History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater

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

Is It Better To Give Or Receive An Ugly Christmas Sweater?
Is It Better To Give Or Receive An Ugly Christmas Sweater?. Scott Kleinman/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 for a sweater ugly? Well, the general consensus is that the more embellishments, more tinsel, and more 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

Some consider comedian and actor Bill Cosby to be the father of the ugly Christmas sweater due to the collaged sweater designs he wore on his program "The Bill Cosby Show." While Cosby would understandably not want to accept the credit for popularizing bad taste, my research has indicated that Christmas sweaters were first mass manufactured 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, it's nonetheless spawned a widespread festive tradition among younger folks. According to Time Magazine, there has been a noticeable revival of ugly Christmas sweater themed parties where they make fun of their parents who loved the festive looks and had thought that the sweaters were cute.

In fact, the city of Vancouver claims to be the birthplace of the first ugly sweater party in 2002. Every year, a 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 Brief History of Sweaters and Kitted Garments

A sweater is a kind of knitted top and knitted garments have been around a very long time. 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 did 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 archeologists 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.