A Brief History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater

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The ugly Christmas sweater has become a ubiquitous feature of the holiday season, on par with grumbling about Black Friday or wrestling with the Christmas lights.  These tacky garments are now being re-appropriated from their perpetual spot in the wardrobe of great-aunt Edna or your third grade social studies teacher.  Telltale signs of the ugly sweater are liberal use of red and green, comically large depictions of snowmen, reindeer, and Christmas trees, and any sort of pom-pom or felt applique.

Though the sweater as a garment has existed in the U.S. since the late 19th century, hideous holiday versions only began to sprout up in the last several decades.  Bill Cosby was a modern-day pioneer of the trend and is revered as an ugly sweater icon.  As Cliff Huxtable on his eponymous ‘80s sitcom, the family man’s uniform of choice was a wooly pullover with questionable color mixing and patterns.  Thanks to Cosby, as well as Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, these sweaters experienced a resurgence until their popularity faded as the ‘90s began.

(MORE: The Rise of the Ugly Christmas Sweater)

But in the past decade, the trend has picked up steam once more.  According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On, there was a noticeable uptick in ugly sweater parties around 2001, and the tradition snowballed from there.  Now the tops are bigger than ever, but in a very hipstery, oh-so-ironic way.  Vintage stores, the Salvation Army, and Goodwill are reaping the benefits of this craze, but the trend has reached as far as fast-fashion shops like H&M and high-end retailers such as Nordstrom.

Those who unwittingly started the trend are now back in on the action, as people of all ages are feeling the ugly-sweater fever.  With the rise of sweater-themed parties, guests young and old are rushing to top each other with the most frills, bows, and gauche decorations yet.  Late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon has created a segment called “The 12 Days of Christmas Sweaters.”  There is a parody of MTV’s teen documentary series entitled True Life: I Love Ugly Christmas Sweaters.  How long until President Obama dons one to go along with his dad jeans?

Outside of pop culture, the sweaters’ current popularity can also be linked to trends on the runway.  Fair Isle knits have been popular this season, as well as tribal prints; both feature bold graphic patterns in the same vein as some of the holiday pullovers – those on the tamer side, at least.

And the enthusiasm is not limited to U.S. borders.  Christmas jumpers — that’s sweaters to non-Anglophiles — are simultaneously beloved and reviled in the U.K. as well.  In an infamous scene from Bridget Jones’ Diary, Colin Firth wears a cringe-inducing Christmas sweater that his mother gave him to a holiday party, which puts a (slight) damper on the otherwise dashing character.

Whether or not it constitutes a fashion faux pas, the ugly Christmas sweater rouses an undeniably warm and fuzzy feeling as it conjures up memories of home and childhood.  It’s also quite cozy and practical in chilly winter weather.  After all, holidays are often fraught with anxiety about the financial drain of gift-giving and the copious amounts of family interaction.  What better way to de-stress than to throw on an obnoxious sweater and have a laugh?

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