A Christmas post from 2004

by John Quiggin on December 26, 2015

Here’s a Christmas post from my blog in 2004. The theme is that nothing about Christmas ever changes, so it’s a repost of the same post from 2003. Looking back from 2015, the only change I can see is that the complaints about inclusive language to which I referred as “old stuff by now” have now become codified, as the “War on Christmas”.

I’ll add one new thought that the use of “War on Christmas” rhetoric reflects a larger problem for Christianists: should they be asserting their privileges as a majority (as in the demand that their particular holiday be recognised as primary) or demanding their rights as a minority (as in their unwillingness to accept equal marriage). The two strategies undermine each other.

In anticipation of at least a short break, let me wish a merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a happy New Year to everyone (at least everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar).

Read on for my unchanged Christmas message

CP Snow once said that most ancient British traditions dated back to the second half of the 19th century. The same idea recently popped up in the London Review of Books, with Stefan Collini referring to the

second half of the 19th century, the palaeolithic age of so many British cultural institutions
. Christmas provides an ideal illustration of this.

All the central features of Xmas date back, more or less exactly, to this period, including Christmas pudding, mince pies and cake, Christmas cards and Santa Claus. Although Dickens’ 1843 Christmas Carol, tiresomely readapted every couple of years since, presents a ‘traditional’ Christmas, it is much more accurate to see him as The Man who invented Christmas and his book as a work of invention.

If Christmas was pretty much fixed by 1900, its become immovably solidifed since then. Even the complaints about Christmas (commercialisation, losing the true meaning, secularisation, the loneliness of people with no family, the misery of people forced to endure family gatherings and so on) haven’t changed in decades.

The Australian Christmas is, of course, a bit different, but it’s equally stable as one merges into another and no-one can recall if it was 104 in the shade in 1966 or 106 in the shade in 1964 (I’m quoting from memory from The Complete Book of Australian Verse

The only new(ish) complaint has been about multiculturalism, with the inclusion of the Jewish Hanukkah in a generalized ‘holiday season’, particularly in the US, and the downplaying of explicitly Christian aspects in various public celebrations. But even this is old stuff by now.

Its arguable that Christmas is the rule rather than the exception. Despite the claims of postmodernism and the breathlessness of books like Future Shock, increasingly large areas of opur culture seem to characterized by stability amounting to stasis rather than change. Trends in popular music, for example, used to have a half-life measured in weeks; now, it’s more like decades. Men’s clothes have changed only in subtle details in the past century.
Take a look at a picture from 1900 and the men are wearing a slightly more formal version of what they would wear today.

Theodore Roosevelt

Go back to 1800, or a little earlier, and the change is dramatic.

Washington

{ 32 comments }

1

js. 12.26.15 at 4:35 am

Men’s clothes have changed only in subtle details in the past century

I’ve been watching a bunch of old noirs recently (mid 40s mostly), and I had exactly this thought last night: cut the pants (or trousers, if you prefer) a little slimmer and wear them a little lower, and mens fashion ca. 1945 is pretty much men’s fashion ca. 2015. (Fewer hats, I’ll grant you.)

2

Gareth Wilson 12.26.15 at 9:46 am

In New Zealand, we take “Merry Christmas” for granted, and would consider it absurd to say anything more general. But this may be because celebrating Christmas doesn’t imply any Christian religious beliefs, and Christianity has very little political influence.

3

Watson Ladd 12.26.15 at 9:24 pm

I think you are misunderstanding postmodernism in a way that masks agreeement. Modernism promised continued transformation and reflected the energy and transformations of capitalism. Postmodernism was an effort to come to terms with the disappearance of that optimism, and sought to revitalize the particular in a conservative mood. Abstract expressionism of the 1950s is rewarmed Kandinski. But postmodern return to figuration is a reaction, the same reaction as originally.

4

Ronan(rf) 12.27.15 at 5:59 am

What about women’s clothing ? I’d assume styles have been pretty stable there aswell, though surely there has been more divergence , particularly in the acceptance of women dressing in traditionally male styles. If we were to see that as a radical change then that might give more credence to claims of fluid, ever changing cultural norms (which I don’t think I buy, personally, in the aggregate )

5

Glen Tomkins 12.27.15 at 4:07 pm

Men’s clothing is stuck in the era at which we decided to all dress like aristocrats. We all started to be addressed as “sir”, or “mister” at the same time, as if we were all aristos. Since aristocracy ended at the same time, there could be no further evolution of men’s fashion.

