We used to have a ‘party season’. Now we have novelty jumpers

<span>Photograph: RT Images/Alamy</span>
Photograph: RT Images/Alamy

Growing up reading magazines, I was led to believe that at this time of year we enter something called “party season”, which traditionally requires a series of variations on the sequin, a non-smudge lipstick and a firm grasp on your individual “day-to-night look”, which often involved keeping a pair of heels in your “office drawer”. It was a seductive concept, this season, these parties every night, where you would dash from your demanding office job (lawyer? Maybe a lawyer) to a bar, your dress glittering beneath a rotating mirrorball as you wound your way across the dancefloor, “CEEELEBRATE GOOD TIMES, COME ON!”, hand aloft as your friends cheered from the bar. At dawn, you would check your lipstick, dark red, still perfect, even after all the passionate illicit kissing by the cigarette machine and the next day you’d go again. Party season!

I’m older now. I’m older and I have lived some years, and while yes, some kind souls occasionally invite me to a little party as the cold weather draws in, it would be rash to describe the handful of events as a “season”, the invitations appearing less like a flood and more like a gentle drip from the ceiling as a warning that the upstairs flat needs to turn off the tap. But another thing that’s changed, as I’ve seen the winters come and go, has been the sharp decline in expectations of glamour. Party season today requires nothing more than a “Christmas jumper”. I use quote marks here as if rubber gloves – the words trigger something rotten inside me, a kind of cruel bile rises.

It’s hard to recall what the world looked like before ‘ugly sweaters’ first arrived from the US on a sea of simplicity

Over the past 20 years, these things have become more pervasive, first arriving in a cloud of irony, but quickly becoming mainstream and tricking us into thinking they’re as ingrained a festive tradition as turkey or the family fight. So entrenched have they become that for various school engagements my children are invited to wear Christmas jumpers, leading to heated conversations in which I must once again explain why I won’t buy a jumper that is worn for three hours a year and can’t we please just do something sweet with tinsel instead.

In 2019, an environmental charity said these jumpers – 95% of which are made wholly or partly of plastic materials which slough off microscopic fibres when laundered – were one of the worst examples of fast fashion. They found two out of five Christmas jumpers were worn only once over the festive period, yet one in three adults under 35 bought a new one every year. I doubt much has changed in the past four years, apart, perhaps, from the introduction of the Christmas co-ord, novelty matching loungewear for the whole family to wear on Christmas Day. These are sets, typically printed with cheery phrases (“LET THE PUD TIMES ROLL”) and cheeky Santas, and designed to be worn, once, in a family photo around the tree. Wearers will have the added excitement of trying to spot theirs next summer in an aerial photo of the Atacama desert in Chile, where 59,000 tonnes of unwanted clothes are dumped and left to rot very slowly, the plastic taking up to 200 years to biodegrade. But honey (I say to my kid, who stopped listening at the tinsel bit), that’s not even the worst of it.

A large part of my hatred for these jumpers comes from the way they arrived as symbols of bad taste, quickly becoming as prosaic a winter accessory as a woollen scarf. If after, say 2012 (when the official Christmas Jumper Day was launched), you wore a patterned sweater in public, you did so knowing your outfit would be read as a joke, with at least one jolly dickhead commenting on your “Christmas jumper” and perhaps the mild winter we were having and whether you had a light. This year, you can buy one with David Attenborough’s face on and one that says Greggs and one that says, limply, “Xbox”. There are some that light up, and some that sing.

It’s hard to recall, exactly, what the world looked like at the start of the 2000s, when the trend for “ugly sweaters” arrived from the US on a sea of simplicity. They were marketed as shocking and vulgar, a joke worn by only the bravest, “hippest” or wackiest. But – people liked them. They liked wearing a bit of colour, they liked not taking themselves too seriously, they liked not fretting over the tailoring of a jean. People who, between January and November, might have dressed exclusively in Cos or Toast, allowed themselves a moment of wildness mid-December – they were free! Just as Halloween allowed a brief erotic performance, when one might become a sexy cat or sexy Grinch, dressed in this acrylic costume at Christmas they were able to Ho ho ho and invite strangers to sit on their knee, grant them little wishes. They embraced the joke, because it allowed a moment of relief.

Which would be great, had these jumpers then ushered in a movement towards self-expression and fun and a soulful acceptance of the joy of getting things wrong. Instead, the novelty jumpers simply ushered in… more novelty jumpers. I hate to Scrooge about it, but honestly, this was not the glamorous “party season” we were promised.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman