The History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater

Blame the '80s for popularizing bad taste

Funny Christmas couple
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An ugly Christmas sweater is any Christmas-themed sweater that could be considered in bad taste, tacky, or gaudy. The general consensus is that the more embellishments—tinsel, reindeer, Santa Clauses, candy canes, elves, presents, etc.—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 ever-changing fashion trends that sweaters once deemed acceptable are now considered ugly. 

Inspired by the '80s

As a clothing item, ugly sweaters were often featured on situation comedies in the 1980s. They were mostly cardigans, buttoned down the front. The Christmas theme entered around the same time, with the first mass-produced Christmas garments being made under the name of "jingle bell sweaters" during the '80s as well.

A New Tradition

While no one may want to take the credit for ugly clothes, this tacky kind of holiday cheer has become a widespread festive tradition. The city of Vancouver claims to be the birthplace of the ugly sweater party after hosting an event in 2002. Every year since, the Original Ugly Christmas Sweater party has been 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."

To really get into the holiday spirit, the party is also a benefit that raises money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Canada, which grants 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 infamous Christmas sweater. Knitted clothing is created through the process of using needles to loop or knot yarn together to form a piece of fabric. Unfortunately, since knitting does not require a large piece of equipment like a loom, it is hard to trace the exact history of non-Christmas-sweater knitted garments. Instead, historians have had to rely on the remnants of the knitted clothes that have remained.

The earliest examples of the "two-needle" form of knitting we are familiar with today are the fragments of and whole Egyptian "Coptic socks," which date back to 1000 CE. They were made from white and blue-dyed cotton and featured symbolic patterns called Khufic woven into them.

Fast forward to the 17th century and we see another development in knitted garments. The cardigan sweater was named after James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan and 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, which were nicknamed cardigans.

Who would have thought that the innovations of the ancient Egyptians and British military attire would lead to a joyously gaudy form of holiday cheer?