In Praise of Pompoms

Viola Levy extols the virtues of fashion’s favourite fluffy friends …

Touch wood, I’ve only ever had one negative experience with a pompom. It was a bag charm, a cheery round marshmallow of a thing, that brightened up my brown leather satchel no end. A passing bull terrier seemed to agree – bolting from its owner whose leash sadly wasn’t long enough to prevent him jumping up and grabbing my newly acquired gem in its jaws. A tug of war ensued amid slobbers and growls (mainly his), but I managed to wrestle the thing back, albeit a chewed and traumatised shadow of its former self. Canine opportunism aside, pompoms are generally a good idea in most situations as a fun and sustainable fashion choice.

For starters, they’re always a welcome addition to an outfit, whether worn on top of a woolly hat, stitched onto mittens, strung from a belt or sewn along the sleeve seams of an otherwise nondescript mohair sweater. Holding no functional purpose whatsoever, the pompom remains a sartorial mainstay, whether it’s cutting a formidable figure on the battlefield (yes, really), or jazzing up a wicker beach bag or beanie hat.

In fact, the pompom has been worn by military men for centuries, from the Hungarian cavalry who sported it atop tall structured caps (known as ‘shakos’), as part of their uniforms, to Napoleon's army, where its colour signified your regiment and rank. In Greece, they’re a key feature of tsarouhi shoes which form part of the traditional guard uniform. While the familiar Scottish beret - known as a Balmoral bonnet - is often decorated with a bobble known as a toorie, as a final decorative flourish.

The pompom’s appeal was said to take off in the 1930s during the economic downturn of The Depression. The fact it could be scraped together with leftover yarn made it a more budget-friendly alternative when you couldn’t buy diamonds (perish the thought). And that’s the great thing about pompoms: in the otherwise elitist world of fashion, they can be made and worn by pretty much anyone.

It’s also impossible to be grumpy with a pompom about your person – or even saying the word itself in an irritable manner. Try it. Indeed, for us English lot, the pompom is a way of taking ourselves less seriously and attempting to let our guard down; an antidote to the starched, austere overcoats and boiled wool cardigans of traditional winter attire. At a time of the year when we can’t twirl about in floral sun dresses or look dapper in a Hawaiian shirt, the pompom is a worthy substitute. The last bastion of English eccentricity, it says to people – “Don’t be put off by my awkward, reserved manner. Deep down I’m an approachable, fun-loving guy!” (a stylish alternative to the ‘Hello, my name is …’ badge).

Having said that, the joy of wearing pompoms is very different from making them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun activity once you get the hang of it – but you just need to hang in there. (My childhood efforts often looked like a spider that had been through a spin cycle.) If you really don’t have the knack to spin up wholesome fluffy spheres from scratch - and not all of us do - pre-made pompoms are still a sustainable choice. For example, gluing or sewing them onto old clothes might make you think twice about that jumper or t-shirt you’re about to throw out…

But if all of this still isn’t enough to convince you of the pompom’s many merits, let me leave you with an image of the Lybia crab, otherwise known as the ‘pompom crab’. They’re known to carry around makeshift pompoms in the form of sea anemones in each claw, waving them around like a cheerleader at a pep rally to deflect and deter predators. Pompoms never fail to get a reaction, whether it’s warding off danger (if you’re a decapod), causing a smile from a stranger on the tube, or provoking the bloodlust of passing dogs (see above). One thing is for certain, they’re never dull – and for that reason should be sported all year round with pride.