Expensive Sweaters Are the New Instagram Status Item

The pursuit of the ultimate winter lifestyle has never looked cozier, and I can only resist it for so long.

Sweaters Are the New Status Item
Photo: Courtesy/Amundsen

It first showed up sometime in September, when the nights were just starting to slope into the beginning of a Fall chill. An ad for a chunky hand-knit wool sweater, sold by the Norwegian company Amundsen, in a beautiful slate blue. The model wearing the sweater was blond, sitting on a boat outside, smiling and rosy cheeked. Was she happy because she was the sort of person always at ease outdoors? Was she happy because of this beautiful, perfect sweater? Or was she just happy because she was Norwegian? Unclear, but maybe that ease could be mine for $299 — more than I've ever paid for a sweater in my entire life.

I had clicked on the ad to find that price, and with that click, my fate was sealed: the sweater would haunt my social media for months to come. It showed up on Facebook, wedged between pictures of my friends' kids on Instagram. I may or may not have submitted my email in the hopes of sliver of a percentage off, in the case I ever did actually shell out for the sweater — which meant that it started haunting my inbox, too. I wanted coze and ease that the sweater seemed to represent, but I also, crucially, wanted to be the sort of person who thought of clothes as high-quality investment items — who shelled out for one ethically made sweater, because they'd wear it every season for the rest of their foreseeable future.

The sweater haunted me, in other words, with its promise of being a different sort of person. That promise is at the heart of so much aspirational advertising, but the combination of Instagram ad technology and growing popularity of ethical fashion models have created a particularly fertile haunting ground for the up-market cozy sweater. Jenni Kayne, Marimekko, Doên, Christy Dawn, babaà — the brand ultimately matters far less than the vision it promises. Chunky cozy sweaters are for swanning around the house, for moms who find parenting effortless, for people who take crisp walks in the middle of the day. They're for people whose lives are literally without mess or stress sweat — because these sweaters are, naturally, dry clean only. These sweaters are for people with hobbies, and time to refine them. Perhaps ironically, given the cost, they suggest a consumer with self-control: sure, they might cost the same as a week of groceries. But you won't need to impulse or sadness-buy another sweater all year. That's how happy you'll be with this sweater.

The women in these ads aren't outrageously beautiful; they are rarely photographed in anything resembling "fashion" photography. They're just a few turns of the dial away from your current look, your current choices, your current life. One woman told me that after months of haunting, a babaà sweater finally sucked her in — right at her most vulnerable. She'd recently become a Spanish citizen, and, in her words, "I honestly thought that buying a 230 euro sweater made of Spanish wool in Spain would make me feel more Spanish." ("I am an idiot," she told me. "It's not even that cute.") Another woman bought the "Princess Diana Black Sheep Sweater" (which Princess Diana herself wore in 1981) by the British brand Warm & Wonderful, which retails for $295. "I bought it as a post-break-up present," she said. "It comes today and I hope it changes my life in 2022."

Sweaters Are the New Status Item
Courtesy/Warm and Wonderful Courtesy/Palava

The writer Meg Conley sent me a description of her most coveted sweater, the "Molly" Cardigan from Palava (250 pounds and, according to the ad copy, "meant to be worn many years") that read like a teenage love note. "I look at this sweater at least once a week," she said. "It owns me." When I asked her what sort of person she'd become when and if she could own this sweater, her answer was immediate. "A forager of berries and moments. The kind of person who owns just a few good things, leaving lots of clear empty spaces in corners, keeping a sweater for decades, and friends for that long too. A bare wooden table with candles on it kind of gal, getting unexpected visitors with tea and ginger candies. I'd be someone who lives on a lane!"

Conley's description hits on the real, beating heart of this desire: we don't yearn for a different object of clothing so much as a whole different rhythm and understanding of life. But instead of saying "I feel at sea, lacking in genuine community, adrift and afraid without a real social safety net," we channel the emotion into the cultivation of cozy. Sociologist Kathryn Jezer-Morton, who's currently writing her dissertation on "momfluencers," has perfectly described this year's particular aesthetic of "cozy." "Everything is right in its place," she writes. "The house is cleaned, the candles lit. No unexpected intrusions can disturb the feeling. Just as important as what we see — the couch, the socks, the candle — are things we don't see: mess, disorder, the unpredictable reality of the world outside."

But these Instagram versions of cozy reliably come off as performative and hollow, if not altogether uncanny. Authentic cozy, Jezer-Morton argues, necessitates a sense of perfect belonging: that you're right where you need to be — as a parent, as a partner, as a friend — at the exact perfect temperature and comfort, and everything's going great. And for most women, that's the exact opposite of what the last two years have felt like. Everything is in flux; nothing is as planned; the moments of connection and community are precious but fleeting. In the United States in particular, the social safety net has never felt so threadbare. No matter how many candles you light and pajamas you buy, you're still, at heart, quietly terrified that everything could fall apart at a moment's notice.

So why don't the sweaters feel equally hollow as, say, a slightly photoshopped influencer shot of a "lazy Sunday" reading the first page of a book in the window seat where no one has ever sat for longer than ten minutes? Somehow, these chunky sweaters — the vast majority of which are manufactured and/or sold by countries in Northern Europe — are more ideologically persuasive than even the most carefully composed influencer shot. Unless, of course, that influencer is also from Northern Europe: two influencers whose cozy I find very convincing, for example, are DesignMom, who lives in France, and Paula Sutton, out of the U.K.

These sweaters offer a particular fantasy space of social cohesion, of civic investment, of long-term, deeply rational, planning and thinking. They aren't cozy because they're wool. They're not desirable because they're expensive. They're alluring, in that particular way that anything is when you know just how out of reach it really is, because they evince some feeling of caring about other people, and them caring for you in return.

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