Fred Montana models a fine example of an ugly sweater at the Thrift Town store in Richland, Texas. Photo by MCT
A holiday sweater decorated with dancing snowmen in ski hats
rarely has qualified as high fashion. But never have such
festive frocks been so joyfully and openly ridiculed as they
Across the nation, "Ugly Christmas Sweater" parties and
contests are all the rage, and the louder and tackier the
garment, the better.
The trend has given birth to a cottage industry of stores,
blogs and books, and has been a bonanza for shops that sell
"Every year, it gets bigger and bigger and seems to start
earlier," said Lorena Maxim, a sales associate at Thrift Town
on El Camino Avenue in Sacramento, California.
"People started asking about them around Labor Day this year,
because they know we sell out so quickly."
Demand for vintage holiday sweaters decorated with images of
rakish Santas and teddy bear soldiers and cute fluffy animals
peeking out of Christmas stockings has been so brisk that
Thrift Town is offering customers $5 to return their "ugly
sweaters" after their parties are over.
"Ugly Christmas sweaters are big business for us as of the
past few years," said Thrift Town spokeswoman Gina
Doglione-Nielsen. "They tend to fly out of our stores as soon
as our crews put them out on the floor."
Sales of the items have increased "10 percent year by year,"
she said. Last year, Thrift Town launched an online Ugly
Sweater Contest, with a $250 prize for the top entry.
The holiday sweater racks were nearly bare late last week at
the Sacramento SPCA's thrift shop on E Street, leaving
customers angling for substitutes.
"They're selling like hotcakes," said clerk Cindy Taylor.
"We've just about run out of sweaters, so people are going
for sweatshirts and T-shirts and decorating them with
ornaments and all kinds of things."
The goal is to snag the award for "ugliest sweater." At many
parties, that means not just the garish, woven images of
elves, candy canes and polar bears but also dangling
ornaments and electronic accoutrements such as flashing
Christmas lights, blinking reindeer snouts and even sewn-in
iPads playing a video of a cozy fire.
Two men in Vancouver, Canada, claim to have hosted the
world's first Ugly Sweater Party in 2002. The pair, Chris
Boyd and Jordan Birch, hold an annual holiday bash at the
prestigious Commodore Hotel, and have trademarked the phrases
"ugly Christmas sweater" and "ugly Christmas sweater party"
Now, people from New York to Los Angeles are hosting
sweater-themed events, and schools and businesses are holding
"Ugly Sweater Days."
"This sweater thing has hit all the way with everyone, no
matter the ethnicity, the age group, the background," said
Maxim of Thrift Town. "We have businessmen coming in, we have
teachers, we have office groups looking for them and doing
the craziest things with them."
Of course, not everyone thinks that fuzzy holiday sweaters in
bright red and green are ugly.
Undoubtedly, the garments were designed to be perceived as
attractive, said Robert Thompson, professor of popular
culture at Syracuse University. But taste, and fashion, have
"Clothes have always been a canvas to express all kinds of
things, and I'm sure there are still many people out there
who wear these wild sweaters because they think they are
pretty," said Thompson.
Even those who hold up the garments as hideous, Thompson
said, may unwittingly be responding to a sense of nostalgia
and fond memories of childhood.
"They're wearing them with a deep sense of irony," said
Thompson. "It's sort of a tongue-in-cheek, pink flamingo sort
of thing. They're making fun.
"At the same time, there is something beautiful about wearing
a really obviously themed Christmas sweater. Most people, at
some point in their lives, have owned something with
snowflakes on it, or had a teacher who came to school decked
out in outrageous sweaters because the kids loved them. They
have fond memories of that."
Thompson himself has a soft spot for holiday sweaters.
Walking the winter streets in New York, "I'll see hundreds of
people in black sweaters and ignore them," he said. "But when
I see someone wearing a sweater with a reindeer pulling a
sleigh, I'll take a look. That's much more interesting."
Not that he would ever wear such a sweater himself, he said.
Jennifer Villegas, 45, an executive assistant for the state
of California, got invited to her first Ugly Sweater Party
earlier this month.
"I thought it sounded totally fun and quirky," she said. "I
was very excited about it."
Her enthusiasm paid off. Villegas dug through her closet,
"way in the back behind some jackets that don't fit me," she
said, and found the perfect adornment.
It was a mock turtleneck sweater in red, green and white
featuring horizontal swathes of reindeer, snowflakes and pine
trees. "I received it as a gift," she said. "I'm not sure
With the help of her mother, she added tinsel and ornaments.
Then she purchased a tiny set of battery-operated lights, and
blinked her way to the party.
For her efforts, she won second place and went home with a
ceramic Santa cup filled with candy.
"The party was a blast," she said. "Kitschy and quirky and a
chance to make fun of yourself. I can't wait until next
And her winning sweater? It will get a second run at glory
this holiday season.
"My mom thinks it's absolutely beautiful," Villegas said.
"She might wear it on Christmas Day."