Don’t put away your ugly holiday sweaters just yet. The holiday theme party craze has staying power this season. If you missed your local ugly sweater run billed as the “ugliest 5K on the planet” that’s held in 32 cities in the U.S. and Canada, you can still make the ugly sweater church potluck and tacky sweater pub crawl. Remember when we used to exchange ugly sweaters at white elephant parties? These days you can’t afford to give a good one away. You’ll need it for the surge of ugly sweater white elephant parties where you wear the sweaters and bring a different gift. An ugly dog sweater, perhaps?
There used to be a time when ugly sweaters were considered vintage kitsch as people discovered them in thrift stores or relatives’ closets and wore them as statements that softly mocked the manufactured holiday sentiment of 1970s Christmases. Or at least they generated a good laugh. I’m thinking of Bridget Jones’ favorite reindeer jumper worn by Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy.
Now ugly sweaters are so mainstream that the Whole Foods of Boston held the “tackiest holiday party of the year” last week. Bank of America released a commercial this season in which a couple used the cash back from their credit card purchases to throw an ugly sweater party. Coke Zero sponsored an Ugly Sweater Generator website this fall in which participants had the opportunity to design their own hideous garments. The company hired knitters to make the 100 most popular designs.
So why do we love ugly sweaters so much? Well, besides being warmer than sparkly holiday tank tops, they’re fun in a geeky sort of way, explains Shelby Walsh, president of Trend Hunter, an agency that follows social and cultural trends. “What we’ve found is that glamorizing awkward has become the new cool,” she says, referring to the popularity of the Facebook favorite awkwardfamilyphotos.com. “These sweaters are getting tackier and tackier. It’s almost a competition to see who can make the most fun of themselves.”
In fact, the most devoted ugly sweater wearers have taken the fashion to a new creative level. (Esquire.com published a slide show of some doozies.) People attach jingle bells, wear battery packs hooked up to blinking lights and glue on 3-D touches, such as cotton balls for snow or orange snowman noses. “It’s like Halloween for Christmas,” says Adam Paulson, a Chicago financial adviser who started a business selling ugly sweaters on the Internet with two friends in 2009.
When they launched the site four years ago, they scoured local thrift stores and sold 80 the first season. Now they have 10,000 sweaters in stock. Paulson’s favorite embellishments: A sweater with a baby doll in a cloth baby carrier that was sewn on the front. “It was supposed to be Baby Jesus in a Baby Bjorn,” he says. There was also a woman who wrapped garland around a green sweater and carried a star tree topper. “When she lifted her hand, she would look like a Christmas tree,” says Paulson, co-author of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On.
The ugly sweater trend strikes an emotional chord by connecting you to the Christmases of your childhood. According to Paulson, that includes parties with “old school” touches, such as the Chipmunks Christmas album and the yule log on the TV. “There’s an important nostalgia element,” adds Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. “You think about a relative or favorite teacher who used to wear them. When you wear your Christmas sweater, you’re celebrating that association.”
The phenomenon also facilitates social connection, adds Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York who studies nostalgia. “Research shows that one of the most beneficial aspects of nostalgia is that it promotes a sense of belonging. You feel like you’re part of a little club where everyone gets the same joke,” she says. “With ugly sweaters, you try to out-dork each other and laugh. It’s a great way to combat holiday stress.”