“There are some people who love wool so much that they make bodysuits out of them, to wear them constantly. There is even a French wool fetishist forum to discuss their love for wool clothing. Some of these advanced knitters take their clothing experience to the next level” (from ‘8 Freakiest Fetishes’, Oddee website, June 18, 2009).
Today’s blog arguably demonstrates that human beings appear to have the capacity to fetishize almost anything. ‘Woolies’ are individuals that derive sexual pleasure and arousal from wearing wool typically in the form of full body ‘wool suits’. (I also ought to mention that ‘woolies’ appears to be the collective name used in Europe whereas in America such people are often referred to as ‘sweaterers’ – in this blog I will use the term ‘woolies’ irrespective of where such people are located). Given the fact that (i) there is absolutely no scientific research on woolies, and (ii) woolies do not make an appearance in either Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices or Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices suggests one of two things – either that the fetish does not really exist, or that it is a relatively newly realized fetish.
There is certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence that woolies exist. On a personal level, I was recently interviewed for a television documentary about the practice (Discovery Channel’s Forbidden), and was asked to comment on the case studies that appeared in the programme. For instance, one of the woolies featured was an American male, Scott from Florida, who (perhaps unsurprisingly) runs a small company selling sweaters and has had a “lifelong obsession” with wool. As a boy he claimed he would steal sweaters to hide in his school locker and in the woods near his house. He now has a collection of about 3000 sweaters, and claims to be being sexually attracted to anyone wearing a sweater, including men (even though he is heterosexual). The programme’s research team told me that:
“Scott wears a sweater out as much as possible, he’s also got a special two-piece with knitted pants that he wear around the house. Scott describes it as a secret fetish because no one knows that he’s actually getting turned-on just by walking the streets in his sweater. Scott regularly holds sweater photo-shoots. Here he’ll introduce us to other like-minded ‘sweaterers’ who travel to meet up with him and have some sweater fun and model the gear”.
The programme also featured a German woman (‘Lady Mohair’) who sells full-body knitted outfits to people worldwide. She introduces the audience to a few of her more “eccentric” woolies such as ‘Knuti’ who assumes the persona of a woolly polar bear persona.However, there are also various online discussion forums for those who engage in the behaviour (such as the Woolfreaks website). Perhaps the largest collection of sexualized (as opposed to sexy) costumes worn by woolies can be found on the French online fetish forum Doctissimo (be warned, some of the photographs are very sexually explicit in the form of crotchless costumes).
A recent 2013 article on woolies was published on the Sangbleu website. The article claimed that:
“The wool fetish is possibly one of the most mundane but simultaneously bizarre fetishes in existence. ‘Woolies’ as they have become to be known partake in the enjoyment of feeling the warm and fibrous softness of wool in its many different textures and knitted techniques upon their own or others skin. This could be from the subtleness of a woman wearing a turtleneck sweater or to the other extreme of being partially mummified in countless layers of blankets”.
From my own reading of the phenomenon, it is the latter “mummified” state of dress that appears to be the most fetishized as many of these fully dressed fetishists look like they are wearing woollen gimp suits. The (unnamed) author of the Sangbleu article attempted to join one of the online ‘woolies’ forums. It was noted that admission to the forum was processed by having to highlight whether (say) mohair or angora was the preferred fetish fabric. It was reported that:
“Some people were more particular and get off on the sensation of seeing their partners in particular knitted garments like heavily knitted socks, hats, leg warmers, or scarves. A lot of the images [on the forum site] demonstrate specially created full body suits to fulfill the need of being completely consumed by wool throughout the day. The totally surreal nature of resembling a friendly yeti in soft colours may not be what we all expect of normal sexuality but the amount of depth and variations that this fetish possesses expands on its sensual nature. Whether this constitutes the itchiness of wiry wool against the skin or the way in which clothing can trap the body with its heaviness, this fetish seems to have many more possibilities that how it initially appears”.
There’s also a website (i.e., Sweaterslut) that was set up as a dare and a way of gaining insight to the phenomenon by interviewing one of the leading woolies (i.e., Woolmaster) in the wool fetish community. The (again unnamed) author wrote that:
“For some time now I have been investigating that strange phenomenon called ‘sweater fetish’, a condition where a person is aroused by the sight of, or wearing, a woollen sweater. In the course of my investigations I came across a site maintained by a man named ‘Woolmaster’. In this site, Woolmaster kept a rich repository of stories and pictures depicting women and mostly men in sweaters. It seemed to me that Woolmaster suffered from the schizophrenic character so common among sadomasochists: he could not decide whether to imagine himself as the ‘sweaterer’ or the ‘sweatered’. This was what led me to ask him for details, which in turn led to this strange dare [to set up the Sweaterslut website]”.