6

John Quiggin 12.27.15 at 10:40 pm

@3 I think you are right about this.
@4 My feeling is that we have seen a similar stabilization in women’s clothing, but starting considerably later, with the acceptance, as you note, of trousers as a standard option.

7

LFC 12.28.15 at 2:14 am

Glen Tomkins @5
Probably someone has already done a good history of forms of address (sir, mister, etc.). For some reason I always want to think that “sirrah” in Shakespeare is short for “sir,” but a quick search reminded me it’s the opposite: i.e., a form of address used to social inferiors.

[p.s. happy new year etc]

8

LFC 12.28.15 at 2:15 am

p.p.s. the perceived social inferiors of the speaker, is what I meant.

9

Val 12.28.15 at 3:44 am

From where I see it, the Internet is killing cards – they were always a very challenging task anyway. Women are also becoming more inclined to let shop attendants do gift wrapping, in my experience.

However from AC social theory or historical point of view, practices adapt – so Christmas in Australia adapts to being a summer solstice practice, with seafood replacing heavy meats to some extent, with people accepting vegetarian options (my sister planned for convenience two ends of her table, one for vegetarians and one for non-veg, as they say in India. It didn’t work out of course, as people sat themselves by whomever they were talking to rather than by what food they intended to eat, and she and my brother in law found themselves at the supposedly veg end. At the end of the meal she said she’d thought she’d want to be at the turkey and the ham end, but the vegetarian food – provided partly by her and partly by me – was so good it changed her whole attitude), and so on.

However it remains a practice of christmas, which I guess is just one form of festival practices, solstice practices and birth celebration practices, and as such has been with us pretty well forever, wouldn’t you think?

10

Val 12.28.15 at 3:46 am

Don’t know how the AC got in there – it has no cryptic meaning – no meaning at really except that spell check is strange and officious.

11

Glen Tomkins 12.28.15 at 4:55 am

I much prefer DC social theory myself.

12

ZM 12.28.15 at 4:59 am

I didn’t think sirrah was used like that LFC, i guess it might show in the tone but I have only read it written.

I don’t think men’s clothes are only aristocratic in style – jeans were workmen’s clothes and they are very popular to this day. Men only wear trousers pretty much, so they have less variation than women’s clothes — but there have been a variety of trouser styles. I have had friends who are really interested in fashion, and I don’t think you would expect a great variation in clothes over a century, and the 20th C was probably more varied in fashions than others.

In terms of Christmas, I think Christmas food has changed in Australia over the last 10-20 years to be more seasonable now instead of mimicking the food appropriate to the Northern Hemisphere Winter. Also Christmas decorations have changed too if you like looking at shop windows or people’s houses or magazines — more traditional christmas decorations are still used by some people but its much more normal to have more artistic or quirky Christmas decorations now, I saw lots of lovely wreaths this year using native Australian flowers and seedpods and leaves and branches and so on, which I used as inspiration for my wreath. As backyards are smaller now with subdivisions and bigger houses there is less backyard cricket being played, and more video games being played, although that started some time ago. Christmas carols are usually not performed by people going door to door like in times past, one time when I was a kid with some friends I went carolling door to door but this was since we read about it in books not because it was the done thing. And in churches now you often see multicultural nativity scenes — the Bendigo cathedral had several really nice nativities last year set in a variety of cultures and places.

13

Val 12.28.15 at 1:00 pm

@ 11
Well AC means alternating current and DC means direct current, right? and AC/DC means your sexuality is fluid, and the band of that name – but I mean in that context it had no meaning. But probably I typed ac by mistake and spellcheck quite understandably thought I meant AC – it’s a poor workwoman who blames her tools, etc. However, I went to England for Christmas a few years ago and spell check went nuts, truly. I don’t know if it was my Australian idiom that confused it or what, but it was turning all my messages into gibberish, by altering a few vital words here and there. So I’ve never really trusted spell check since.

Anyway belatedly, merry Christmas/ holiday and happy new year, whenever it happens, to all.

