The tradition of wearing ugly sweaters every holiday season feels like it’s been around for decades, yet it didn’t actually gain traction until the 2000s. We looked into how the trend became so popular.
The Ugly Christmas sweaters that we know today began in the mid 20th century when they were still known as “Jingle Bell Sweaters”. Initially, they were knitted pullovers featuring Christmas-related designs and were usually worn by an older crowd since they could be easily mixed with conservative pieces.
The tradition of dressing up in Christmas-themed sweaters and sweater vests continued throughout the 20th century with style icon Sam the Snowman from the 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer wearing a Green plaid vest. However, it wasn’t until the ’80s with Cliff Huxtable’s famous sweaters that the normalization of ugly sweaters and in turn, Ugly Holiday sweaters really popped off. The '90s saw a fall from these jumpers, perhaps due to the overwhelming influence of the grunge movement but the look picked up again in the early 2000s, even making an appearance on an episode of Star Trek.
In the early 2000s, Ugly Holiday Sweaters were almost always hand-me-downs or thrift store finds as they have not gained popularity with retailers just yet. Part of their appeal was wearing them ironically as a way to mock your grandmother’s wardrobe and finding them second-hand was part of the charm. In 2007 Stella McCartney featured a Christmas motif in several of the ready-to-wear pieces in their Fall runway show, one of the first times a notable brand played off the Christmas time troupe. In 2010, D&G (Dolce & Gabbana’s secondary line) did an entire show featuring a “winter-vacationland motif”. After these two notable collections, wearing Ugly Holiday Sweaters became an expected part of the American celebration of the holiday, now often worn to Ugly Holiday Sweater parties and December pub crawls.
After they were seen on the runway, fast-fashion retailers such as Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters began selling their own version of the Ugly Holiday Sweater, often offering outlandish designs by adding garland and gift bows to mirror homemade sweaters rather than the ones playing off of classic looks. Since then, many TV shows have featured these sweaters to showcase a character's Christmas cheer and steer into the tradition.
Whether you’re into the vintage-looking Ugly Holiday Sweater look or prefer to wear something funnier and more outlandish, there’s something out there for everyone.