The History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater

What better time to learn about this festive tradition than during the holiday season?

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Over the last couple of decades, our culture has refined its sense of irony and has formed an obsession with nostalgia. These two themes, in combination, have paved the way for the resurgence of the ugly Christmas sweater. In today’s world, it’s quite possible that you and your grandfather have an overlapping taste in outerwear. But how did it become acceptable to raid your grandfather’s closet and rock his bulky, oversized Christmas sweaters?

Fashion is cyclical. Clothing trends have always come, gone, and reappeared over the course of years. But it’s rare for attire to be considered both outmoded and trendy at the same time. The sweaters we now lovingly embrace as “ugly” peaked in earnest popularity in the 1980s. Very few styles can boast the same cross-generational appeal as Christmas sweaters. For every person who ironically loves an ugly sweater, like Kevin Love, there's someone who appreciates it sincerely.

So how did the ugly Christmas sweater renaissance begin?

When it comes to ugly sweaters, the more outdated and garish the better. So celebrate grandma's festive, handmade, one-size-fits-none creation. Throw on your most absurd Christmas pullover, get hot, get itchy, and take a look at the history of the ugly sweater—because no one wants to be that guy wearing a smart J. Crew fit to the ugly Christmas sweater party. 

Origin of “Jingle Bell Sweaters”

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How the Most Hideous Christmas Sweaters Become Fashionable

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Recognizing the Humor in the Sweater

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Ugly Christmas Sweaters as Anti-Fashion

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The Ugly Sweater as Haute Couture

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After gaining traction as, essentially, a large-scale inside joke, the ugly sweater made it’s way up to the world of high fashion. In 2010, Italian designer Riccardo Tisci debuted a series of angora pullovers with Givenchy. As part of its 2011 fall collection, Dolce & Gabbana unveiled its collection of so-ugly-it’s-beautiful sweaters. Over the last few years, the ugly Christmas sweater has become a mainstay of fall and winter runway fashion, and it has become common in retailers like H&M, Bloomingdale’s, and Macy’s. Just as the “jingle bell sweater” was during its inception in the 1950s. Even the NBA produces self-described “ugly sweaters.”

So, you could pay thousands of dollars for a designer ugly Christmas sweater, you could snag the Shaq-a-Claus sweater that Shaquille O'Neal is selling, you could hit up a thrift shop and get one cheap, or you could just rummage through your grandfather’s old clothes to find the dopest ugly sweater known to man.

What is it about the ugly sweater that we love so much? Is it simply a sarcastic take on holiday excess? Does the goofiness of everyone’s outfits help people let their guard down? All we know for sure is that the ugly sweater is as stylish as it was in its ’80s heyday. So pull out the corniest gift your grandma made for you and don’t be that guy at the holiday party.

Pharrell in an ugly Christmas sweater.


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