Don We Now Our Christmas Frippery: A Look at Holiday Fashion

1 – Welcome to #ThreadTalk! We're talking #Christmas frippery. 🎄🎀🎅

Fair warning: If you came for an uncomplicated, nostalgic look at this winter celebration, I suggest you take your eggnog & jingle along, Santa baby.

Still with me? Cool. Let's don our gay apparel & begin!

2 – Before we get to the frocks, Christmas as we know it is quite new. At least, the whole lighting trees, fancy outfits, presents, consumerism business.

We have Dickens, Hessian soldiers & capitalism to thank for that. Prang, 1880, below.

Watch out, kids. That's real fire!

Christmas tree depicted as Christmas card by Prang & Co. (Boston) 1880

3 – Lots of our current traditions are rather "new old-fashioned".

See, up in until the 19th century, Epiphany, not Christmas, was the biggest, baddest Church holiday in Europe. That's when things got exciting, being the day when the Three Wise Men came to say hey to Baby Jesus.

Frontal d'altar de Mosoll, els Reis d'Orient - This is a photo of a monument indexed in the Catalan heritage register of Béns Culturals d'Interès Nacional and the Spanish heritage register of Bienes de Interés Cultural under the reference RI-51-0001316.

4 – Epiphany, & the 12 days of Christmas, parties were LIT.

In the Middle Ages it was not uncommon to see squires or lords open their halls for their tenants & feed them, allow them to celebrate & carouse.

Richard II famously fed 10K guests during Christmastime 1398.

Tables at royal feasts were decked with spectacular dishes - enabling the host to show off his wealth. Animals such as peacocks, seals, porpoises and even whales accompanied jellies and custards which were dyed with vivid natural colourings - sandalwood for red, saffron for a fiery yellow, and boiled blood for black. But the most visually alluring pieces at the table were special sugar sculptures known as sotiltees (or subtleties). These came in all sorts of curious forms - castles, ships, famous philosophers, or scenes from fables. This image from an illuminated manuscript shows a royal feast for King Richard II who had ruled in the previous century (1367-1400). 

Shelfmark: Royal 14 E. IV, f.265v

5 – This Pieter Brueghel the Younger (before 1616, Netherlands) painting gives you a good idea of what I'm talking about.

Poultry running amok! Child unattended near flame! Bagpipes! Costumes! Ornamental garlic?

But clearly, common people shit.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger - The king drinks - before 1616. Commoners dancing in a barn, absolute chaos.

6 – The theme is a frequent one for painters: peasants celebrating Twelfth Night, or anything Christmas-related. You even see some imagery (crowns) still used today.

David Tenier the Younger's example is even less flattering. Stark, coarse, drunken… 1635.

Peasants Celebrating Twelfth Night - by David Tenier the Younger.

7 – Even by the early 19th century, Christmas is still considered the working person's holiday.

This 1812 print is in line–and even worse–than the previous images.

It's classist, racist, & misogynist all in one! (Matching attire has me reading these as servants).

From the Met Museum: The scene shows the results of holiday festivities, with mistletoe overhead and four couples embracing, kissing, or attempting to kiss below.

8 – In Austen's Emma, for instance, as David Parker points out (link later), the Christmas dinner at Mr. Weston's is just a nice dinner. Mr. Woodhouse is grumpy about the whole affair. Enthusiasm for Christmas is for plebs.

But that's about to change.

9 – Enter: Romanticism.

Sir Walter Scott helped kindle a new generation to the lost, or nearly lost, common Yuletide traditions.

That's how Washington Irving got moving, and that's what writing and what (eventually) got Charles Dickens to America–Irving's biggest fanboy.

A servant carrying a figgy pudding on a platter, dressed in a wig and typical frock of green and gold.

10 – Irving ushered in the Christmas pastiche w/a good narrative, combining themes from America's immigrant population & sentimental views of English Christmas. Not to mention flying St. Nick.

Which goes far back. This 14th C depiction is pretty metal. No, it's not Monty Python.

Gentile da Fabriano - St. Nicholas flying above a ship, saving the poor fellows lost at sea.

