The cult of the ugly Christmas sweater began, as internet fables tell it, with some Canadian bros in the early 2000s who decided to kitschily unearth their '80s looks and have a funny, ironic party celebrating them. Because the early 2000s were the era of peak irony—propelled by the confluence of post-9/11 despair and party-like-it's-the-apocalypse nihilism—the ugly Christmas sweater made sense.
But that was over a decade ago. We live in a different time. The ugly Christmas sweater is dead, but it has been resurrected, remade, and marketed to the late-stage ugly Christmas sweater consumer, who is so lacking in true irony that to wear this today is to become a mere pawn in the hyper-capitalist Christmas retail season. In other words: everyone's getting played.
Many online histories invoke the "Cosby sweater" in relation to the advent of ugly Christmas sweater, although this is incorrect: "Cosby sweaters" were, by and large, created by the Dutch fashion designer Koos Van Den Akker, whose patterns and sense of geometry were influenced by both traditional textiles and design by the Memphis Group. The ugly Christmas sweater is an entirely different animal, one that was largely divorced from actual fashion, and whose origins were rooted directly in capitalizing on the holiday from the jump.
Though it's disputed who first popularized those hellacious relics of the equally hellacious and ostentatious 1980s, one person is actually willing to claim he invented them: Chris Burch, ex of Tory and owner of the downsizing C. Wonder chain. In a 2012 profile in New York, Burch detailed how the Christmas sweater transitioned his position from an enterprising businessperson in the 1970s to a now-superwealthy magnate who's been accused of creating C. Wonder in Tory Burch's image just to troll his ex-wife:
The turtlenecks [Burch's company] festooned with strawberries and whales hit right in time for the preppy craze, and the business took off. Then: "I noticed a lot of our customers were turning into young moms," Burch says, "and Christmas was very much a family thing …"
Eagle's Eye opened a New York office in 1981, and on one of his trips there, Burch met his first wife, a fashion consultant named Susan Cole. They had three daughters and moved to a spacious home near his parents in the Philadelphia suburbs. Despite the failure of one of Chris's more esoteric innovations ("He wanted a sweater with a turkey on it that clucked," says Leslie Johnson, whom he hired as a designer), business thrived, and in 1989 Chris and Robert began selling their stake in Eagle's Eye (they ultimately made $60 million).
The New York profile later notes that Burch is fond of inflating his own myth and that the Christmas sweater can be dated back to the 1950s, at least—but his own hand in manufacturing them in the early '80s certainly added to the craze, and helped him to become a venture capitalist, one of the lowest forms of employment. Do you want to support a venture capitalist? Wear his sweaters.
Further, the cult of the ugly Christmas sweater has once again grown so massive and mass-manufactured—you can buy them brand-new at Amazon, Macy's, Target, and a variety of websites devoted solely to the trend—that the "joke" has ceased to be funny, circling back upon itself and into the realm of cliché. If everybody knows they're wearing an ugly Christmas sweater on purpose, do they cease to be ugly? If ugly Christmas sweaters are the most normcore of all the normcore styles—and they really, really are—does the irony just completely bleed from them? All we have left are a bunch of young people who are actively trying to dress like their dads in 1992, and that's a crying shame. Here's the full view of Pharrell from the image up top:
In other corners, the ugly Christmas sweater is becoming such an institution that it's affecting people's work environments. One Goodwill shopper in Asheville, North Carolina, told ABC News that wearing an ugly Christmas sweater was a mandate at her job: "They're asking us to wear one to work," she said, "so I have to get in the spirit of it." This kind of enforced fun ceases to be fun at a certain point, like having a comedian yell at you if you don't laugh at his jokes.
Now that we have entered peak Christmas sweater season, and now that wearing "ugly"/"boring" clothes on purpose has become a legitimate trend that "cool" people enjoy, all the fun has been siphoned from the experience. (By the way, I am compelled to add that the "trend forecasting group" K-Hole, the foremothers of "normcore," is an experiment comprised of artists, and I feel that their normcore report was a giant troll).
Adam Paulson, one of the owners of UglyChristmasSweater.com, told ABC in 2011 that "the majority of people spend 364 days out of the year worrying about what they look like... [it] gives them one night to look totally stupid, to feel like they fit in, no matter what they wear. All inhibitions are gone." It behooved him to say that because that same year, he co-authored The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book with two (!) other dudes, which claimed to be The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On, the kind of joke book that can be lucratively hawked at places like Urban Outfitters and monetizes trends they didn't even come up with. (For what it's worth, the phrase "Ugly Christmas Sweater" is copyrighted in Canada by Chris Boyd and Jordan Birch, the aforementioned men who allegedly started the first ugly Christmas sweater party in 2001.)
The fact that America is happily motoring along with a trend that has made fratty bros rich and semi-famous is one answer to the burning question "Who profits?," and is painful to think about besides. But mostly, it's just not funny anymore. Ugly shit is in again, the joke is played, the Christmas sweater is dead. It's time for all of use to move on and find something else to milk to its conclusion, like Krampus the holiday demon or, even better, the log that shits out your Christmas gifts. Happy holidays!
Image via Getty.