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Vestival

Want to delight friends, co-workers, and complete strangers? A new holiday beckons.

(Globe illustration/Jennifer Lew)
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
November 30, 2008
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Q: Why sweater vests?

A: The Sweater Vestival is an expression of our shared humanity, and no other garment is quite so inclusive, from the self-conscious hipster to the person who just wants to stay warm. Asking people to dress in unison is already asking a lot, but the vest allows enough individuality, humor, and fashion to poke through. Even though the sweater vest has virtually dropped out of the fashion lexicon in recent years, it remains a humble garment that has a comfortable familiarity to it; donning a vest does not come across as an outlandish stunt. Far from asking people to go out on a garish, uncomfortable limb by wearing patent leather pumps or fake moustaches, collective sweater-vest wearing is like chicken soup for the torso.

Q: Define "sweater vest."

A: Button-down or pullover, cotton or wool, argyle or stippled with glittering Christmas elves, sweater vests are like the tropical rain forests of couture - rich in diversity. What really don't count are fleece vests with a zipper, or other types of performance outerwear whose only suggestion of vestness is their lack of sleeves. Occasionally, people may dig up non-sweater vests from their own past - a leather button-down vest that was last worn decades ago, for example - that can be granted a pass out of sheer wonderfulness.

Q: Why should I wear a vest? Isn't this a made-up holiday?

A: It certainly is made-up, and that is exactly why you should take part. All holidays are made-up - a collective recognition of some person or historic event or cause. These can range from the sincere to the ironic to the nonsensical. In apparent seriousness, for example, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm established Narcolepsy Awareness Day on March 9. A more arch holiday is 11/11, set aside for the Corduroy Appreciation Club to "hail the wale." Name your cause and there's a day: International Talk Like A Pirate Day (Sept. 19), World Wide Knit in Public Day (the second Saturday in June), or National Boss Day (Oct. 16).

The purity of a holiday's origins tends to get buried in the commercial detritus that blossoms in the middle aisle of local drugstores. So understand that the Sweater Vestival is a nascent holiday - a rare opportunity to get in on the ground level of a holiday, before manufacturers are churning out tiny, edible, foil-wrapped vests. More importantly, it is not a holiday about historical figures or causes or ideals: It is about all the other people who wear the vest.

Q: How do I hold my own Vestival?

A: The key is to think ahead. Vestival falls on the second Friday after Thanksgiving. This year, that's Dec. 5, so the time to begin recruiting is now. You may find people are recalcitrant. Some will be conscientious objectors - people who fear that wearing something in unison with others would somehow mar their image. Be patient with these people, even though, honestly, they are probably just insecure, grown-up versions of the people that bullied and made fun of others in grade school.

Reluctant others will merely plead lack of sweater vest. Above all, do not dismiss these potential vest-wearers. The spirit of the holiday demands that we persuade, cajole, and, ultimately, share sweater vests with those who have none. Thrift stores have sweater vests; eBay has a diverse supply that may resonate with people of all body and personality types. People with multiple vests can become vest-bearers, lending their extras to those less fortunate.

Remember to canvass. Some people add refreshments and prizes to the mix, but the only requirement is that as the sun sets each Vestival Eve the vest-wearers gather for a Vestival photo.

Q: Can you tell me more about the holiday's origins?

A: The second Friday after Thanksgiving is a lull in a jam-packed holiday season and a perfect day for people to continue the holiday cheer with something subtle yet uplifting. Unlike other faux holidays - such as Festivus, which first appeared on the sitcom "Seinfeld" as a protest against holiday-season commercialism - Vestival is not a joke at all. It also happens to be funny.

Q: Why is Vestival important?

A: On a superficial level, Sweater Vestival isn't about something "deep." In contrast, on a superficial level most other holidays are: Veterans Day is about the serious topic of honoring soldiers who have fought in wars to protect this country. President's Day salutes our forefathers. Valentine's Day is about love. But if you look beneath the surface, Valentine's Day is more about candy and overpriced bouquets. Presidents' Day has become synonymous with sales at car dealerships, and many people see Veterans Day as just another day off, not an opportunity to consider wars and the weight of history.

Despite its seemingly shallow artifice, though, Vestival carries unusual depth. People wearing vests smile at each other in recognition, discuss the origins of their vests, or give each other compliments. At a time when people can feel more alone than ever, wearing a sweater vest is a reason to connect.

Carolyn Y. Johnson is a member of the Globe staff.

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