The Style Column - by Jeremy Langmead

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This column is going to be tricky. I’m going to try and persuade you that something you might have previously been a bit sniffy about is worth a second chance. The item in question — I won’t mention its name yet, in case you run away already — has had something of a bad press.

Like Santa Claus, it tends only to appear during the festive period; and like Santa Claus’s outfit, it’s often championed by fat old guys with beards.

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No, I’m not talking about red felt jumpsuits, but, ho ho ho, the Christmas sweater — those chunky, cosy knits that tend to be decorated with giant snowflakes, frisky reindeer or perky penguins.

If you Google “Christmas sweaters”, what pops up on your screen is actually quite alarming. There are tons of garishly patterned designs modelled by “we’re crazy, us” types gurning at the camera with their thumbs up.

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They’re the type of people who enjoy mulled wine and Twiglets, think Fearne Cotton is a bit of a giggle, and say “fan-dabi-dozi” when their wives cook something special for dinner.

Mmmm, I’ve really sold you on the idea so far, haven’t I? The thing is, there is a plethora of patterned sweaters around this winter that do have a rustic, retro charm without being too quaint or Val Doonican-y (younger readers will need to look up that name).

Everyone from Incotex to Hartford and Givenchy has attempted — and I would argue succeeded — in modernising and defrumping the Crimbo pullie. Givenchy has even swapped snowflakes for crucifixes on theirs. So, instead of Gyles Brandreth on the BBC, you’ve got to channel Dean Martin on the slopes of Aspen, Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl, even Robbie Williams in the kitsch video for “Something Stupid” with Nicole Kidman.

The way to pull the look off is not to team your Christmas sweater with a pair of baggy corduroys and a tweed jacket (however fashionable both those items happen to be this winter), but with something a little more youthful — a pair of skinny jeans, if age appropriate, or even sweatpants (Acne do some great ones), and finish off with a chunky pair of hiking boots or hi-tops.

If you’re still not convinced, I’ve got a back-up plan: the Fair Isle knit. Again, these patterned sweaters — often worn as tank tops, and originating from one of  the Shetland Islands in Scotland — have had some less than salubrious champions in the past: favoured by Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (showing my age again), as well as being a wardrobe staple of Wallace off Wallace & Gromit.

However, cast those thoughts aside, and think Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited or the politically-naive-yet-impeccably-dressed Duke of Windsor. When, as Prince of Wales, he wore Fair Isle tank tops in public in 1921, they were soon adopted by men all over the country attempting to emulate his combination of stately elegance and rural charm.

I’ve got my eye on a Fair Isle tank top by Gant Rugger, and Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label has produced a strikingly similar version of the knit worn by the good duke for an arresting Twenties portrait with his Cairn terrier. Junya Watanabe even adopted the style for a series of knitted jackets this season. For the more faint of heart, you can opt for Fair Isle-lite, with sweaters by brands such as YMC, John Smedley and Burberry who have all designed them with just a smattering of pattern.

Whichever you choose, I would avoid wearing any of these sweaters when visiting relatives over the festive season: you might find yourself getting a few more hugs than you’re comfortable with from ageing aunts, grannies deciding that you’d love one they’ve knitted themselves for the following year, or, as has happened to me in the past, being mistaken for one of the “funny ones” from The Vicar of Dibley Christmas Special. And I don’t mean Dawn French. Just saying.

Jeremy Langmead is the editor-in-chief of MR PORTER

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