Holiday Sweaters Endangered? 

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The puddle-eyed kitty with the slightly askew Santa stocking cap floats adorably, decapitated like some pagan Yule sacrifice, on the front of Samantha's pilled, grayish sweatshirt. A garland of holly frames the feline, adding to the festive joy.

"I hate the holidays," Samantha says cheerily, shuffling in red Keds that match the holly berries on her sweatshirt while pausing between shops at Willow Lawn. "I can't be the only one."

Samantha, who declined to give her last name, loves kitties, and she has 'em for every occasion, displayed on shirts, sweaters and sweatshirts. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Independence Day. Heck, if they had one for tax day, she'd own it.

Nothing captures Christmas in Richmond, or any place south of the Mason-Dixon line, like the embellished holiday sweater. Representing the fashion of distraction and diversion, these frequently shapeless but unflaggingly cheerful overgarments are as much a part of Christmas for the over-40 mom set as eggnog, Hallmark tree ornaments and maxed-out credit cards.

On any given holiday shopping day, a stick thrown into the crowds at Short Pump Town Center will take down a half-dozen matronly shoppers proudly flying their appliquéd and bedazzling colors.

"They're a Richmond commodity," says Kathy Messick, a buyer and manager at Monkeys near Libby and Grove avenues. "It's Southern and not just Christmas. Hanukkah, Halloween, turkeys and cornucopias, Fourth of July."

Though ubiquitous, the embellished holiday sweater may have caught its own case of holiday blues this season. Messick and other Richmond clothiers were at a loss to find suppliers.

"We looked for embellished sweaters … and in our market they just aren't available," says Messick, from whose racks Santa's candied cheeks and Rudolph's rosy-red nose were noticeably absent this season.

Lisa Mitchell, manager at Irresistibles on Grove, concurs. "This year we didn't receive any," Mitchell says. "We just have some from last year."

But stale Santa is better than no Santa, for some customers, and Mitchell offers a clue as to the emptiness of holiday sweater racks: Designers are moving away -- far away — from yesterday's puffy, quilted snowmen and embroidered reindeer. "They're going more … um, subtle," she says.

Subtle would be fine for Kathryn Verstandig, 38. She's not too many years off from the minimum age requirement for wearing the time-honored seasonal uniform of the Richmond grande dame. "I think they're outdated," Verstandig says. "Youngsters do not wear them. I've only seen them on older types."

She swears she'll stand strong against peer pressure, vowing not to join Richmond's holiday sweater ranks. But is that a crack in her armor? "Maybe if it was really stylish," she says, "a fitted one with red fur …"

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