As the holiday season wears on, the number of holiday-themed sweaters — festooned with thematically appropriate images, messages of cheer, snowflake patterns, or sometimes all three — seen in the wild, at holiday office gatherings, or on casual Fridays, grows. These sweaters have gone from being seasonally appropriate kitsch to being celebrated on their own merits as “ugly Christmas sweaters,” given a special place because of their status as something of an eyesore. The second Friday of December has even come to be known as “Ugly Christmas Sweater Day.”
What makes for an “ugly” sweater? Blocky patterns that bring to mind the output of dot-matrix printers from yesteryear, reindeers, Santas, slogans. Sequins, sometimes. They’re the types of garments that would hang proudly from a store’s rack on Black Friday, then look limp when hanging off racks on Dec. 26.
In recent years, the chore of finding ugly sweaters has gone far beyond simply trawling thrift stores or off-season clearance racks. Big-box retailers like Target and fast-fashion outlets like Forever 21 market self-consciously kitschy tops. The Red Sox have officially licensed “ugly sweaters”; so do the thrash giants Megadeth. The 8-bit video games of the ’80s have captured the imagination of at least one ugly-sweater crafter on Etsy. Founders of the ugly sweater company Tipsy Elves appeared on ABC’s business-pitch show “Shark Tank” a year ago, and received $100,000 from Canadian entrepreneur Robert Herjavec to grow their business. And those who are dissatisfied with the ever-growing number of offerings can make their own holiday tops from kits.
The organizers of today’s hashtag-assisted holiday call it “a day of light-hearted fun and a day to be yourself and not that buttoned-up corporate version of yourself you have grown to despise.”
“Despise”? That seems a bit harsh. But using that word is somewhat telling about the impetus behind sporting these celebratory sweaters — particularly given that there’s another disavowal of the self by calling items that have cost real money “ugly.”
The rise of the mass-marketed, self-consciously ugly sweater is the latest step in a trend that didn’t necessarily begin in the ’90s, but that certainly saw its first tip into the public consciousness during that irony-soaked decade — the rise of winking thrift-store retro, whether it came in the form of a T-shirt bearing a cheeky slogan or an obviously anachronistic graphic or, as Glasgow Phillips wrote in the Gen-X bible “Might” in 1996, a “shiny Adidas tracksuit.” His essay was about that tracksuit and how it related to the cultural death of “camp,” the notion that things were good because they were aesthetically awful.
That awfulness implicitly represented a rebuke of the mainstream, with fabrics too faded to pass muster at the mall and prices much lower than those on retailers’ racks. Eventually, though, those shirts bubbled up into the stores their wearers once implicitly mocked, bearing slogans that at times crossed the line from ironic to creepy; today retailers stock licensed shirts with designs that have already been treated to look like they’ve been washed many times. They’re normal offerings, bought and sold because they’re pleasing to the eye.
Was the initial impulse behind wearing ugly Christmas sweaters similarly rooted in critique? Perhaps. But the quick recontextualizing (and commercializing) of the “ugly” aesthetic was helped along by the way social media invites people to offer metacommentary on themselves, and to not take things too seriously in an age where horrific photos are just a click away. In that way, it also brings to mind the worst aspects of the ’90s boom in all things “alternative” — the lack of seriousness codified by one oddly poignant exchange in an episode of “The Simpsons” that focused on Springfield’s version of the alt-rock festival Lollapalooza, in which an attendee (shaved sides, flannel shirt) asks his friend (baseball cap, nose ring), “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” The reply: “I don’t even know anymore.”
There’s a certain amount of self-effacing attitude that goes into wearing an “ugly” sweater in an age where cameras lurk in innumerable pockets and handbags. And yet, it’s also a move that places the wearer above multiple frays. Wearing an “ugly” sweater says, “I won’t fall for your traditional modes of celebration,” even if the just-purchased, officially licensed version of seasonal gear being worn costs more than a thrift-store offering from last season. Proclaiming that something is “ugly” before anyone looking at it has a chance to react is a playing-field-leveling move that protects the wearer from aesthetic critique. And it’s possible to even see the sporting of an ugly sweater as a sort of egotistical move: “I may be wearing this overly kitschy sweater,” a #NationalUglySweaterDay-tagged selfie says, “but I still look good!”
The money being generated by these sweaters suggests that any claims of their being ironically worn, let along marketed, are a bit far-fetched. And now that “ugly Christmas sweaters” have their own hashtag, the concept of self-conscious enjoyment has at least entered this year’s version of the American pop-cultural firmament. But the sweaters’ blocky patterns and outsized depictions of reindeer might eventually be seen as if not necessarily beautiful, at least pleasant in their own right — or, at the very least, marketed without an enjoyment-negating shrug.
Photos shared on Twitter for #NationalUglySweaterDay: