 in the past few seasons.

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Vintage items are desirable items of the middle and upper class. Antique furniture, vintage wines, watches, or cars; the purchase and consumption of such products is almost purely that of the middle to upper class. In his work Retromania, Simon Reynolds describes these classes’ obsession with vintage as the result of a desire to distance themselves from those of lower status by way of alternative consumption. People with more money view themselves as having better “taste” in various aspects of consumption, and buying antiques and other vintage items is a way to make a material statement about that.

If you were to walk through the homes of many wealthy individuals, you would not find the latest, most modern furniture; you would likely find furniture with “character”, an effect that cannot be replicated in a department store, only by time. This is a symbol of status and taste that cannot be purchased by the masses; it needs to be sought out at antique auctions. Buying vintage helps the middle and upper class remain “cool”.

It should come to no one as a shock then that most hipsters are from upper-middle class backgrounds. They purchased vintage clothing not because it was cheaper, but because of the rarity and question of taste their purchase indicated. Under a guise of irony, the hipster movement started making thrift shopping “cool” again, and not just something that was previously done out of necessity due to the low price point.

Part of this culture of thrift shopping was the purchase of “ugly” sweaters. Clearly, these sweaters are worn by those with bad taste, but if sported with a sense of irony, the wearer is exempt from all judgement due to the statement being made due to the self-consciousness of their bad taste.

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu argues that “aesthetic judgement is always a matter of distinction – those who have good taste express it so that they can distinguish themselves from those who do not. According to Bourdieu, aesthetic judgement is concentrated almost exclusively among the high-status members in society.  In cases where members of middle to high status consume aesthetically inferior goods, like an ugly Christmas sweater, they must do so ironically in order to communicate to everyone that the consumer knows their purchase was in bad taste.

In other words, the reason hipsters wear ugly clothes and drink shitty beer is because they know it is, but they use it as a tool to mark themselves as distinctively better than those who come by these consumer tastes honestly. In this way, the reason why hipsters started buying up ugly Christmas sweaters from local thrift stores, or, even more cooly, had their Grandmother knit them one (out of locally-sourced, 100% organic sheep’s wool of course).

As much as we all love to hate hipsters, they are the latest form of counterculture to fall victim to an adaptation of their cultural tastes by the masses. Beards, man buns, plaid shirts; it’s all there in the H&M and American Eagle ads now (they left out the PBR because kids still shop there).

Whether we like it or not, mainstream culture is slowly adopting the tastes of the hipster movement centred in SoHo, Portland, and Queen West. In student dwellings & bars, as well as suburban homes all over North America, ugly Christmas sweaters have become a form of social currency during the annual holiday party. No longer is your status determined by how sharply tailored your jacket is or how exquisite your green velvet dress is; it’s how funny or ugly your christmas sweater is.

If you take a stroll through most of the “hip” or “cool” neighbourhoods in major cities, you’ll see that the ugly Christmas sweater trend has been dropped. No longer is it cool to wrap yourself in knitted irony; those sweaters are lame now in their eyes. Once a trend followed by the cool, trendsetting few has been adopted by the masses, those who strive to distance themselves from mainstream culture will dig a little deeper in order to retain their coolness. This has been a recurring pattern for many years.

The Burberry Nova Check scarf.

The Burberry Nova Check scarf.

At the turn of the 21st century, Burberry scarves were must-have items on the wish list of virtually every stylish person on the planet. Today, they are seen as a fashion faux pas now because the iconic Nova check pattern was copied by so many companies and made the status of wearing a scarf obsolete due to the ubiquity of the pattern.  Alexander McQueen’s signature skull scarf pattern was recently copied by retailer Forever 21 and plastered all over scarves and shirts, and now the designer’s iconic pattern is barely found amongst the fashion elite.

The Alexander McQueen Skull Scarf adorning the necks of numerous celebrities. The pattern has since appeared worldwide on garments produced by fast fashion chain Forever 21.

