As a kid, the last possible thing you wanted to find on Christmas Morning (or Christmas Eve, depending on how you celebrated) was clothing of any variety. While socks were a particularly dreaded score, there was special ire reserved for opening a present that contained any variety of Christmas sweater. A tacky, unwanted, and usually painfully uncomfortable present, this single item is responsible for more secret eye-rolls and forced “thank yous” than any other gift in the modern history of the holiday.
Then, somewhere along the way, irony and nostalgia collided. Like a Christmas miracle, the gift went from something you had to laugh at in secret to one that’s genuinely revered around the holidays. What was once worn strictly to appease whatever relative had given you the gift is now a must-have acquisition (even if only for “ugly sweater” parties).
Here’s a look at some key events in the long, sordid history of the ugly Christmas sweater.
As America was settling into its post-war suburbia phase, the commercialization of Christmas manifested itself in new and exciting ways. One of these was the now-infamous Christmas sweater. While they’d been around in some form since the late 19th century, what were then known as ‘Jingle Bell Sweaters’ were practically a required uniform for fathers of the era as they gathered their family to go caroling, opened presents on Christmas morning, or partake in some similarly idyllic, Rockwellian fantasy.
While this particular incarnation would be considered subdued by many of today’s standards, perhaps the strangest part was there wasn’t a shred of irony in these early incarnations of holiday-themed apparel. Partly because they were seen as legitimately fun and festive attire that was almost a prerequisite for holiday merriment, and partly because irony had yet to be invented.*
It would make sense that the decade that was awash in 1950s nostalgia, and its own uniquely gaudy fashion, would also be the one that elevated the Christmas sweater to new heights. Partial credit goes to The Cosby Show, where Cliff Huxtable’s notoriously repellent sweaters became like secondary characters unto themselves. Naturally, Cliff’s wardrobe would reflect the appropriate holiday imagery during the show’s Christmas-themed episodes.