The annual tradition of picking out garish sweaters for a holiday party is past its cultural sell-by date, but maybe your friends or bosses haven’t received the memo. If you’ve been invited to an ugly sweater party this year, here are some thoughts on how to navigate it.
A brief history of ugly holiday sweaters
The holiday sweater rose to cultural prominence in the 1950s. This was before the invention of pop culture irony, so wearing a sweater with a wintertime theme wasn’t seen as goofy, and most of the sweaters were tasteful and understated. Boring, you might say.
The holiday sweater remained low-key throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, but really came into its own in the 1980s, the decade of loud sweaters, when the designs got bigger and bolder.
No one knows when the first tacky Christmas sweater party was held, but by the mid 1990s, ironically rocking hideous Christmas sweaters from thrift stores was a seasonal urban hipster staple. The popularity grew, and by the 2000s, ugly holiday sweater parties were a well-known and well-established thing white people liked.
Nowadays, the ugly holiday sweater is so culturally accepted that you can buy one of thousands of different varieties in any big box store, from “hilarious” references to Rick and Morty from uglychristmassweaters.com to this monstrosity, where you pay $70 to advertise for Ford.
The ready availability and cultural acceptance of this Christmas tradition makes it pointless. There used to be a DIY curator-creativity to thrifting an ugly sweater, and a smart-ass statement made by wearing it in public, but when you can buy one at Wal-Mart, and everyone does, the irony or comedy of it goes “poof.”
But I like tacky sweater parties anyway: A gathering with a theme is always festive, and ugly Christmas sweaters are guaranteed to start conversations and loosen up squares. (Maybe not as effectively as a strong rum punch, but still.) In my estimation, there are two ways to handle the “dress code” of such an affair: Overdo it or get classy.
Too much is never enough
If you want to win the ugly sweater contest, you’re going to have to go way overboard. You need an unthinkably ugly sweater, something too weird for Target—and you need accessories to make it worse. Luckily, late capitalism has you covered. Examples below.
This handmade, beaded “Yeti” sweater from Etsy store TackyUgly Christmas is the loudest, most hideous piece of clothing I have ever seen. I mean, it comes with lights, feathers, and a stuffed animal.
This Walking Christmas Tree abomination from Etsy story Tacky Ugly Sweaters stretches the definition of the word “sweater” and looks like it would be physically painful to wear. But you’ll win the tacky sweater prize, so it’s worth it.
DuseysDesignsOnADime is offering the truly horrific Barbie on a stripper pole design you see below. I love it because it’s so…homemade looking.
These are just a few of the thousands of designs available on Etsy and elsewhere, but they aren’t loud enough. You need to accessorize. Like try this Christmas tree headband with lights and ornaments, or crown yourself the king/queen of Christmas with this headband (eye makeup optional). Then strap on your Santa boots and Christmas cape and hit the party!
The classy path
I think the errant super-computer from 1984’s WarGames said it best: “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
Joshua/WOPR was talking about global thermonuclear war, but it applies to ugly Christmas sweater parties, as well. You don’t want to be a spoil-sport, so you need to do something, but you don’t have to buy in to the whole deal either. Luckily, it’s possible to fully honor the festive spirit of a colorful holiday gathering without buying a dumb sweater you’re going to wear exactly once.
Try something like this tasteful seasonal sweater from Talbots, or this Bjorn Norwiegan sweater from Icewear. Either would look great during all seasonal activities, from buying a Christmas tree to morosely weeping after drinking too much eggnog.
If you accent these looks with a touch of holiday flair, you’ll show up at the spot looking both holly and jolly.
Like all good fashion, Christmas party-wear should be an expression of your own style. Maybe you’re into a look like this baller outfit from Gold x Teal:
Or if you’re more into rich old white lady couture, check out this Festive Charm cardigan from Sundance (floppy hat and Uggs sold separately)
A final word…
All of the advice above assumes you live in a reality where you’re going to parties for the holiday season. If, like me, you plan to spend the holidays hiding from the plague, congratulations! You don’t need to worry about holiday sweaters at all and can just wear the same stained Stoop shirt you’ve had on since August.