14

Glen Tomkins 12.28.15 at 5:40 pm

ZM,

I took the topic of men’s style to have the inherent limitation of clothes worn by people in charge, when at the work of being in charge. We were given pictures of two presidents, after all. The distinction isn’t quite formal vs informal, but work, and managerial work, vs leisure. Sure, non-work, non-professional work, men’s clothing has changed quite a bit.

The men’s uniform for professional, managerial work has remained pretty rigidly stuck on coat, tie and trousers since 1815 or so, two centuries. I would argue that that is more stuck and rigid than expected. There’s always some inertia in fashion, but lately, at least for this narrow slice of the whole, inertia seems more powerful. Just think of portraits of men in charge in a series similar to TR and Washington, for 1715 and 1615 and 1515 and 1415. Even the one century changes are larger before 1815 in every other case than the two century change from 1815 to 2015.

What’s a bit odd in pointing out that professional/managerial work wear and leisure wear are so different in their inertia lately, is that the aristocratic style that professional work wear has stuck on, is precisely the leisure wear of the aristos of the late 18th century. Formal court (both in the legal and royal meaning) wear has remained somewhat stuck at the formal wear of that day (wigs in legal court, at least flunkies at Windsor Castle in breeches on formal occasions), but less formal business and government usage has stuck on the riding and shooting clothes of that day. The cravat and short coat/jacket, was a fashion originally brought back by aristocratic aides to the armies of GB’s allies in the War of the Austrian Succession. The most adventuresome of these aristos rode with the Croatian irregulars whose guerrilla tactics forced the Prussians to lift the siege of Prague, and these Croatians wore cravats and short coats as practical campaign gear. This became the fashion of the day, for shooting and riding anyway, and persisted because of its practicality and ease in that role. At the point when this style crossed over to being the work uniform of serious men of business and govt, the attraction was presumably that these bourgeois people could see themselves as aristos, but not hide-bound, formal wear, aristos. Actual aristocrats were being pushed out of serious roles running things, or at least had to become bourgeois serious to stay competitive, so their leisure wear became a symbol of a certain cachet that everyone wanted to ape. The non-aristos brought with them their Third Estate basic black, and thus was born the basic black, coat-tie-trousers look that we just can’t seem to shake.

Personally, I see my patients without coat (white or otherwise) or tie. But you can’t go by me, because I make no pretense of being a serious man of business.

15

LFC 12.28.15 at 7:04 pm

@ZM
I didn’t think sirrah was used like that
Word itself was an extended form of “sir”, but it was used pretty much as I indicated:

Sirrah: an address used to someone regarded as socially inferior – ‘my good man’, ‘fellow’, ‘hey you!’ Example : ‘You, sirrah, provide your block and your axe to-morrow four o’clock’ (Measure for Measure)

http://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/quotes/shakespeare-dictionary/

I also vaguely recall, e.g., Hal and Falstaff using “sirrah” as a (perhaps quasi-friendly) insult when they’re bantering. (Henry IV Pt 1)

16

ZM 12.29.15 at 2:16 am

Glen Tomkins,

Yes I suppose thats right when it comes to that particular sort of clothes, although there’re people like Steve Jobs who are in charge but don’t wear those clothes.

Actually when we had a female Labor Party Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, she made a famous speech about how if the Liberal Party won the election, all the people in parliament would be men wearing blue ties:

“I invite you to imagine it. A prime minister – a man in a blue tie – who goes on holidays to be replaced by a man in a blue tie.

A treasurer, who delivers a budget wearing a blue tie, to be supported by a finance minister – another man in a blue tie.

Women once again banished from the centre of Australia’s political life.”

17

ZM 12.29.15 at 2:22 am

LFC, yes you’re right. I think I must just have pronounced it in a nicer way in my mind when I read it, so I thought it was a pleasant sort of address.

18

Glen Tomkins 12.31.15 at 4:26 am

ZM,

For a while in the 70s it looked like the old riding and shooting togs might finally be on the way to their justly deserved place on the trash heap of history, with fabulously wealthy recording studio executives and associated artists thought to be the wave of the future. Then we had Silicon Valley in the 90s go the same way and people predicted that would sweep away the suit and tie, but that too hasn’t exactly spread like wildfire. The Hawaii legislature got rid of the coat and tie some decades ago (don’t know if they’ve backslid since). And we do have Casual Fridays many places.