11 – Parker's thesis makes total sense to me. Dickens didn't get his cozy, middle-class version of Christmas from England at all–he got it from America & Irving.

It sure wasn't the Puritans. They preached against Christmas celebrations regularly.

This quote, y'all. I can't.

The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.                - Increase Mather, 1687

12 – Dickens falls in LOVE with Irving's Christmas, which assimilates a dozen different European Christmas traditions, and then he adds to it.

He markets his own version & it becomes a brand, just like him. People start making money off of selling Christmas.

Mr Fezziwig's Ball Mr Fezziwig's Ball.Colour illustration from 'A Christmas Carol in prose. Being a Ghost-story of Christmas', by Charles Dickens, with illustrations by John Leech.

13 – At the time, it was a bit uncommon for middle class folks to be so enthusiastic about Christmas.

But Dickens just kept on it, and given his popularity, the Western world followed his dream.

This Hot Ghost of Christmas Present couldn't have hurt. Check those abs, y'all.

Ghost of Christmas Present, with a crown of holly and a bare chest. As you do.

14 – Before we talk dresses, a few things.

Christmas trees came to the US by way of Quebec (yes) via Hessian soldiers.

They then were featured on this book, The Stranger's Gift, in 1836, by Hermann Bokum.

Many, many house fires later.

The cover of Hermann Bokum's book, The Stranger's Gift, which featured the first American Christmas tree.

15 – Santa came via the Dutch. He didn't wear red until Harper's Bazaar featured Thomas Nast's versions in the 1860s. Originally he was TINY. Then he eventually grew to human size. Previously he wore green or tan. St. Nick usually wore green.

Coca-Cola really pushed the red…

One of Thomas Nast's renditions of Santa, much the same as modern audiences expect today. Burdened with gifts, smoking a pipe.

16 – Christmas was much bigger in the Southern States than the Northern US.

In the South it was seen as good ol' English pride.

It was also an opportunity for enslaved people to seek freedom during the chaos.

Christmas was when Harriet Tubman and her brothers escaped.

Born in Hudson, New York, Edmonds is one of few known nineteenth-century American painters who pursued dual careers in art and business, becoming an influential figure in the interrelated spheres of banking, politics, and culture in New York City. A regular contributor to the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibitions, Edmonds made his reputation with popular genre scenes such as this work, inspired by seventeenth-century Dutch painting. "Preparing for Christmas" represents a seasonal activity on a farm. While two White men pluck turkeys for the holiday feast—unperturbed by the winter cold—a younger Black figure, positioned between them, inattentively warms his hands. Francis William Edmonds. 1851.

17 – So the line in "Deck the Halls"

Originally it was "Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel" not "don we now our gay apparel."

That change happened in 1877, just as the Christmas craze EXPLODED among the folks with $$$.

This is my surprised face. (St. Nick, 1294, Russia)

St. Nicholas looking seriously serious.

18 – The earliest gown I could find is this early Romantic piece.

It's got all the hallmarks of wistful dreamy Romanticism, & still would work at a soirée today.

You want holly? We've got holly! Red satin? YES. Pouffy boules? You get them, anyway. 1824-26, the Met. British.

19 – This woman's dressing gown looks straight out of Dickens. Just needs a sleep cap. Velvet buttons! 1860.

You probably already know my affinity for all things plaid (my wardrobe attests) and even with the mismatch, I don't care.

Wool, linen, muslin. MFA Boston.

From the Boston MFA: Red tartan plaid floor-length dressing gown with front button closure, fitted upper body and full skirt; sloped shoulders, velvet buttons.

20 – Would this dress give you arsenic poisoning?

Absolutely it would.

Would you look amazing in it?

Also yes.

Am I also a total sucker for silk moiré?

Always and forever. Velvet details just make it sing.

Can't be sure this is holiday, but it works. 1865, US. MFA Boston.

Dress (a) fitted; long sleeves; high, round neck; bodice trimmed with green velvet and buttoned down the front with green velvet buttons; skirt with fullness at back, ending in train; (b) waistband with bow and streamers in slight bustle effect at center back; said to have been worn by donor's great grandmother, Emily Paine Hall, whose husband, Nathan Kelsey Hall, was Postmaster General in Washington in 1850; subsequently altered.