I would speculate that on some level, woolies are not really that different from those fetishists into rubber, leather or latex (although I personally see materials like latex and leather as far more inherently ‘sexy’ than wool). The research team on the television show I contributed to told me that:
“This warm, fuzzy, world of wooly lovers is small but diverse. Some fetishize total wooly enclose. They’ll wrap themselves up in layers and layers and sweat it out for hours! It’s often about a feeling of security. Many own specially made full-body knitted suits, and bizarre looking head coverings, designed to keep them covered from head to toe in wool. The demand and desire for these strange outfits is met by a handful of professional knitters around the world who have made it their business to cater to obsessive wool lovers”.
The only other article of any length that I have found on woolies was at the Myshka NYC website. The (presumably female) author Myshka appears to assume that woolies are in some way sexual masochists and claims:
“This branch of huggable submissives have joined warm and fuzzy knit outfits, covering every square inch of the body of course, with the traditional dress codes of shiny, black leather and clear plastic bags as in the S&M community as acceptable, kinky fodder. Are these enthusiasts merely adults that couldn’t bear the postpartum depression that comes with giving up your childhood blanket or are they instinctively stimulated and aroused by the around-the-clock sensation of wool touching skin…Made of wool and mohair, these stifling suits of armor gained popularity among the sexual underground when a French designer and fetishist began knitting full-size costumes for bedroom play. It seems that from their inception, the hand-crafted bodysuits were enough to rouse the more damaged deviants that floated to the surface…You might be thinking ‘Tactile obsession is nothing new to BDSM or fetish culture’ and you’d be right”.
I realize that in the absence of any academic research today’s blog has leaned more towards anecdotal journalism than something more considered and empirical. However, my own view is that wool fetishists exist but that like many other niche fetishes I have covered on my blogs, the incidence and prevalence is likely to be very small.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Morgan, G. (2009). 8 Freakiest Fetishes. Oddee, June 18. Located at: http://www.oddee.com/item_96718.aspx
Myshka NYC (2011). Woolies and the snuggly wobbly fetish you’ve never heard of. August 10. Located at: http://mishkanyc.com/bloglin/2011/07/23/woolies-and-the-snuggly-wubbly-fetish-ive-never-heard-of/
Sangbleu (2012). Wool fetish. June 7. Located at: http://sangbleu.com/2013/06/07/wool-fetish/
Yesterday, my local paper (The Nottingham Post) interviewed me for a Halloween story about the psychology of fancy dress (which you can read here). Before I was interviewed, I did a search of academic literature databases and couldn’t find a single academic paper that had been published on the topic. Although this didn’t surprise me, it did mean that everything I said to the journalist was opinion and speculation (at best). The first thing I did was think all the different situations in which people wear fancy dress costumes and this is what I came up with:
- Those that wear fancy dress as part of a calendar event or festival (e.g., Halloween or the Mardi Gras)
- Those who wear fancy dress costumes as part of an organized fancy dress event (e.g., a fancy dress party, a fancy dress competition, a murder mystery party, or a one-off occasion such as an event we had here in Nottingham [March 8, 2008] to break the world record for the most people dressed as Robin Hood (1,119 individuals dressing up breaking the previous record of 607).
- Those who wear fancy dress costumes as part of their job (e.g., a clown, a strip-o-gram, an actor, Santa in a shop store at Christmas, etc.).
- Those that wear fancy dress costumes as a form of disguise (such as bank robbers dressed in the masks and clothes to hide their identities).
- Those who wear fancy dress costumes as a way of raising money (e.g., people in the London marathon who are sponsored while wearing ridiculous costumes).
- Those who wear fancy dress costumes as part of an external group event such as a group all dressing identically on a hen night/stag night, or groups of people that go to football matches or Test cricket matches. This could also apply to individuals who dress up as characters from plays or musicals while watching the said stage shows (e.g., dressing up like a Rocky Horror Picture Show character (e.g., Frank N. Furter) or dressing up like Dorothy while attending a Wizard of Oz ‘sing-a-long’ show). This might also apply to groups of people like the Furry Fandom who dress up as animals and meet up socially to explore different sides of their ‘fursona’ (i.e., their animal persona).
- Those that wear fancy dress costumes as part of sexual role-play or other sexual acts (for more detail, see my previous blogs on uniform fetishism and Nazi fetishism).
- Those that wear fancy dress as part of a cult or ritualistic event such as devil worship (although such people may argue that they are not dressing up but merely wearing their expected ‘uniform’).
- None of the above (e.g., people that wear fancy dress costumes as the result of losing a bet).