Even if these are signs of a coming transition, and the short coat and tie will be replaced eventually, isn’t it taking a lot more time that it took for these to replace breeches and the long coat?

I attribute the inertia to anxiety over social position. It isn’t conferred by birth anymore, so its holders fear to give up the established symbols and accoutrements of power and place for some untested look. Of course, the further from being an actual mover and shaker, the greater the pressure to look like one.

19

Peter T 12.31.15 at 7:37 am

Hmm. Beards are coming back (see Paul Ryan). There is also the shirt worn without tie as mark of independence, as in the Philippines, India and Iran. Okay – the last may be delaying the transition.

20

ZM 12.31.15 at 9:19 am

That’s interesting about Hawaii , I did a google image search and there are some suits but fewer than in Australia. It is quite a nice parliament building interior actually.

When we have APEC conferences there is always a special shirt, this is the most exciting event in political men’s fashions I think. But possibly this is why men never change their professional managerial clothes fashions since the APEC clothes are always found to be humourous.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/nov/17/awkward-apec-fashion-what-the-world-leaders-wore-in-pictures

21

engels 12.31.15 at 4:35 pm

I didn’t think sirrah was used like that
Word itself was an extended form of “sir”, but it was used pretty much as I indicated

However, it is used differently in the song ‘Que sirrah sirrah’

22

Norwegian Guy 12.31.15 at 5:08 pm

It’s unsurprising that clothing changed a great deal from 1800 to 1900, as the industrial revolution lead to a transition from homemade to industrial production of textiles and cloths. Perhaps (men’s) clothing styles have been changing more slowly since then, but I’m far from certain about that. If anything, I’d guess that the change from 1900 to 1950 was smaller than that from 1950 to 2000. Just think about all the new synthetic fabrics that were introduced in the 20th century, especially in the latter half.

In 1800, 1900, or 1950, clothing varied a lot according to social class and occupation, and between workwear and Sunday best. Since then, things have both homogenized and diversified, with much of the change happening in the 1970s or so. Presidents may wear the same cloths as they did a century ago, but that’s not necessarily the case for farmers, industrial workers or office workers. Don’t forget that most men wear suit and tie a handful of times a year only.

23

Cranky Observer 12.31.15 at 5:55 pm

= = = For a while in the 70s it looked like the old riding and shooting togs might finally be on the way to their justly deserved place on the trash heap of history, with fabulously wealthy recording studio executives and associated artists thought to be the wave of the future. Then we had Silicon Valley in the 90s go the same way and people predicted that would sweep away the suit and tie, but that too hasn’t exactly spread like wildfire. The Hawaii legislature got rid of the coat and tie some decades ago (don’t know if they’ve backslid since). And we do have Casual Fridays many places. = = =

And this is necessarily good because…? As it stood from 1800-1990 if a man needed to dress semi-formally any time of day anywhere in the world he needed one grey suit, one light blue shirt, and 2-3 ties. That’s it. No concern about keeping up with trends, replacing wardrobes every 9 months, looking out of place [might look stuffy, but not silly]. Dropping that convention has a lot of negative consequences IMHO.

24

Bloix 12.31.15 at 7:09 pm

This is a classroom at Boston College Law School in the 1950s:
http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/rvp/pubaf/chronicle/v13/o21/lawsidebar.html

Tell me mens’ clothing hasn’t changed. Today, a man who came to class dressed like that every day might as well be wearing knee breaches and a tail coat.

I have worked in major city law offices for 30 years. Until 1998 I wore a suit every single day. Then we went to casual Fridays, and then business casual – suits only for meetings and court. Now even meetings with clients are business casual, and suits are for court. And on Fridays you can wear jeans if you put $5 in the charity jar.

25

Bloix 12.31.15 at 7:23 pm

Oh, and “sirrah” is not an extension of “sir.” Both words derive independently from “sire,” itself derived from Latin “senior.” (In middle English, “sire” would have been pronounced, more or less, “sirreh.”) Sir was originally always an honorific (Sir John) – a sort of cut-down version of sire. Sirrah was a free-standing form of address, which eventually was used ironically and then contemptuously.

26

LFC 12.31.15 at 9:36 pm

Bloix @25
The “extended form of ‘sir'” thing I just took from some site or other (I forget which), evidently not authoritative.