21 – Ma'am. This is just… this is just a Santa suit.

Except it's from 1863-1867, and it's a skating ensemble!

I don't know what to make of this. Other than the quilting would help prevent bruising for me.

The Met. British.

22 – I lived through most of the 80s, so I think red satin when I think Christmas.

This is heavy silk faille, which makes me think it would be fine in cold weather. Love those major mutton chop sleeves. Can you tell we're in the 1890s? 1895 to be exact, via Augusta Auctions.

From Augusta Auctions: 2-piece heavy silk faille, bodice w/ gigot sleeves & copper beaded bands, B 32", W 21", Skirt L 38"-40", (couple tiny whiteish stains on bodice back & skirt ribbons) excellent; t/w 1 black velvet mantle w/ fanciful soutache trim & chenille fringe, L 24"-48", (velvet nap worn off at sleeve tops) fair.

23 – Feeling blue, instead? Brave those winter nights in this velvet and fur number from 1874.

Silk velvet never ceases to amaze me with its ability to drink up ALL THE LIGHT.

The whole ensemble here is just gorgeous.

24 – If it's a Christmas Ball you're after, this ballgown has all the drama up in the back and then some. Those 1870s weren't messing around, that's for sure.

And the detail. Appliqué? Whatever it is, good heavens. It's EXPENSIVE.

25 – So keep in mind, as we look at these dresses, that the commercialization of Christmas means it becomes homogenized.

It also becomes VERY WHITE centered. Cultures get watered down, lost.

In spite of attempted nostalgia, the opposite happens.

It's Macy's parade (1940).

1940, Macy's Parade -- Santa with ads for Macy's sale. Via Macy's

26 – It's a way to keep everyone on the same page. To wink wink, nod nod, we're all Americans here.

And aren't we all so happy & fulfilled?

Because Santa brings gifts to all the good kids. Even the poor ones, right? So what if the rich kids get Playstations & poor kids don't.

A very happy Victorian family around their Christmas Tree.

27 – Here's another pretty dress.

Some blood red void silk velvet.

Expensive beyond imagining. Beautiful. Warm. Expertly made.

From the MFA Boston, late 19th C.

Red velvet evening gown orginally dated about 1887. Original bodice and later bodice dated 1902. Sleeveless bodice lined with cream silk tafetta. The long red velvet skirt is trained with decorative tabs and ruffle at hem. Shape of skirt is not consistent with the 1887 Sargent portrait (which suggests a large bustle at the back). Skirt was probably altered during the early 20th century to achieve a slimmer A-line shape, when second bodice was made.

28 – Remember friends, clothes are power. And Christmas is no exception.

I make cookies every Christmas, & these old recipes always call for spices.

Rich people didn't care about spices. But poor folks did. That's why so many holiday recipes call for them. It was special.

Father Christmas looking sad, with a group of folks around him.

29 – All we can do is be a bit more mindful.

Christmas, as we know it, is a lot of things.

But it is not without a very specific narrative, moved for very specific reasons… mostly to make money, and mostly about privilege.

And I didn't even get into Christmas cards! Oof.

30 – Now, for sources.

Most importantly, is David Parker's article, "Dickens and the American Christmas" — which was a cornerstone for tonight's talk. Highly recommended read.

31 – Sources 2

The History of Santa's Style

History of Christmas:

32 – Sources 3

Epiphany/Twelfth Night

Richard II feast:

Washington Irving:


33 – Sources 4


Deck the halls

Christmas Cards:

Harriet Tubman:

34 – My last little note is that Epiphany was so popular, it was given name from the Greek–Theophany


Which leads to "the Tiffany Problem" as coined by Jo Walton.

i.e. if I write a medieval woman named Tiffany Smith, you are not gonna buy it.

35 – Above article by @NinjaFingers! It's cool to do research and come across someone you recognize! 😀

ANYWAY! Thank you for staying up with me tonight.

As people have asked, I do have a tip jar in my bio. I spend tips on ink and tea.

Yay for #ChristmasFrippery!

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on December 6, 2021.

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