A suit and sunglasses might be a fitting sartorial hallmark for a glamorous gangster, FBI agent or nightclub bouncer, but surely nothing could be less appropriate for good old Father Christmas. In fact, dark glasses have been cropping up all over the festive landscape – on polar bears, reindeer, elves, Christmas trees, angels… they’re everywhere. What an unseasonal way to accessorise when most western Christmas imagery creaks under a freezing avalanche of snow, ice, and glitter. These are not snow goggles – they’re the kind of sunglasses previously used to suggest sunbathing, blues brothers, even cold-hearted evil; a sharp contrast with the traditional gold wire-rimmed spectacles handy for reading children’s wish lists.
Over the last ten years Santa in shades has moved from being an absurd comedy image to being a standard feature of the ‘modern’ Christmas (think minimal graphics and the exhortation to a ‘cool yule’ or possibly ‘cool crimbo’ on cards on sale in Tesco and the like).
Ironically, sunglasses are often being used to suggest ‘coolness’ in terms of temperature (as in a polar bear in the north pole), punning on the double meaning of cool as in cold and cool as in ‘good’ – admirable style, attitude and demeanour. Although of course Father Christmas is usually anything but cool. Characterised by rebellious self-possession, cool heroes rarely hold with tradition or sentimentality. A real cool Santa wouldn’t care enough to arrange pressies, or hurry to deliver them, definitely wouldn’t wear anything as obviously jolly as a red velvet suit, and probably wouldn’t be round enough to fill it.
We might still like the idea of Santa handing over the goods – but as a role model, the jolly rounded epicurean is outdated. To get a gift from Santa you are supposed to be good just like Santa himself – but a variety of authors now argue that ‘people no longer want to be good – they want to be cool’.
Recent research at Nottingham Trent University about the development of the strong associations between sunglasses and coolness concluded not only that shades are everywhere in visual culture but that they have become a symbol of a cool most broadly definable as being ‘enviably modern’ – able to achieve an identity both strong and flexible enough to withstand the weight and pace of technological and cultural change.
Covering the eyes protects our most vulnerable physical organs but also protects us from exposed emotions, suggesting we are ‘composed’ in every situation. The high-tech associations of hard man-made materials worn so close to the body imply a close and confident relationship with modern technologies. This has been the case since the earliest days of sunglasses when tinted goggles were worn for driving, cycling and rail travel, and adopted by fighter pilots.
So, images of yuletide characters in shades may seem to be festive fluff – but in fact they relate to profound changes in western values. To be as composed as a jazz musician like Miles Davis; as powerfully seductive as a celebrity, in the face of all the challenges to self-identity modernity brings; these are the elusive gifts so many of us would really like Santa to deliver.
Dr Vanessa Brown
Senior lecturer in design and visual culture at Nottingham Trent University
To speak to Dr Brown, call the University Press Office directly on 0115 848 8782 or email firstname.lastname@example.org