27

Glen Tomkins 01.01.16 at 12:11 am

Cranky Observer,

If you want to stay at the height of fashion now, you still have to buy a very expensive suit or two or three every nine months, plus all sorts of clothes for non-serious occasions. If you don’t care to stay at the height of fashion, yes, your one grey suit will do now until it wears out. But in the post-suit world you will still only need a very few outfits, only they will be even less expensive than the grey suit, more comfortable and practical, and as monotonous as your care for fashion allows.

28

engels 01.01.16 at 12:56 am

it is used differently in the song ‘Que sirrah sirrah’

And in the story ‘Sirrah-no de Bergerac’

29

John Quiggin 01.01.16 at 3:21 am

I have worked in major city law offices for 30 years. Until 1998 I wore a suit every single day. Then we went to casual Fridays, and then business casual – suits only for meetings and court. Now even meetings with clients are business casual, and suits are for court. And on Fridays you can wear jeans if you put $5 in the charity jar/.

As I indicated in the OP, there’s been a gradual decrease in formality over the past century or so. But your own account indicates the glacial pace of change. Over 60 years or so, suits have gone from normal (but not universal, as the law school picture shows) daily wear for lawyers and law students to formal meeting wear.

http://lawschooltoolbox.com/a-law-students-3-tiered-guide-to-dressing-the-part/

Law firms were probably among the last to make the shift, which began much earlier in other office settings.

30

Collin Street 01.01.16 at 6:07 am

And this is necessarily good because…? As it stood from 1800-1990 if a man needed to dress semi-formally any time of day anywhere in the world he needed one grey suit, one light blue shirt, and 2-3 ties. That’s it.

Err, no. Until the sixties men needed hats as well: the abolition of the hat for formalwear is a huge change.

I mean, I’m not an expert. But I have done pattern-cutting, I can sew pretty well, I have a collection of historical tailoring patterns and resources. Nothing I’ve seen suggests that clothing styles have changed faster or slower recently versus in the past. I mean, we can date modern pictures by clothing style about as accurately — say, ten years — as we can victorian ones. Older ones, too, if they’re of people rich enough that the cost of hand-spinning and -weaving still left new clothes affordable.

31

ZM 01.01.16 at 6:59 am

More recently there is also the rise of “fast fashion” in the 2000s although I’m not sure if this is as prevalent in men’s clothing ? The complaints about needing to own more clothes for business casual work outfits might have something to do with the rise of fast fashion.

From a fashion and an economics perspective this was a shift, in terms of having more shorter fashion seasons, more styles with fewer quantities available of the styles, cheaper prices so people buy more clothes, and the fashion industry having mostly been moved to less advanced economies where there are low wages and poor conditions comparatively.

“So how does Big Fashion keep costs so low? Fashion’s engine is powered by an estimated 40 million garment workers, the Cut, Make and Trim army. Cut, Make and Trim (CMT) is the point in the fashion chain where – raw fibre having been spun into fabric, and patterns and trends decided – the garments are actually made. Another estimated 30 million homeworkers (mostly women) bead, embroider and sew sequins on to garments.

Research shows that many western companies place vast orders with southeast Asian CMT facilities with cursory calculations as to what they can handle. Garment workers are therefore under extraordinary pressure to complete orders on time. Enforced, often unpaid overtime is one of the most contentious issues. The most serious allegations include working days that are habitually stretched from 10 hours to 15, with workers locked inside factories at night to finish orders, subjected to intimidation and even violence to make them feel they have no choice but to stay. There is evidence of workers simply being locked into factories until they have finished. The fire escapes are locked, too.”

32

Bruce Wilder 01.01.16 at 3:54 pm

The fire escapes are locked, too.

Shades of Triangle Shirtwaist (March 25, 1911). Talk about little changing. I wish economists worried more about why garment workers are so often so oppressed.

I am ready to believe something changed with modernity — the interaction of evolving tech and ever changing fashion. Beau Brummel was a real person with real if surprising influence. Teddy Roosevelt was a dandy of a later generation. Manufacturing of cloth and then of garments and the invention of fabrics matters to shaping modern clothing. Class matters, too.

The problem with concepts of general stasis is that nothing ever happens that way.

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