January 22, 2013

The return of sincerity, now and then: A backlash against the Christmas sweater backlash

I don't know if you guys visited any clothing or department stores when you were out gift shopping, but I couldn't believe how many winter / ski / Nordic / Fair Isle / Christmas sweaters were on display non-ironically. Actually, not very many per store, but still -- greater than zero.

And not just in the Polo and Tommy Hilfiger sections, where they've always remained for aspiring preppies. Even Urban Outfitters had about a half dozen. I picked up two that had a cool American Southwest feel, whether in the color palette or the pattern, our own regional version of a Northern European tradition.

Well, that's Urban Outfitters, and they've always catered to the vintage-loving crowd. What about some place more trendy and "fashion-forward" like H&M? They had a few, too, including this cardigan that I snagged as a gift for my mother:

In fact, here is a 2011 post from some fashion site, whose Facebook has over 60,000 likes, daring the readers to go ahead and wear something chic and charming when they attend their friends' ironic ugly sweater party, showing 10 examples. And the snark brigade is so uptight that they'd take it personally -- "oh my gosh, did you seriously just go there? wow, i guess you honestly don't mind being 'that girl' at the party, do you?" Good: nobody deserves having their party pooped on more than the party-poopers.

So, is the 20 year-long decline of sincerity finally done with? Well, it's probably got a few more years to go, but the widespread re-introduction of non-ironic Christmas sweaters is a hopeful sign that it's at least bottoming out.

This takes us back to the '50s all over again. Fair Isle and similar-looking sweaters were all the rage during the 1920s and early '30s, then fell out of favor during most of the mid-century. They went against the minimalist aesthetic of the day, having too much and too many colors, repeating patterns, and the dreaded traditional feel no longer suitable in a World of Tomorrow kind of world. Not to mention the aversion to anything with a hint of sentimentality, in the era of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. Sound familiar?

Here is a digitized online collection of old Sears Christmas catalogs. By the 1952 edition, there are zero Christmas sweaters for sale, not for men, not for women, not for children. The next one they have online is the 1956 edition, and by then they'd begun to creep back in, though only for men. Women's sweaters were still just about uniformly devoid of any pattern, or of multiple colors. From the '56 catalog:

Just a few years later, the return has grown even stronger. The caption for the sharp-dressed father and son opens, "Glowing with color, reflecting the warmth and spirit of winter sports... Norwegian ski design favored by color-conscious men." From the '58 catalog:

Through the end of the '50s, women still couldn't break free from their conformist wallflower tendencies and join the men in wearing festive sweaters during the Christmas season. Once the 1960s got going, though, they couldn't resist any longer. The '60 and '61 catalogs are not online, but the one from '62 shows several  for women. Most are part of a his-and-hers set, as though they needed to be guided into it, but a few pictures show women wearing Christmas sweaters on their own.

By the mid-1950s, the stifling atmosphere of the previous 20 years (after the death of the Jazz Age) had grown tiresome -- for some, anyway, and most of them men. Not only did the sincere fun of sporting Christmas sweaters begin to make a long-awaited comeback, but they started to grow restless with the corporate slave culture, as shown in the hit novel and movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Sound familiar? Hopefully it will pretty soon now.

Personally I find it heart-warming to look at the birth years of those involved in this initial push away from mid-century managerialism, obsequiousness, drabness, and insincerity. The major forces behind The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, both the novel and the movie, The Apartment, The Lonely Crowd, the 30-something men in the Sears catalogs -- almost entirely come from the later part of the Greatest Generation, mostly from the late 1910s through the mid-'20s, with a few going back to the late 1900s.

Based on where they were born in relation to the peak in the crime rate, which largely determines the zeitgeist, those guys correspond to men born mostly from the later half of the '70s through the first half of the '80s, with some going back to the late '60s. I.e., Generation X and the smaller Gen Y. Not the Silents, and not the Millennials.

We're old enough to remember what high spirits our communities used to be in when we were children, we had to suffer a good part of our young adulthood in the opposite place (the '90s and after), yet we're still young enough to feel like there's something left worth fighting for, not just "Well, I had my fun in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, so I can't get angry about where things are headed."

We're now in our 21st year of falling crime rates. Before, the 21st year of falling crime rates was 1954. Seems like the next few years should see the beginnings of the return of sincerity, trust, and openness -- and then a few years after that, rising crime rates, as we allow ourselves to spend more time in vulnerable public spaces, deciding that that's just the risk you have to take to keep from living half of a life holed up at home.


  1. FWIW i am am avid advanced knitter and fair isle is THE RAGE among knitters, many of whom are both younger and hipsterish going by the profiles on the big knitting social site ravelry.com...this could be contributing the trend of fair isle returning. especially if you consider that hipsterism could be covert white identity

  2. It seems something like that the farther west you go. I was reading through Whiter Shades of Pale, from the SWPL guy, and his descriptions of regional SWPL-dom make the east and most of the midwest sound more individualist, just naked all-against-all status contests.

    Austin seems to be a teetering on the brink case.

    But by the time you get to the Rockies (not sure about Plains hipsters) and the west, they're not so bad. More into group activities and being laid-back, not so constantly blinded by the spotlight of self-awareness, not as easily offended.

    I checked out Google Trends to see where people are most interested in knitting, and it seems all over. But crochet is a western thing. People search for "vintage" just about all over, but "vintage shoes" is a more bicoastal / SWPL thing, whereas "vintage dresses" are more heartland.

    Yeah, girls with shoe obsessions are a lot more uptight, neurotic, and distancing than girls who collect cute dresses. One wants to intimidate other girls, the other wants to look pretty for boys.

    Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised if the less repugnant breeds of hipsters wind up playing a role in the transition back toward sincerity. Not the ironic ones (the majority), who are like the beatniks of today's mid-century culture.

    But more like the semi-creative types that you saw in the advertising and PR companies back in the '50s. Things didn't turn around because of salt-of-the-earth changes. It was more of a semi-conservative yet fun-loving, quasi-creative urban or suburban type who changed things around first.

  3. The male suicide rate started rising sharply in 1955-1956 a few years before '59, when the crime rate began rising.

    men's suicides rose steeply from 1955-1990. women's suicides did not seem to be effected at all.

    Here's something else: male suicides began rising again in 2002-2005, before falling again.

    but, they started rising in America and Great Britain in 2011...

    Truth is, the outgoing times may have already started two years ago. It just takes awhile to get going. That comment about the sweater is dated 2011, neh? The culture is so hunkered down that it just takes some years to unravel..


  4. " for some, anyway, and most of them men."

    I'm not so sure about that. The differences in suicide rates would show that many men have a rough time of it during the outgoing periods.`


  5. Women in general are more outgoing. I don't know any women who spend all day playing World of Warcraft.

    Women may have lagged behind men in "outgoing" fashion because they had less money at the time...

  6. Men have broader spatial / territorial ranges, and have social connections that reach farther out into their regional network. Women stick closer to home, and interact with fewer people, who tend to be kin rather than strangers.

    Physically and socially, men are more outgoing.

  7. " The differences in suicide rates would show that many men have a rough time of it during the outgoing periods.`"

    Or rather that they were more inclined to use violence, even self-directed, as their coping mechanism. It's a jump to infer changes in depression (or whatever) from changes in suicide.

  8. "I don't know any women who spend all day playing World of Warcraft."

    Right, they prefer channel-surfing and web-surfing.


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