(TNS)—Keisha Jones, 32, of Mitchellville, Md., dons a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” Christmas T-shirt decorated with pizza slices, a nod to her favorite childhood cartoon and her shirt of choice for her friend’s annual ugly sweater party.
Jennifer Eisenberg, 23, of Federal Hill, wears a black sweater with glimmering mistletoe and a reindeer with pursed lips that reads “Kiss Me.” Hanukkah sweaters are hard to find, says Eisenberg, who is Jewish, so she’ll likely save it for the coming holiday parties or a night out at the bars.
Dia Hancock displays her fandom for the band The Roots with cartoon versions of its members on her sweater.
“I think if you can think it, they can make an ugly sweater out of it,” says Hancock, 32, who, inspired by hours of binge-watching Netflix, will sport a “Stranger Things”-themed sweater.
They’re the tip of the ugly sweater iceberg. There are ugly sweater parties, celebrity-endorsed lines, a designated “national day” and major league sports franchises and big-box retailers in on the act. The theme has been adapted to ugly sweater shirts, hats, leggings, pajamas and attire for pets, often embracing pop culture.
The roots of the trend date to (non-ironic) holiday sweater-wearing in the 1980s, according to “Bringing Ugly Back: The Ugly Christmas Sweater Handbook,” created in part by online retailer UglyChristmasSweater.com. The trend fell out of favor in the ’90s—the sweaters came to be seen as unwelcome gifts, generally from grandmothers—but has enjoyed a resurgence that embraces the intentionally unattractive, gaudily knitted threads adorned with holiday motifs, colors, and sometimes even lights.
It has evolved over the years into a holiday phenomenon, earning its own national day and turning the weeks surrounding Christmas and Hanukkah into jovial dress-up opportunities.
UglyChristmasSweater.com launched in 2011 after finding that used sweaters were in high demand, with some selling online for more than $400.
“We’ve typically seen two types of customers,” says Fred Hajjar, 36, co-founder and president of the Michigan-based company. “Some people really just want a sweater that they look at and say, ‘Wow, that’s ugly,’ and there’s others that want a trendy-type sweater.”
UglyChristmasSweater.com sold $5 million worth of attire last year and expects to sell around 90,000 sweaters this year (prices typically range from $39.99 to $69.99); popular items this year are sweaters that include a 3-D component or a “Star Wars” theme in anticipation of the December release of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
This year, the website added a customizing tool, allowing customers to design their own sweaters—a strategy to stay ahead of competition like online rival Tipsy Elves, featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” and retail giants like Target, Macy’s and Wal-Mart.
Celebrities have also hopped on the bandwagon. Rapper 2 Chainz launched his line of ugly sweaters featuring a “Dabbin’ Santa” in 2015, and actor Whoopi Goldberg released a limited edition collection of holiday sweaters, priced at $139, at Lord & Taylor in November. Beyonce and rapper Nas also sell ugly sweater-themed apparel.
For the Baltimore Police Department’s chief financial officer Caroline Sturgis, 41, combining the ugly sweater and cute holiday pajamas will mark a new tradition, as decided by her family after Thanksgiving dinner this year.
“We started thinking about, ‘Well, you know Christmas is around the corner, so what are we going to do?’ We had the debate among our family,” Sturgis says. “Now everyone is on a mission trying to look for their cutest PJs and ugliest sweater.”
But while many people seem to view the ugly sweater as a fashion rule-breaker that brings people together during the holiday season, others fear that it has become too commercialized.
To Darlene Pisani, a writer and interior designer in Annapolis, the tradition is now reminiscent of Halloween and is “way too much pressure.” She’d rather see discarded ugly sweaters used as gift wrapping or a tree skirt, or perhaps given to a friend one wishes to see less of.
But to UglyChristmasSweater.com’s Hajjar, the thought and effort put into an ugly sweater is what makes it special.
“Maybe add some lights, things hanging off of it, tinsel. There’s tons of things you can do to really make it unique. It’s like, if you buy a Halloween costume from Spirit Halloween, you’re not gonna win the contest, whereas a person who puts a little more into it—you can really make it ugly.”
But when the holiday parties are over, and you’re left with an ugly sweater with your favorite cartoon or TV show, don’t be too quick to retire it.
“The one that I bought last year, I’ve worn it so many times since last season,” says one sweater-wearer, who will sport a “Game of Thrones” sweater strewn with wolves and the phrase “Winter Is Coming.”
“You’ll never know when you’ll need it.”
©2016 The Baltimore Sun
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