Festive Fashion: The Rise of the “Ugly” Sweater
From thrift stores to haute couture, holiday sweaters ‘just like grandma made’, are now a million-dollar business. Ornate with snowmen, reindeer, beads, and Santa, the more outrageous and colorful, the better.
The love-to-hate fashion faux pas made its comeback in recent years, with companies and retailers cashing in on the grandma-inspired fashion.
“The biggest thing we did this year was the customizer, which is basically software that allows you to make your own fully custom fully knit sweater within a week’s time,” says Fred Hajjar, who co-founded UglyChristmasSweater.com. Since their launch in 2012, they’ve grown from $40,000 in ugly Christmas sweater sales to almost $5 million.
While knitwear has been around for centuries from Egypt to medieval Europe, the holiday sweater can be traced back to the heavy, warm sweaters hand-knitted in Scandanavia and Iceland before the twentieth century. Characterized by contrasting bands of geometric patterns, which are popular in today’s Fair Isle knits, they distinguished fishermen from different communities.
During the Industrial Revolution, the idea of knitwear as sportswear began. Skiers needed warm clothing, and it later became a fashion statement of royalty and designers with companies such as Pringle of Scotland and Chanel mass producing sweaters.
Holiday sweater chic in the 1950s with matching hats and sweaters (Photo credit: Smithsonian/Etsy)
In the 1950s, “Jingle Bell Sweaters” became popular, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the holiday knitwear craze as we know it really began. Many people attribute this growth in popularity to TV shows such as The Cosby Show with Bill Cosby being the “father of the ugly sweater” due to his symbolic knitted pullovers from the show.
According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On, there was a noticeable boost in popularity for holiday sweaters in the past decade, including the rise of ugly sweater parties around 2001. The city of Vancouver claims to be the birthplace of the first ugly sweater party in 2002, held at the Commodore Ballroom with a strict dress code of, as you can guess, ugly sweaters.
Since then, the popularity of the holiday sweater has only grown and designs have become more elaborate with decorations, patterns and even multi-sensory sounds and lights. Today, the multi-million business is even being mass produced and sold by fast-fashion shops and high-end retailers.
So, why do we love the “ugly” sweater so much?
Most likely, because it conjures up memories of nostalgia, holidays and family. And nothing is better than a cozy, comfortable sweater when it’s cold out.