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Why is it Called an Ugly Sweater?

Last update: 2023-10-23

The popularity of ugly Christmas sweaters has exploded in recent years, becoming a staple at holiday parties and a fun way to get into the festive spirit. But where did the tradition originate and why are they called "ugly" in the first place?

A Brief History

Ugly Christmas sweaters first emerged as a mainstream phenomenon in the 1980s. During this decade, kitschy seasonal sweaters were mass-produced and given as gag gifts at office parties or worn ironically to holiday gatherings. The over-the-top colors, loud patterns, and awkward motifs made them humorous while still being festive.woman in white sweater, warm and cozy evening in Christmas interior design, Christmas tree decorated by light toys gifts, candles, lanterns, light garland in living room.

Some trace the roots of ugly sweaters even further back to the 1950s and 1960s. Handmade sweaters were sometimes given as gifts by grandmothers and aunts who had good intentions but questionable knitting skills. These homemade creations didn't always turn out stylish, giving way to the association of Christmas sweaters being unsightly or tacky.

Why "Ugly"?

The word "ugly" in ugly Christmas sweater refers to sweaters that are intentionally garish, kitschy, or playfully obnoxious. The aesthetic is meant to be humorous and fun rather than fashionable. Key characteristics that make ugly sweaters live up to their name include:Photo of excited dreamy curious couple hold hands empty space wear ugly sweater jeans shoes isolated red color background

  • Clashing colors and patterns: Ugly sweaters often feature a haphazard mishmash of different colors, prints, and motifs like snowflakes, reindeer, Christmas trees, snowmen, etc. The more contrasting patterns and colors, the better. This creates a blithe, fun spirit.
  • Bulky knits: Ugly sweaters tend to be made of thick, woolly knits that add to the exaggerated, over-the-top look. Chunky knits in festive shades like red, green, and white enhance the holiday theme.
  • Playful and nostalgic motifs: From snowflakes and Santa hats to wreaths and bows, ugly Christmas sweaters are adorned with kitschy and nostalgic motifs that evoke childlike joy. These motifs intentionally look crafty and homemade.
  • Novelty additions: Many modern ugly sweaters have novelty elements like pom poms, puff balls, LED lights, or tinsel sewn in to ramp up the absurdity. Anything goes when it comes to embellishments!

While the sweaters may be called "ugly," their silliness and boldness are all part of the fun. The humor and lighthearted spirit of ugly sweaters make them a staple for holiday festivities.

The Appeal of Ugly Sweaters

So why do these famously unattractive sweaters remain so popular year after year? There are several driving factors behind the appeal of ugly Christmas sweaters:

Nostalgia - For many, donning an intentionally tacky sweater brings back fond memories of holidays past. They are reminiscent of sweaters handmade by older relatives or thrift store finds from childhood.

Irony - Part of the fun is wearing something silly and outrageous. The irony of making bad fashion into trendy fashion provides humor.

Uniqueness - No two ugly sweaters are exactly alike. Their individuality and creativity make them more memorable than generic holiday attire.

Bonding - Wearing matching ugly sweaters can strengthen friendships and act as an ice breaker at parties among strangers. The shared experience builds camaraderie.

Self-expression - Ugly sweaters allow people to showcase their fun side. Donning one shows you don't take yourself too seriously.

Photos - The sweaters make for fun photos on social media and capture memories in an entertaining way.

Modern Ugly Sweater Culture

While ugly sweaters have been around for decades, they truly soared into mainstream popularity as a viral phenomenon in 2011. That year, numerous ugly Christmas sweater parties took place around the US and Canada, fueled by social media buzz.

Since then, major retailers have cashed in on high demand. Pop culture trends have also given ugly sweaters a boost. Some key moments include:Couple together with christmas presents by the christmas tree

  • Target launching a line of tacky holiday sweaters in 2012. Other major chains like Walmart, Kohl's, and Old Navy followed.
  • Celebrities sporting ugly sweaters, making them cooler and more image-friendly. Some celebrity ugly sweater fans include Ryan Reynolds, Kelly Clarkson, and Jimmy Fallon.
  • The 2018 movie UglyDolls further ingraining ugly sweaters into pop culture. Memes and social media challenges like the "UglyChristmasSweaterChallenge" on TikTok also propelled ugly sweater fame.
  • Specialty ugly sweater stores and companies emerging to meet demand. Tipsy Elves and UglyChristmasSweater.com are two popular online retailers selling thousands of outrageous designs.
  • Themed ugly sweaters beyond Christmas, like Halloween, Valentine's Day, and even pop culture sweaters gained popularity. This expanded ugly sweaters beyond just the holidays.
  • Virtual ugly sweater parties becoming popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, indicating ugly sweaters are here to stay.

Ugly Christmas sweaters are now a major part of winter holiday celebrations. Why is it called ugly sweater? The playfully ugly look sparks joy, evokes nostalgia, and brings friends together through shared silly fun.


What makes a sweater "ugly"?

Loud colors and patterns, bulky knits, crafty/tacky motifs, novelty elements like pom poms or lights, and an intentionally obnoxious or humorous look define what makes a sweater ugly.

When did ugly Christmas sweaters first become popular?

Ugly sweater popularity surged into mainstream culture around 2011-2012, fueled by ugly sweater parties and social media. But their origins trace back to the 1980s and kitschy gag gifts.

Do people actually think ugly sweaters are unattractive?

The term "ugly" is mostly meant ironically. Ugly sweaters are loved for their silly, nostalgic, and lighthearted spirit. Their ugliness is part of the charm.

Are ugly sweaters only for Christmas?

While ugly Christmas sweaters remain most popular, ugly sweater trends now include other holidays like Halloween. Even non-holiday themed ugly sweaters are gaining traction.

Where can you buy the best ugly sweaters?

Major retailers like Target and specialty websites like TipsyElves.com offer huge ugly sweater selections. You can also DIY an ugly sweater at home!


Ugly Christmas sweaters have cemented themselves as a beloved holiday tradition, providing laughter and bringing people together year after year. Their signature loud designs spark nostalgia and create an atmosphere of playful fun. Though called "ugly," their absurdity and uniqueness are what make them special.

So this winter, proudly rock those flashing lights, Santa pom poms and tacky patterns. Ugly can be beautiful when it comes to Christmas cheer!

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