The ugly Christmas sweater tradition has become a beloved holiday staple over the past few decades, with parties, contests, and pop culture references devoted to the gaudy garments. But where did this quirky custom originate? Here's a look at the history behind the ugly Christmas sweater.
The First Ugly Christmas Sweaters
The first ugly Christmas sweaters emerged in the 1950s as part of the holiday clothing boom. Department stores and apparel brands sought to capitalize on festive fashions, marketing sweaters with holiday motifs as fun Christmas attire.
Some early ugly Christmas sweaters were handknit creations made by grandmothers for their families. These often featured tacky motifs like reindeer, snowflakes, and trees embroidered across bold red and green designs.
Mass Produced Novelty Sweaters
Others were mass-produced novelty sweaters sold in stores. Major retailers like Sears and JC Penney carried Christmas sweaters adorned in gaudy metallic thread, plastic ornaments, and blinking lights.
Appearances on TV and Film
These kitschy sweaters started showing up on TV in the 1980s, worn by characters in Christmas episodes of sitcoms. Memorable ugly sweaters appeared on shows like The Cosby Show, A Christmas Story, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
The Ugly Sweater Party Origins
The ugly sweater party tradition began in the 1990s, as people realized the inherent humor and nostalgia of tacky holiday knits.
Vancouver Claims to Have Hosted the First Party
In 2002, Vancouver natives Chris Boyd and Jordan Birch claim to have thrown the first ugly Christmas sweater party at a nightclub called the Commodore Ballroom. They went on to trademark the phrases "ugly Christmas sweater" and "ugly Christmas sweater party."
Parties Spread Across North America
Ugly sweater parties soon emerged across Canada and the United States, becoming a popular annual tradition among friend groups, offices, and communities. The parties encouraged people to raid thrift stores or grandma's closet for the ugliest sweater they could find.
Charity Fundraising Component
Many ugly sweater parties also incorporated charity fundraising into the events, with partygoers making donations or competing in contests with proceeds going to a selected non-profit organization.
Ugly Sweaters Go High Fashion
While ugly Christmas sweaters started out as comically tacky novelty items, fashion designers have increasingly incorporated them into haute couture collections.
Ironic High Fashion Versions
Luxury brands like Givenchy and Anna Sui have shown runway looks featuring upscale takes on ugly holiday knits, often with ironic twists. These high fashion ugly sweaters sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Collaborations with Ugly Sweater Brands
Some designers have also partnered directly with existing ugly Christmas sweater companies to create special capsule collections. For example, Moschino teamed up with Tipsy Elves in 2019 for a line of designer ugly sweaters.
Finally, celebrities have fueled ugly sweater high fashion by wearing designer versions in promotional appearances. Stars like Ryan Seacrest, Justin Bieber, and Kim Kardashian have flaunted ugly couture knits, taking them from festive gag gift to stylish statement piece.
The Timeless Appeal of Ugly Holiday Sweaters
While the ugly Christmas sweater may have started out decades ago as a well-meaning homemade gift, it has transformed into both a wildly popular party activity and an ironic high fashion trend.
Nostalgia and Novelty
The ugly sweater phenomenon seems to tap into people's hunger for nostalgia as well as the innate human love of tacky novelty items. They represent a chance to revel in cheerful camp and silly fun.
Bringing People Together
More profoundly, ugly sweater parties have become a new way for communities to come together during the holiday season, spreading joy and togetherness through collective absurdity.
No Signs of Slowing Down
Given the ugly Christmas sweater's rising prominence across pop culture, fashion, and holiday gatherings, this festive fad doesn't show any signs of fading away, keeping the spirit of ugly sweater season alive.
How did ugly Christmas sweaters become popular?
Ugly sweaters first emerged as kitschy novelty items in the 1950s/60s. The trend grew in the 80s as company's mass-produced ugly holiday knits. The sweaters became a pop culture phenomenon thanks to ugly sweater parties starting in the late 90s.
When did people start wearing ugly holiday sweaters ironically?
Ironically wearing ugly sweaters for humor became popular in the late 1990s to early 2000s. The trend took off thanks to ugly sweater parties where friends tried to out-do each other with tacky designs.
What makes a sweater truly ugly?
Typical features of intentionally ugly sweaters include loud colors/patterns, big decorative elements like pom poms or bows, 3D textures, ironic phrases or images, ill-fitting shapes and outdated or tacky knit patterns.
Are ugly Christmas sweaters offensive?
Most ugly sweaters are meant to be humorous, not offensive. However, some designs featuring insensitive imagery or themes do exist. It's best to avoid styles that belittle or stereotype particular groups.
What should I avoid when making my own ugly sweater?
Steer clear of materials that could easily shred or melt when adding extras to a sweater. Avoid anything too risque, offensive or dangerous. And don't add so much that the sweater becomes uncomfortably heavy or impossible to wear.
While their origins date back decades, intentionally ugly, kitschy Christmas sweaters only became a full-fledged tradition in the past 20 years. The trend began as a silly office party game in the late 90s, but quickly snowballed into a beloved way for people to express their quirky holiday spirit. Today, ugly sweaters are a playful (if sometimes tacky) staple of the season. They remind us to embrace silliness and ugly can indeed be beautiful when worn with a wink and a smile.