The reason for compiling a list like this was to get a better idea of what the psychological motivation is behind dressing in a fancy dress costume. Although most people might say that the main reason for dressing up in fancy dress is because it’s a fun and/or exciting thing to do, the list I compiled clearly shows the range of motivations is much greater than one might initially suspect. I’m not claiming that my list is exhaustive, but it shows that reasons for wearing costumes are many and varied. Reasons could be financial (to earn money, to raise money for charity), sexual (particular fancy dress outfits being arousing either to the wearer or the observer), psychological (feeling part of a united group, attention-seeking, exploring other facets of an individual’s personality), practical (concealing true identity while engaged in a criminal act), and/or idiosyncratic (trying to break a world record). For others it might be coercive (e.g., being forced to dress up as a form of sexual humiliation, or punishment for losing a bet).
One of the most well known social psychologists, Professor Michael Argyle made a passing reference to fancy dress in relation to self-identity his 1992 book The Social Psychology of Everyday Life. He noted:
“It is not only punks and skinheads who put on fancy dress; Scottish country dancers, bowls players, musicians and many others have their special costumes. Mass forms of leisure do not help to give a sense of identity, with the exception of supporting sports teams, which certainly does. It is the more engrossing and less common forms of leisure that do most for identity”.
It’s debatable whether this really refers to fancy dress but for some people, fancy dress will always be about either self-identity and/or group identity. I also came across an online article by British psychologist Dr. Catherine Tregoning that looked at what people engage in most at Halloween and what it says about them in relation to their occupation (I ought to add that the article was on a job-hunting website). At Halloween, do you watch horror films? Do you carve pumpkins? Do you go on ghost hunts? Do you like dressing up in Halloween costumes? If you do, Dr. Tregoning claimed that:
“This may mean you’re the type to keep reinventing yourself and often change career! Or do you operate in different guises in your current role, changing your personality and presenting your outward self differently according to who you’re with or the task in hand? Or do you need some form of escapism from your day job? If you’re good at acting a part on Halloween – then use your skills to “act” confident in an interview or “act” calm under pressure when delivering a presentation”
Another article by Rafael Behr published in The Guardian examined the politics and psychology of fancy dress. In relation the psychology, Behr’s views had some crossover with the interview I did with my local newspaper on the topic:
“Children love dressing up, especially in clothes that make them feel grown up. Adults like dressing up because it reminds them of that feeling of being children getting excited about dressing like a grownup. What this indicates is that actually being a grownup is generally overrated and involves spending a lot of time in disappointing clothes. Anyone who goes to a party in fancy dress will feel a pang of anxiety immediately before arrival that they have made a mistake and it is not a fancy dress party at all. If you have this feeling before arriving at a wedding or funeral, go home and change. Only senior members of the clergy are allowed to wear ridiculous clothes in churches”.
Finally, another online article that examined dressing up for Halloween was one by psychotherapist Joyce Matter who examined whether fancy dress costumes bring out a person’s alter ego (or as she termed it, an individual’s “shadow side”).
“Do we all reveal our shadow sides with our costume choices? Do those aspects of self that we have repressed express themselves uncontrollably when we are at Spirit Halloween? Perhaps…Expressive play can be one of the most cathartic experiences as well as giving us the freedom to discover hidden aspects of self that may contain valuable resources we are repressing. A refusal or inability to do so reveals difficulty with self-acceptance and perhaps a preoccupation with the opinions of others…Through my work as a therapist, I have come to believe the shadow side is not necessarily dormant characteristics that are negative—they often contain positive aspects of self which we have not been free to embody. Once we honor and integrate them, they can become powerful strengths”.
As an adult, I have never put on fancy dress for Halloween. In fact, the only time I have dressed up in anything approaching fancy dress was when I played a French butler during a murder mystery evening with friends. As there is no scientific research on the topic I don’t know if I am typical of middle-aged men or whether I am just content with my life that I don’t feel the need to act out or experiment within the confines of costume role-play.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Argyle, M. (1992). The Social Psychology of Everyday Life. London: Routledge
Behr, R. (2014). The rules: Fancy dress. The Guardian, January 25. Located: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/25/etiquette-guide-to-fancy-dress
Lyons, C. (2014). Dressing for the part. The Stylist. Located at: http://www.stylist.co.uk/life/dressing-for-the-part
Marter, J. (2013). Your Halloween costume may reveal your shadow side. Psych Central, October 6. Located at: http://blogs.psychcentral.com/success/2013/10/your-halloween-costume-may-reveal-your-shadow-side/
Mehmi, N. (2010). How to pick your fancy dress costume to attract the opposite sex. E-Zine Articles, December 3. Located at: http://ezinearticles.com/?How-To-Pick-Your-Fancy-Dress-Costume-To-Attract-The-Opposite-Sex&id=6485736
Tregoning, C. (2013). Halloween is coming!…..What your take on it might say about your career! Jobs.ac.uk, October 6. Located at: https://blogs.jobs.ac.uk/psychology/2013/10/06/halloween-is-coming-what-your-take-on-it-might-say-about-your-career/