When we step onto a busy street or enter a hotel ballroom or walk into a private party of even a modest scale, we are likely to encounter a parade of fashions seen only in the last few weeks of the year. For many women, it's not enough to wear a beautiful sweater or blouse, not enough to don the perfect pair of black suede boots, not enough to leave the house in an ensemble that might be labeled chic or sophisticated. We have entered the Holiday Zone where the contract that outlines our obligation to dazzle is unwritten yet understood.
How did this happen? How is it possible that millions upon millions of us adorn ourselves with sparkling cuffs and shoes and jewels that are relegated to the back of the closet most of the year?
Many of us learned this behavior at the feet of our mothers.
Mine poses in a red velveteen dress of her own making in a photograph that hangs on the wall of her home. Her dark brown hair and eyes are shining; her hands rest patiently in her lap; a quiet smile speaks of glamorous occasions to come. It was an iconic dress in our household, pulled from its tissue paper wrappings for only the most special occasions. Its appearance generated compliments upon every wearing, its simple elegance undeniable. Three-quarter sleeves. Full, lined skirt. Sumptuous fabric. Her only child, age 5, sits next to her in the photo. And what is she wearing? A matching red velveteen dress. Of course.
Decades later, her need to dress up for the holidays continues. Each year my mother arrives for her annual visit to casual California with a suitcase that contains a bright crimson suit crafted of the finest wool, a velvet jacket or two, a Christmas sweatshirt and some sort of garment shot with metallic thread. Christmas jewelry fills the pockets of her suitcase. She wants to go out. At night. Dressed up. "Where are we going that I can wear my long skirt?" she asks when she calls to discuss her packing strategy.
And it's not only our moms who want to cling to tradition. In this issue of Image you can read about sequined scarves and rhinestone bracelets, shimmering eye shadows and bold lip color. This month's Glamour magazine trumpets "the 24 most flattering party outfits for your body." Inside, we are greeted with advice ("how to be the chicest woman at any party"), black sequined pants and "bold beauty moves" including "major eyeliner" and "big, goddess-y hair." Elle suggests we go for "maximum overdrive" offering a red velvet and chiffon dress, among other statements. Vogue extols the virtues of "the perfect party dress" and "daringly sexy evening looks," including a rust-colored satin suit. InStyle goes so far as to detail clothing for specific occasions such as the office party, cocktails, dinner at home and New Year's Eve. And here's a holiday bonus: "You Can Do Feathers."
What a relief.
Holiday fashion shows are staged for charity and for profit. Holiday sales tempt us to immerse ourselves in mall mania. Who is to blame for this state of affairs?
Marie Antoinette. Charles Dickens. Marco Polo. But not necessarily in that order.
"All of the sequins and the velvet, all of that comes from royalty, going back hundreds and hundreds of years," says Kevin Jones, curator of the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising.
"Think about Italy," Jones continues. "The Italians — in Venice, in Genoa, in Milan — were really centers of major textiles. And the trading. We think we have worldwide shipping today with FedEx; well, 700 years ago they had major roads for international travel. It took a little longer, but think of the silk coming out of the Orient for Europe." All seemingly destined for aristocratic consumption.
And when did bling enter the picture? "Those types of materials [sequins and beads] are not quite as old as the velvets, maybe they started in the 16th century into the 17th. By the 18th century, after the court of Louis XIV and XV, and Marie Antoinette, you got a great profusion of embroidery with lots of metallic elements," Jones says. "It was at that time that rhinestones and paste stones were developed."
Fake bling? "Here again people were being very innovative," Jones says. "Entrepreneurs were developing luxury trimming industries that were being fed by aristocrats."
In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought mechanization, lower prices and the possibility of a greater number of people who could afford a little sparkle and, perhaps, a silk dress. "It's where we got our fancy schmancy dressing today," Jones said. There was, he adds, "an explosion of purchasing," thanks to factory production and catalogs.
"There was also the development of the fashion industry. By the 19th century, you had fashion publications. They showed the latest silhouettes and different colors and trimmings. There were articles on how to make luxury objects to give to a friend and how to throw a holiday party, a Noel party."
Mass interest in holiday customs and dressing was also fueled by the growth of general interest periodicals and literature inspired by Victorian nostalgia for pre-19th century Christmas traditions. Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," for example, "was hugely influential," Jones says. The characters in these tales "were wearing muffs and sprigs of holly and we see this romantic type of image. We think of Currier & Ives.
"This serves as a prototype for holiday dressing today."
Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, reminds us that dressing up for the holidays — holy days — is an ancient tradition. "Across the world, people have dressed up in special clothes for special ceremonial days."
Steele points to the 1950s as the era in which holiday dressing emerged from the shadows of evening or cocktail party attire and started to get a little, well, kitschy. "In the 1960s and '70s you got more mass fashion. People were not following fashion rules any more. They said, 'I want to wear whatever color appeals to me.'
"Once you throw out [the rules], that opens the door to all sorts of things," Steele says. "Suddenly snowman sweaters are in … all that glittery stuff that you see people wearing is a debased form of what glamorous dressing is supposed to be."
We should, she says, "probably thank God people are not wearing bias-cut sequined dresses these days because that would be too horrifying. But they are wearing sequins."
Perhaps we should just acknowledge that, for some folks, a love of silver sequins is somehow embedded in their genetic coding. Maybe we should just surrender and haul out the black tunic top with the silver beaded bow or the rhinestone lavaliere passed down from our grandmother or the green satin cocktail suit packed away in the garage. Maybe we should go into maximum overdrive, if only for a night or two.
I've got my eye on a little black dress in my closet that, truth be told, wouldn't look too bad with a sequined scarf. And gold shoes. And my large fake diamond studs.
All suggestions about where to wear a long skirt are welcome.