The Alexander McQueen Skull Scarf adorning the necks of numerous celebrities. The pattern has since appeared worldwide on garments produced by fast fashion chain Forever 21.

It’s only a matter of time before the next “cool” thing to wear at Christmas that is already being adopted by the status seekers and purveyors of all things cool of the world trickles down to the masses, and when that happens, the ugly Christmas sweater will go forgotten for a while. As is the case with many trends, they often make resurgences many years later with a whole different generation adopting it as their own. This is exemplified by the adage that all fashions come back into style one way or another; however, this pattern is not limited to just our clothing.

In the late 1970s, skateboard culture was booming in California and spread across North America as the new cool thing to do. Once enough lame or square people adopted it, the trend’s popularity dipped and went underground for many years, sustained by those dedicated few.

In the 1990s, skateboarding, and extreme sports in general, made a huge comeback. Pop-punk music grew in popularity, clothing companies were launched, video games were released, and the whole skateboarding subculture experienced a massive resurgence. Skateboarding became too popular for the purists and those who desired to be “cooler” than the rest, so longboards became popular, and once too many posers bought those, cruiser skateboards (the short colourful ones) became popular, but boarding as a whole has been declining for years.

To those of you out there who just recently purchased an ugly Christmas sweater: enjoy the fun while it lasts, and hang on to it! History has shown that the trend will reappear somewhere down the line. The heyday of the ugly Christmas sweater is upon us, but don’t expect it to stick around for too many more holiday seasons.

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Why Hipsters Dress Like Lumberjacks: The Story of the “Lumbersexual”

imagesI recently came across this article that describes the trend of the “lumbersexual”, which describes the appearance of an “lumberjack” many hipsters and other trendy males have adopted. The rampant incidence of beards, flannels, long hair, and work boots being sported by young, urban males is the basis for the term “lumbersexual”, which brings back memories of the equally inane term “metrosexual” to describe fashionably conscious and well-groomed males of the early to mid 2000s. My issue with the article in question is that the author failed to truly investigate how this whole trend came to be. Time for a history lesson.

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How to be an urban lumberjack. 1: Selvedge denim, just like the railroad workers used to wear 2: Flannel cap 3: Axe (not the body spray you used in grade 8) 4 and 5: ??? 6: Diemme work boots 7: Flannel shirt

In 2008, North America experienced the worst financial crisis since the stock market crash of 1929. Millions were laid off, businesses underwent massive restructuring and organizational changes, and society as a whole became a lot more conservative with their money. People no longer could afford to live a life of excess. Consumer tastes demanded longer-lasting, quality goods that would last them many years into the future. It was at this time that the “Workwear” trend in men’s (and to a lesser degree, women’s) fashion took hold. Instead of new, shiny, elegant clothing, male consumers of the world demanded rugged clothing crafted from a quality manufacturing process.

Almost overnight, large fashion houses started cranking out workwear inspired pieces. Entire brands based around a workwear focus even started to pop up. Japanese influence also took an upswing, as the staple garments of the Japanese blue collar industry became the darlings of numerous menswear brands in the form of “repro” (short for reproduction) designs. Even American workwear legend Levi’s decided to get in on the fun, and launched their LVC (Levi’s Vintage Clothing) line to produce a variety of high quality reproductions of classic workwear pieces.

Bottega Veneta FW/08: The most expensive pair of coveralls you'll ever see.

Bottega Veneta FW/08: The most expensive pair of coveralls you’ll ever see.

Bottega Venetta produced workwear inspired pieces like luxurious cotton coveralls and cashmere fingerless gloves. Ralph Lauren launched their double Rl line, RRL, to mimic what LVC was doing. Engineered Garments, launched by Japanese designer Daiki Suzuki, is influenced by the sturdy and cropped garments worn by pre-WWII Japanese blue collar workers. Selvedge denim became a huge trend, and numerous companies were created; some still exist to this day, many have seen their revenues wane with the times. Red Wing boots, long seen as an American classic for their construction and durability, started to be seen on the streets of New York and Los Angeles on the feet of the fashion conscious.

