History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater

Not surprisingly, the eighties gets blamed for popularizing bad taste.

Funny Christmas couple
svetikd / Getty Images

An ugly Christmas sweater is any sweater with a Christmas theme that is considered in bad taste, tacky, or gaudy. So what makes a sweater ugly, and whose idea was that? Well, the general consensus is that the more embellishments—more tinsel, more reindeer and Santa Clauses and candy canes and other Christmas themed decorations—the uglier the sweater.

It's hard to say who invented the first ugly Christmas sweater. As a matter of fact, we can presume that ugly sweaters were designed with the original intention of being fashionable. It's only because of our ever-changing sense of fashion that sweaters once deemed acceptable are now considered ugly. 

Inspired by the Eighties

Ugly sweaters were often featured on situation comedies in the 1980s. They were mostly cardigans, buttoned down the front. Research has indicated that Christmas sweaters were first mass-produced under the name of "jingle bell sweaters" during the eighties.

But while no one wants to take the blame for the proliferation of ugly sweaters, the meme has nonetheless spawned a widespread festive tradition. In fact, the city of Vancouver claims to be the birthplace of the first ugly sweater party in 2002. Every year, The Original Ugly Christmas Sweater party is held at the Commodore Ballroom where the dress code ensures an ugly sweater affair. Chris Boyd and Jordan Birch, the co-founders of the Commodore's annual ugly sweater party, have even trademarked the word phrase "ugly Christmas sweater" and "ugly Christmas sweater party." The party is a benefit, raising money in support of the Make A Wish Foundation of Canada, which grant wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses.

A Brief History of Sweaters and Knitted Garments

A sweater is a kind of knitted top, and knitted garments have been around much longer than the Christmas sweater. Knitting by definition is the process of using needles to loop or knot yarn together to create a garment or piece of fabric. But since knitting does not require a large piece of equipment like a loom, it has been hard to trace the exact history of knitted garments. Thus historians have had to rely on the remnants of knitted garments that have remained.

The earliest example of a garment made by the two needle form of knitting that we are familiar with today are the fragments and whole Egyptian "coptic socks," which date back to 1000 CE. Many examples have been found by archaeologists of the socks, which were made from white and blue dyed cotton and featured symbolic patterns called Khufic woven into them. This was intended to protect the wearer.

The cardigan sweater was named after James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan. Brudenell was a military captain who led his troops at The Charge of the Light Brigade into the Valley of Death. Brudenell's troops were outfitted in knitted military jackets nicknamed cardigans.