Santa's Suit

As children all over the world get ready for Santa's big journey tonight, we look back to issue 37 when Derek McCormack delved deep into Santa's wardrobes through the ages...

At Christmas, my parents pull out a picture. Me, sitting on Santa’s knee. Bawling. Santa’s skinny. His suit’s saggy and orange. It wasn’t machine washable – he machine-washed it. The photo’s from a department store in my hometown. I was five years old. I believed this man was Santa Claus. Now I think: Santa was a hack.

If only it had been Santa Victor. Santa Victor has a slew of Santa suits. In his closet: a red coat ornamented with gold braid and scores of antique brass buttons. Vintage black patent buckled shoes with Cuban heels. Stockings striped with candycane colours. Santa Victor designs all his clothes, has seamstresses sew them. It’s Christmas couture. Yves Santa Laurent.

In old Europe, St. Nicholas was a religious figure, patron saint of children. And pawnbrokers. And perfumers. A skinny, stern saint in long robes and mitres – but not in North America. Canadians knew St. Nick from a poem, ‘An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,’ that Clement Clarke Moore wrote in 1822. Clarke made him jolly, jelly-bellied, more elf than man. ‘He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.’

What kind of fur was it? What colour? Where did he get it cleaned? Moore didn’t say. An 1837 painting depicts a scene from the poem, Santa’s short and sinister in a fur cape, brown pants and a navy-striped jacket. The look never caught on.

In 1863, during the American Civil War, Santa got a make-over from Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harper’s magazine. One illustration has him dressed in garments borrowed from Uncle Sam: a fur-trimmed, star-spangled coat, striped trousers. When war ended, Nast put Santa in fur union suits. They came in brown, black and green. Santa wore them skin-tight, with patent pilgrim shoes. A tasselled hat. Holly sprays. It was Nast who first depicted Santa residing in a palace at the North Pole. An 1866 Harper’s illustration shows Santa spying on children with a telescope. His palace is made of snow and ice – ideal for storing furs. ‘Thomas Nast was an observer of Parry and Franklin and other early Polar explorers,’ Santa Victor explains. ‘Perhaps that’s where he got that look.’...

You can read this article in full in Selvedge issue 37.

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