The Ugly Christmas Sweater: Who Started It?

By Christopher Crown- As the holiday season approaches, many festive folk, young and old, break out their “ugly Christmas sweaters.”

Did your first Christmas Sweater end up here?

A throwback to the once-popular, relentlessly colorful sweaters from the 1980s, this trend brings up a simple question: Why? From media icons and nostalgic throwbacks to the ever-constant search for trendiness, the reasons behind ugly Christmas sweaters’ trendiness have shifted, hearkening back to the old days and embodying modern American trend-capitalism. Fashion experts and sweater historians alike have weighed in on the debate.

Logic states that someone had to don the first ugly Christmas sweater … but who? Of course, there were days long ago when ragtag cloths and colors were all that was available to knit Christmas gifts (part of the sweaters’ nostalgic charm). But someone in the modern era must have started this trend, right?

Looking back, the sources point toward Bill Cosby. Although his standing in American society has recently changed, he was once the beloved Cliff Huxtable, family man icon on the NBC TV staple “The Cosby Show.” As early as 1984, Cosby was sporting bright, colorful sweaters for all seasons, laying the groundwork for the ugly Christmas sweater, states Allison Berry, an author for Time Magazine, in her 2011 article on the ugly Christmas sweater.

This face time with the American public associated the sweater with family, hominess, familiarity and simple household problems that could be resolved within 21 minutes of show time, a few commercials and lots of laughs. In the same vein, Berry cites Chevy Chase’s garish sweaters in the 1989 classic “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Clearly, the trend had been normalized, caught on and ran its course, petering out in the early 1990s, according to contributors.

This niche site goes on to mention, however, that starting around 2001, the sweaters started popping up again. Contributor Leo Hickman, in his 2012 article for the Guardian, attributes this to yet another movie appearance: Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’s Diary. However, the tone of ugly Christmas sweaters had changed.

What was once an endearing, funny memento of family life had become a thing of ridicule, spoiling the appeal of heartthrob Firth and being openly mocked in the movie as “dorky.” Whether due to the nostalgic appeal or the hipster embrace of the unsettling and unconventional, the ugly Christmas sweater took off again, so much so that the city of Vancouver fights to claim the contested status of the first ugly Christmas sweater party, dating back to 2002, according to former ThoughtCo database author Mary Bellis.

Now, from Jimmy Fallon’s beloved segment “The 12 Days of Christmas Sweaters” to Jay Leno’s special interview with the authors of “The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book,” media coverage for this odd apparel is exploding, with no sign of backing down, says Berry. From humble beginnings to obscurity and then back to mainstream ironic devotion, these red, green, pompom’d and snowflake’d abominations are welcomed with open arms into supermarkets and family gatherings alike.

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