Ugly Christmas sweaters used to involve some unholy combination of hot glue, tinsel, and stick-on bows. Then they became commercialized.
I was waiting for the train on the Upper East Side of New York City a couple of weeks ago when I noticed a handsome man leaning against the stair rail. Everything he was wearing was tasteful and vaguely expensive: white Common Projects sneakers, dark jeans, a Tag Heuer watch, and an understated navy wool coat.
From the side, I couldn’t tell who the coat was made by, but it had to be designer. The look was anonymous, but the tailoring was impeccable and the buttons appeared to be genuine horn. Armani, perhaps? I couldn’t see what was underneath the coat, but I figured it had to be something equally stylish: a Loro Piana cashmere sweater or fitted AMI sweatshirt?
Just then, the train arrived and he turned toward me. What I saw shocked me. He was wearing a navy blue Christmas sweater with Fair Isle patterning and reindeer across the chest. I was so thrown by this seasonal sartorial plot twist that I almost forgot to get on the train.
Thirty years ago, a sweater like that would have been laughable. The kind of thing you would wear, at most, once a year, and even then only under extreme familial duress.
But these days, more and more, holiday sweaters seem to be making their way out of middle-American family Christmas cards and onto the streets of the country’s most cosmopolitan cities.
I blame hipsters. They love taking an uncool piece of clothing and wearing it ironically . . . until it enters the mainstream, at which point they discard it in favor of some new off-beat trend.
Back When Ugly Was Ugly
In the early 2000s, you couldn’t throw a fruitcake in Williamsburg during the holiday season without hitting an ugly Christmas sweater-themed party. They were everywhere. And, people really went all out.
They scoured thrift stores for hideous gems from the ‘80s and ‘90s, the tackier and more cringe-worthy the better. Fair Isle-inspired sweaters, like the one I saw the guy on the train platform wearing, were just the tip of the ugly Christmas sweater iceberg.
There were Christmas tree sweaters with real working lights and Santa sweaters with fluffy white 3-D beards. They were the kinds of things you’d expect to find on a middle-aged kindergarten teacher in a Hallmark movie . . . and no one else.
Often, these sweaters were homemade or—at the very least—home-embellished, which made each one unique and, honestly, kind of special.
As they grew in popularity, they moved out of the thrift stores and into some of the city’s better vintage stores, their prices inching ever higher and higher until, one year, I saw an angel sweater with a hand-painted china-doll face selling at a shop in the village for over $300.
That’s when the ugly Christmas sweater trend really reached its peak, in my opinion. Everyone wanted in, and all sorts of new clothing companies started popping up online offering fresh versions of the once maligned sweaters.
Ironically, people still bought them, at first, but the more in on the joke everyone became, the less funny it was.
That’s the thing about irony: upon repeated exposure, it loses its edge, to the point where now, I feel like people genuinely like “ugly Christmas sweaters” as much as any other piece of clothing in their wardrobes. A lot of these sweaters aren’t even that ugly anymore.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve reached that age all of us eventually reach where clothes cease to be embarrassing or ironic and are merely clothes.
I do still occasionally see a Christmas sweater I think is truly awful, like the one Kate McKinnon wore in 2016’s Office Party, but it doesn’t really bother me more than any other piece of ugly clothing I might see.
And, I can’t help but admire the level of detail and amount of work that goes into them. They’re ugly, but they’re also kind of… charming? Not that I’d ever wear one! They’re not my style. Of course, that being said, I wouldn’t have expected that well-dressed man on the subway to wear one either, and I would happily cop every other piece of his look for myself.
So, maybe it’s just a matter of time before I, too, start stepping out in faux ironic holiday gear. I’ve been known to wear my reindeer antler headband to the grocery store from time to time during the holiday season.
This time next year, I’ll probably be wearing a Santa suit to the laundromat and a light-up reindeer sweater to the opera.
No, actually, that would never happen. I hate the opera.
Cover image via Broadimage/Shutterstock.