We all know what is meant by the dress code “birthday suit”, but what clothes best suit Christmas day?
When you conjure the perfect family Christmas – harmony, log fires, avalanches of thoughtful gifts, everyone hale and hearty, a turkey breast that redefines the term moist, a newborn baby to dandle, one spectacular argument that is speedily resolved, a silver ladle drowning in a steaming tureen of bread sauce – do you think about what you will be wearing? I don’t.
What to wear on Christmas day is far from obvious. You want to be festive but in no way formal. You want to look high-spirited but you don’t want anything resembling evening dress. You may want “witty” or even “jolly” but you balk at comedy knitwear and wince at garments shot through with “fun”.
Christmas is a vulnerable time of year for most people. All the celebrating goes hand-in-hand with heavy waves of nostalgia and such a sharp awareness of loss that we might look to our clothes to hold us together. Yet clothes that hold us together are not pleasant when over-indulging is forecast. We may feel tempted to restrict our feelings, to apply a pair of Spanx to the heart, but we don’t want anything pressing up against our waistlines.
In my mind I favour a red- or rose-coloured dress with an immaculate white half-apron tied in a bow at the front in which I will look as fresh and dewy as an ice-cold tin of Coca-Cola. Yet I will be lunching out this year and it is too outlandish to arrive at your hosts’ house sporting an apron, however many sprouts you plan to peel. And then red or rose dresses require bare legs and will have short or no sleeves, and it will be cold and you do not want limbs that take on a bluish tinge and put people in mind, too early in the day, of Stilton.
You may think, “I’ll play safe with something quietly elegant” but when it comes to elegance on Christmas day, I say: “No room at the inn”. The two things are mutually exclusive, for elegance is about restraint and Christmas is about going overboard with a capital “O”. The only excuse for looking chic on the day is if you choose a black velvet skirt and crisp white blouse, and pass yourself off as a glamorous person hired in from a catering firm to help ease the workload but that would be an extremely recherché approach to family life, would it not?
The perfect Christmas outfit needs to be somewhat unabashed and entirely charming. It must have enough structure so you do not face the day wholly undefended, yet it mustn’t fence you in. As in almost any human situation apart from funerals, polka dots are good. I also have a white cardigan covered in green hearts that always works well, the freshness of the green cutting the sweetness of the heart motif.
Your ordinary workaday skirt and jersey with very high, very red shoes can be jolly in a, “Look! My feet have gone all out”, sort of way. A small amount of animal print doesn’t go amiss. One year, when my spirits were very high, I pulled off aspirin-sized white spots on navy crêpe de Chine and tiger stripes and felt pretty jaunty – although I did have to keep my remarks relatively dry all day in order to dilute myself.
Of course the best option – louche luxe, if you will – can only really be sported if you do not venture out for the day. You may even need to be ill to bring it off convincingly. (But I am generally ill at Christmas as I give it my all and then have nothing left.)
My perfect Christmas outfit is ivory silk satin pyjamas with tiny black polka dots and black piping at the cuffs and breast pocket, and a dressing gown in pale grey cashmere or merino wool with quite a bit of volume and a pretty lining. The dressing gown must be in no way ratty, for therein lies the difference between cowardly and Coward-ish.
You can top it with a red paper hat from a cracker, or a tiara if you have one to hand. Pale pink fluffy bedsocks stuffed into vertiginous peep-toed mules complete the outfit.
Your nearest and dearest will probably forgive you. Merry Christmas!
Susie Boyt is an FT columnist.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt