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The joy of dressing up for Christmas

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In the era of reindeer onesies and kitsch jumpers, Viv Groskop looks back fondly on a time when you’d wear something special for Christmas Day

It was the picture of Katy Perry wearing an “elfie selfie” jumper that did it for me. Don’t get me wrong. I love a selfie. And who – at Christmas – doesn’t love Will Ferrell as an elfie in, er, Elf, of course? Part of me also loves – and craves – the elfie selfie jumper itself: a sequinned picture of a headless elf sits across your chest so your head looks like the elf’s. So cute! So adorable! Perfect selfie! Except it’s wrong. All wrong.

I have to hold myself back whenever I see anything like a novelty “elfie selfie” jumper, cute and covetable though it may be. Because it is the beginning of the end. What happened to Christmas glamour? What happened to bringing a touch of Hollywood to your (possibly crappy) home for just one day of the year? I have always loved the American short stories you read about super-chic New York mothers who had a perfect red velvet dress they would wear every year on Christmas Day. It’s the only day of the year they would wear that dress and every year the children would look forward to their mother putting on her “Christmas dress” because that’s when Christmas would really start. 

What do we have now? Christmas-themed lounge pants worn with hideous furry bootees that make you look like a yeti. Hilarious Christmas T-shirts that say, “I’m not Santa (but you can sit on my knee).” Bobble hats in the shape of Christmas puddings. And onesies that can turn you, a fully-grown adult, into Olaf the snowman from Frozen. This is not glamour. This is not memorable. This is not ‘occasion wear’. It is the end of days.

Perhaps I’m getting old but it seems to me that it wasn’t always this way – and it most certainly isn’t that way in my household. Up until I was in my early 20s (and still going home to my parents for Christmas), it was completely unacceptable not to have a “smart outfit” for Christmas Day, ideally something new and definitely something your family had not seen you wearing before so that you could signal to them that you had “dressed up” and were respecting the occasion.

As a child I always looked forward to this phenomenon and found it very odd at the same time. The olden days rules of Christmas dressing were strange but beautiful. You must wear something new and smart. You must “do” your hair (possibly an up-do if you have long hair). Everyone must keep their shoes on indoors even if you don’t usually. If you are old enough, you must wear a pair of Pat Butcher-style Christmas earrings. (Only earrings, though. Any more significant festive accessory was deemed “too tacky”. No reindeer antlers in our house.)

Dressing up for Christmas

I found it all intoxicating but puzzling. Do I really have to get dolled up to the nines in order to watch Christmas Day Top Of The Pops? I know we’re having mint Viennetta for dessert, a once-a-year treat. But the Viennetta cannot see me. Will the Viennetta really care whether I have dressed up or not? And why am I sitting on my own sofa eating Matchmakers and purple Quality Street in a miniature Alexis-Colby-from-Dynasty pussy bow blouse, pencil skirt which I cannot walk in and ruched leather winklepickers which I cannot stand up in? (It was the Eighties.) You wore these things, of course, to signal that it was the most important day of the year. And you wore them with pride.

But more importantly you wore them for ‘The Photographs’. In our house, Christmas Day was one of the only days of the year when we would have our photograph taken. (Yes, I know this makes me sound about 187 years old. But, believe me, until about 10 years ago this is what life was like everywhere, people.) You lined all your presents up and you stood next to them and had your photograph taken. The photograph was developed about three months later. I think I may have burned the picture that depicts me standing with a pudding bowl haircut in a giant black-with-red-flowers corduroy dress that looks like it was made for a life-sized doll, proudly pointing to three Shakin’ Stevens albums. I am also wearing my mum’s lipstick for the first time. And rollerskates. (In which I later rollerskated into a cabinet of crockery given to my parents as wedding gifts. The cupboard toppled over. I was unharmed. Everything else smashed. That was an interesting Christmas.)

One of the highlights of Christmas Day for me – and especially after I left home at 18 and only came back for the holidays – was my grandparents’ visit on 25 December. My grandad would wear a tie (hilarious!) and remove his flat cap. “Well, it is Christmas.” My grandma – an exceptionally glamorous woman – would wear her best gold jewellery and her “velvet” (actually velour) evening trousers, usually dressed down with a stripy top, long before they were remotely fashionable or French-looking. It was acceptable to wear a dressed-down top because that stressed the elegance of the trousers and the jewellery. She would have had her hair set at the hairdresser’s on Christmas Eve.

Part of the great, great pleasure of the weird Christmas dressing-up was seeing the expression on my grandparents’ faces: “Don’t you look lovely, Viv!” These rituals were meaningful because they gave everyone a chance to feel good about themselves: “Don’t we look nice? Don’t we have a nice family? Aren’t we lucky?” It was sometimes the closest we came in our family to a religious moment. Because we definitely didn’t go to church on Christmas Day. And it was so important because it camouflaged anything else that was secretly going wrong. My grandparents were getting old and ill. My mum was exhausted and run ragged looking after two children and working full time. My dad had probably overspent on all the Christmas presents, trying to give us everything we wanted. But sitting in front of the special Christmas screening of the latest Indiana Jones film, we looked bloody fabulous and so to hell with the rest of the world.

In recent years, now that my grandparents have gone, I have my own kids and we usually host my parents and my parents-in-law. Both my mum and my mother-in-law will invariably turn up wearing a red dress. They are still flying the flag – as am I. The children would like to stay in their pyjamas all day (and would probably like to dress me as Olaf the snowman). But this is not allowed. You must have a Christmas outfit.

Dressing up for Christmas

Last year, mine was a little black dress. This year I’m going for a flared red Fifties frock, worn – naturally – with a Christmas apron and vintage holly earrings. Very important. I am also secretly amassing a proud collection of Christmas brooches, including a holly wreath with a tiny tinkling bell so that you can hear me coming with the Baileys. I will have got up early in order to put my hair in rollers. Because, unlike my grandma, I can never get organised enough to go to the hairdresser’s on Christmas Eve.

Do I feel strange in my kitchen peeling potatoes and cutting the crusts off bread with a full face of make-up and in the sort of outfit I would usually wear to a black tie dinner (with heels and massive haze of perfume, of course)? Not really. Because it’s Christmas. And you have to do something to mark the day. Plus, I have noticed that my children pay more attention to my commands when I am dressed like this. So it is worth it for authoritarian reasons if nothing else.

Do I secretly want to be wearing brushed cotton pyjamas with unwashed hair? Do I wish I could be sitting in front of the telly in bed socks and no make-up? No, I do not. This would be like calling in a takeaway pizza on Christmas Day. I’m not great at making an effort over every single Christmas detail, including cards and decorations. But the one thing I am bloody good at is dressing up and I’m damned if I’m going to miss the opportunity on the most important day of the year.

I am trying to lead by example here. Ditch your novelty robin nightie, no matter how tasteful. Bin your tracksuit bottoms. Book a blowdry. Source some gorgeous vintage ‘holiday’ earrings from Etsy. The Viennetta may not be able to see you, but your relatives can. And so can Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. And he does not want to look out from the television screen and see you in a Rudolph onesie. Christmas is special. We all feel that deep inside. So let’s show it on the outside. Now, where did I put those long black satin gloves? They’d be perfect for doing the sprouts.

See the Christmas outfits that the Stylist team have worn through the years, below:


Not a onesie in sight for Team Stylist back in the day

Stuck for ideas? Discover our suggestions for three of the best dressed-up Christmas outfits

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