Daiki Suzuki of Engineered Garments showcasing a blazer from FW/11

Daiki Suzuki of Engineered Garments showcasing a blazer from FW/11

For two years, the workwear trend boomed. Like all popular fashion trends, eventually the workwear tastes of the fashion savvy eventually trickled down to urban trendsetters. It was at this time that mention of the “urban lumberjack” was first seen in publications outside the fashion industry’s inner circle. Flannel shirts, selvedge jeans, duck cotton coloured pants, and sturdy leather boots became popular amongst the hipster crowds of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Queen West.

This influx of workwear inspired clothing was closely coupled to societal tastes at the time. Urban young adults grew tired of the “fake” and modern direction that many cities were taking. Many young males and some females were affectionately drawn to the more authentic side of things: this included all things rural, outdoorsy, and rugged.

What trends were common around this time?

1) Shopping local, supporting your farmer’s market

2) Urban farming/gardening

3) The craft beer industry started to take off

4) Beards became en vogue, as did growing your hair longer, perhaps sporting a man bun in the process.

5) Country music became the most popular form of music in North America

6) Folk Music went mainstream; Mumford & Sons won a few Grammies

7) Many TV series were created to reflect these tastes: Duck Dynasty, Mountain Men, Yukon Men – really any “blue collar” themed show was the result of the jaded urban inhabitant’s yearning for a more authentic, rugged sense of self. Dirty Jobs was a great reflection of this.

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This myriad of trends gave birth to the lifestyle of the urban lumberjack, or what is now apparently known as the lumbersexual. Contrary to what the article in question referenced, the lumbersexual did not arise out of gay culture. The urban lumberjack is largely one borne out of the larger hipster countercultural movement, which has evolved from comically large sunglasses and keffiyeh scarves to dressing like lumberjacks and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon or craft beers.

The hippies of the 60s/70s...

The hippies of the 60s/70s…

Countercultures are created simply as an alternative to the mainstream; there is no true stance or constant activist principle behind them. If we examine perhaps the most famous counterculture example, the hippie, we associate these individuals with environmental activism and freedom from government control. Ironically, these same youth who were so against destroying the environment and big oil were also the primary consumers in the 1980s when the SUV – perhaps the most destructive vehicle for the environment ever created- was conceived. These same bell-bottom wearing flower children were now suburban adults driving their kids to soccer practice in their 4 wheeled tank that seated 7.

...became the SUV driving suburban parents of the 80s.

…became the SUV driving suburban parents of the 80s.

Of course, there were the genuine (read: authentic) individuals who truly did care for the environment and still hold the same stance today as they did 50 years ago, but the vast majority of individuals who participate in countercultural movements do so as a means of social leveraging. To be authentic, to be “cool”, is a large motivator in our society. Our society is comprised of numerous sub-cultures, all who hold a certain belief and standard of what is “cool” to them. For those who have grown weary of the hustle and bustle of the city and yearn for the simpler country life,  the lumbersexual community gave them a sense of belonging, so they ascribed to it.

Even H&M, which used to be a store for "metrosexual" men, has jumped on the urban lumberjack bandwagon.

Even H&M, which used to be a store for “metrosexual” men, has jumped on the urban lumberjack bandwagon.

The feminization of society in the last 50 years has also contributed to the rise of the urban lumberjack. Feminization is one of the reasons violence has declined in our society, but it has also left many men without a sense of what their masculine identity is. Dressing like a lumberjack, one of the stereotypically “manly” occupations is their attempt at trying to capture some of that bygone testosterone, even if they’ve never held an axe before.

Five years from now, we probably won’t see as many beards, flannel shirts, or work boots being sported by hip young adults across North America. Most of these individuals will have moved on, grown up, for a countercultural lifestyle in a capitalist society has a limited lifespan. The generation after them will find their own problem with the world, their own quest to be “cool”, and their tastes will reflect that. It’s what happened with the hippies in the 60s, the punks of the 70s, Grunge in the 90s, and now hipsters in the 2000s and beyond.