Is there room for humor in fashion?

In addition to attempting to survive the nonsense of the holiday season, every year, my girlfriend and I are invited to an “ugly sweater party.” Since I think about clothing a lot, this always gets me wondering whether there’s any room for humor in fashion. As a matter of principle, I own no ugly sweaters, and refuse to buy a one solely for the sake of seasonal shenanigans. This year, attending said party (to which I wore a very simple Margiela pullover) did get me thinking about a bigger question: whether there’s any room in fashion – and more specifically, in my wardrobe – for humorous clothing.

I’ve tried in the past to incorporate silly or even ironic pieces into my closet.  I’ve played with the idea of dumb logo sweaters and intentionally ugly outerwear and shoes as an attempt to inject what could be construed as some kind of humor into my daily wear. It never sticks, though.

Now, “humorous” clothing is different from “whimsical” clothing, which I do favor – and I’d classify brands such as Kapital, Blue Blue Japan, even Margiela as whimsical – whereas an ugly holiday sweater has no use or significance outside one very specific time of year and one very specific in-joke. I suppose it’s an in-joke, but the number of people I see (granted, in Colorado) wearing truly hideous Christmas sweaters – and they’re specifically Christmas sweaters – on a regular, daily basis, suggests that maybe the joke’s gone completely over my head.

After all, the ugly Christmas sweater industry is now worth millions of dollars. I’m not kidding. Large (primarily) American and UK retailers (think Target, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Lord & Taylor) dedicate massive amounts of floor space to seasonal garbage, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites dedicated to providing users with endless options (as in, tens of thousands) for their hideous seasonal needs.

That one on the left? That’s the world’s most expensive Christmas sweater. It’s covered in Swarovski crystals and is valued at $30,000. The one on the right has a detachable reindeer stuck to it with velcro, and it’s a bargain at $67.

I had privately thought that we’d moved beyond the fad of whatever intentionally post-ironic hipsterism defined the years 2010-2013, but the meteoric rise of admittedly ill-defined “street” fashion seems to have proven me wrong. When a cotton tee with the DHL logo can become the must-have item of the season, as well as an intentional and in-your-face statement about conspicuous consumption (retail ~ $300), I think that an ugly Christmas sweater starts to make more sense. Yes, I do see a link between wearable seasonal garbage and it-brand Vêtements – if in no other way than that they’re both trends so runaway it’s impossible for anyone to point at why we still care about them (Vêtements did, I think, have some initial promise that has degraded for a number of reasons).

This year, is projected to make $5.5 million in sales, which is not a small figure. And this summer, Gosha Rubchinskiy more or less won Pitti with a show featuring collaborations with Kappa and FILA, among others – all of which are probably poised to sell out the instant they hit e-tailers in 2017. We’ve known that The Logo has returned in importance for some time now, but the popularity hasn’t faded. That it will, I’m certain – trends always die, and in five years I doubt we’ll be seeing many Instagram supermodels wearing chokers and distressed sweatpants.

There has always been room for “ugliness” in fashion, and more generally in art, whether it comes in the form of Rei Kawakubo’s continued insistence on clothing that’s almost nothing like clothing, or in Carol Christian Poell’s garments that often display – intentionally – the opposite of bourgeois good taste while largely ignoring the shape of the human body. In these cases, the ugliness has merit, meaning, and considerable intellect backing it up. The extent to which that matters is debatable – we’re all paying so that we can be in on the joke, and show that we’re a part of the club too.

I think that it is difficult for even the most resolutely self-aware consumers to avoid taking themselves far, far too seriously – whether it’s forming opinions on the “correctness” of Ivy League attire, desperately wanting your box logo Supreme tee to be real as opposed to a knockoff, or refusing to snip the stitches holding the tags on your Margiela garments. Taste is largely a matter of societal echolocation, and the world of fashion is a very big – if often nonsensical – echo chamber.

More importantly, it’s important to remember that all of this stuff is constructed more or less arbitrarily. Completely random or outdated occurrences have nevertheless resulted in what are now the “rules” of menswear. Welcome to fashion! The show where the game’s made up and the points don’t matter. And despite my griping, at this point the Ugly Christmas Sweater has become tradition solely due to saturation – and in that way it’s sort of a nice metaphor for the fashion system at large. So much of fashion is devoted to the idea of looking as though you don’t care about fashion, and perhaps an ugly sweater is no different: “This is my way of showing that I don’t take myself too seriously – but just seriously enough to make the effort to not appear serious.” Yes, you heard me – happily wearing the waste of capital and labor that is the Ugly Christmas Sweater is the same as adjusting the lazy puff in your pocket square so that it’s not too lazy.

As a good friend put it when I asked what he thought of the whole thing, “It’s important never to start seeing your clothes (or your sociological place) as having any inherent meaning outside human invention,” which is great advice that’s nevertheless easy to forget. As a matter of principle, I also asked forum member @Brad T, who told me that it was stupid to ask “if there is room for [humor] in fashion. Of course there is. There is an infinite amount of room for everything.” Which, as far as philosophical answers go, is comfortably non-nihilistic.

Loops and traps, my friends. This season, remember that all matters of taste are matters of class warfare. And, if fashion is merely the leveraging of existential pleasures or a visual form of reader response, I suppose you’re free to buy all the hideous sweaters you like this winter. Wear them over your button-down collars with buttons left undone, underneath your Margiela overcoats with stitches intact . Nothing’s stopping you!

As far as the sweaters go, I won’t be joining you – they’re just not to my taste.