A look at the “ugly Christmas sweater” phenomenon

By Brian Dukerschein

Maybe your grandmother has been on to something all along.

The tacky Christmas sweater, once a holiday punch line as familiar as fruitcake, has become an ironic Yuletide staple fostered by an increasing number of themed parties and specialty retailers servicing the demand for this oft-maligned garment.

“I think that around the holidays, people are just looking to have a good time,” said Clarissa Trujillo, owner of the Chicago-based retail website, UglySweaterStore.com. “Why not look goofy in the process?”

Trujillo, who works in public relations, founded her online business in 2008 after she and her husband had difficulty finding an adequately ugly sweater for his company’s Christmas party.

“It just dawned on me that there might be an untapped market for ugly sweaters online,” Trujillo said. “We began by doing our own scouring of thrift stores and also taking plenty of donations from aunts, grandmas and friends. Now, luckily, we’ve found some wholesale distributors, which definitely helps save time and allows us to have a larger quantity of [merchandise].”

Trujillo said her website sold approximately 200 sweaters in its first year of operation and more than 1,000 last year. This season, she hopes to sell more than 2,000 pieces, including sweaters, cardigans and vests priced from $14–$38.

Most people are seeking out sweaters festooned with Santas, snowflakes and reindeer to wear to holiday parties, Trujillo said. A growing number of businesses and individuals in Chicago are hosting such parties as a means of celebrating the season.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Chicago Sport and Social Club’s Ugly Sweater Holiday Party. According to marketing and event manager Gailin Kristofek, the event has become popular with club members, many of whom take the act of dressing up very seriously.

“The first year we did [this party], people would just wear a sweatshirt and jeans; it wasn’t quite as costumed,” Kristofek said. “Now, people wear crazy tights or whole outfits,” such as one man who, in 2010, created a custom suit outfitted with

Christmas lights.

The CSSC uses the event to support a local charity, something Kristofek said is done by nearly all organizations that hold similar parties. This year, the group is holding a toy drive for the Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

“The first thing I plan every year when organizing this event is what charity to support,” Kristofek said.

While both Kristofek and Trujillo said they see the sweaters as a fun means of expressing holiday merriment, Andrew Causey, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Columbia, sees a deeper meaning behind the trend.

“I think with a lot of things people reappropriate—the corny, tacky and all that stuff—there is a side of it [that] is tongue- and-cheek, but I think there’s also a side of it, which is a real craving for authenticity,” Casey said.

He said he sees a correlation between the resurgence of the proverbial ugly Christmas sweater and the more recent do-it-yourself and Occupy movements, all of which he said represent a cultural shift away from corporatization. A generation adopting certain cultural references of its ancestors is nothing new, but what sets this trend apart is its reliance on irony, Causey said.

“When I was college-age, everybody was going back to the ’50s and we were taking on ’50s style, but we were taking it on as it was,” he said. “It wasn’t ironic, and we weren’t taking on the ugly aspects, but the cool aspects.”

Causey said he believes the current taste for irony and nostalgia is a reaction by younger people who are grappling with the hypocrisy of politicians and other social leaders.

“We live in such cynical times,” he said. “So to go back to something like a friendly grandma sweater from a time that seems like it wasn’t so mean—I think there’s something to that.”