How The 'Ugly Christmas Sweater' Conquered America
Last week, the second highest search term for women’s fashion was 'holiday sweaters.' There are 850,000 for sale on eBay. How did we fall so in love with these gaudy garments?
This year, Debbie McClain will make around 800 ugly Christmas sweaters from her workshop in Fremont, Indiana. She’ll ship the bedazzled jumpers around the world—but McClain will not be found in one herself.
“I love them, but I don’t actually wear them,” McClain told The Daily Beast. “I don’t go anywhere this year. I’m strapped to the shop. I’m in such a Grinch mode by the time we get to Christmas that we don’t usually have a tree up.”
McClain works with a team of nine to pump up the wearable holiday cheer found in her brick-and-mortar store and online Etsy shop, which is aptly titled Tacky Ugly Christmas Sweaters.
For $200, you can pick up a handmade Yeti pullover with string lights strewn around the edges. If you’re in the mood for something a little more sultry, you can peruse the shop’s “Sexy” category, where “Ho ho ho” puns abound.
At this time of year, ugly sweaters are simply having a wonderful Christmastime—especially when it comes to sales. Bradford Shellhammer, vice president of buyer experience at eBay, told The Daily Beast that there are over 850,000 in stock on the site right now.
Last week, the second-highest search term for women’s fashion was “holiday sweaters,” sandwiched between the No 1 “dresses” and No 3 “Lululemon.” (It’s the fourth-highest search term for men.) On Nov. 2, search queries for the garment peaked at 20,000 a day. As shoppers inch closer to the holiday—and holiday party season—daily searches have dropped to around 3,000.
From September to November of this year, over 26,000 holiday sweaters were sold on eBay. One of those went to Shellhammer himself, who paid $40 for a knit decorated with the silhouette of the British singer Morrissey and a Fair Isle print. He plans to wear it to eBay’s holiday party in New York City, where guests can enter an ugly sweater competition.
“Where there is a genre of something, there is a holiday sweater,” Shellhammer said, giving a festive spin on the “rule 34” internet legend that if something exists, there is porn based on it. “If there is a movie reference, a sports team, or a music icon, there is an ugly sweater that you can find on the shelves right now.”
That may be a slight overstatement—against all odds, there is no Christmas sweater featuring Santa as Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born, just wanting to take another look at Mrs. Claus.
But if topical sweaters are what you seek, you’ll find Ariana Grande lyrics given the full treatment. And if you’re comfortable being the person who brings up politics at a party, look no further than this “Dear Santa Please Impeach” number.
Whoopi Goldberg, who defended the 1964 stop-motion Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer film on The View last week with the passion of a doorbuster on Black Friday, loves the holidays so much that she has created two seasonal sweater collections with Zappos.
One $99 unisex sweatshirt from the line features Mrs. Claus dressed as Rosie the Riveter above the text, “It takes a real woman to get it done in one night.”
“Even though these are ugly sweaters, women still want to look good,” McClain said. “We try to find the perfect combination of sexy and ugly—fluffy feathers, poinsettias, bedazzling, and that you feel really cute wearing.”
McClain’s male customers, on the other hand, like to pile on the most absurd accoutrements they can find—three-dimensional deer heads, Natty Lite beer bottles, fake pears hanging off of a partridge. In McClain’s words, “The more garbage you can add to a sweater, the better for men.”
The craft store owner found her yuletide niche nine years ago, after sending her daughter off to college. “She called me and said, ‘Mom, look up ‘ugly Christmas sweaters’ on eBay,’” McClain remembered. “Holy smokes, they were selling for a fortune. Fifty to a hundred bucks, just for the old junker ones.”
She immediately drove to the Salvation Army and Goodwill to scoop up a few in hopes of reaping the resale value. When she could not find enough, McClain began making her own. But rather than knit a goofy reindeer mug into the fabric à la Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, McClain opts to glue her embellishments on.
Call them “ugly” or “tacky” now, but in the beginning, holiday sweaters were agenda-less. In the 1950s, crooners such as Andy Williams and Perry Como ditched their suits in favor of winter patterned jumpers, especially when color television came around and performers could peacock in all their glory.
The knits are made through a technique called intarsia, which enables sewers to create multi-colored patterns. “It’s a handknitting art, as opposed to being done by machines or looms,” said Maxcine DeGouttes, founder of the Kings County Fiber Festival in Brooklyn. “Classes on the technique were offered in knit shops, where women would gather to learn how to knit these images.”
Since mothers would create the looks for their children, the style became a cliché. It was a requisite, if unexciting, holiday present that was never on anyone's wish list, but was somehow always gifted year after year.
By the 1980s, dorky film and TV dads such as Clark Griswald (Chevy Chase) and Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) wore chunky, colorful sweaters for all of their comedic misadventures. Chase, who never met a pratfall he did not like, further associated the jumper with clumsy, but lovable, behavior.
In 2014 Koos van den Akker, the late Dutch designer who created Cosby’s sweaters, told CNN that the design “(was) not all that popular at first, but they became more popular later on, because suddenly people would watch the show and say, ‘What the fuck was that?’”
When Colin Firth gamely side-eyed Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones in his reindeer jumper, the accessory had made a comeback. By the mid-2000s, the so-bad-it's-good garment became a staple of pub crawls and Christmas parties.
Like Clark Griswald, revelers who put on the sweaters earned a graceless reputation—but mostly because they were inebriated after a long night. In 2016, The Telegraph reported that many British pubs were implementing anti-sweater dress codes to keep out unruly patrons.
The effort has not hindered the party—according to McClain, the store owner, holiday sweaters are an unkillable trend.
“I've been saying this is going to die for several years,” she laughed. “I think it's going to drop off and go away, but every year we end up having another record-breaking year.”
McClain said that she knew the trend was really widespread when she started seeing Ugly Christmas Sweater nights advertised in her rural Indiana town's local bars. The shopkeeper, who was used to shipping her pieces to far-off coasts such as New York and California, finally saw the look take off at home.
“We're always 10 years behind everyone,” McClain said. “It’s like, OK it’s reached Fremont,’ which means it must have saturated the country. You’ve got sweaters everywhere, no matter where you go.”