The Beautiful Truth About Ugly Sweaters

So, so much Christmas spirit
So, so much Christmas spirit
(Click to enlarge, for all the ugly detail.)

As someone who likes to think of himself as at least slightly ahead of the curve, I’m frequently so far behind that that I’m shouting, “Hey, wait for me!”

My latest catch-up instance involves something(s) known as the “ugly sweater.” Perhaps everyone reading this column is already familiar with the term, but I’d never encountered it until a couple of weeks ago when an article in The New York Times sports section gabbed about the hawking of team-related apparel and included this sentence:

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“The ugly sweaters—and yes, that is how the league is marketing them—are being sold on the [NBA] website and at other online stores, arena shops and Lids locations.”

When I scanned the comment, I assumed “ugly sweater” was a new designation. Until, a paragraph or so later, I read:

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“In a twist, the man whose company was responsible for introducing ugly sweaters to the NBA. was, until last year, unfamiliar with the concept of the ugly sweater.”

Let’s just say he’s a year ahead of me in learning those red, green, you-name-the-blaring-color sweaters, always adorned with funny images like Santa Claus, reindeer, showmen and what-have-you, are now considered “ugly sweaters.”

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Maybe part of the reason for my ignorance is that I own a few sweaters that match the description. I like them. I have always liked sweaters festooned with reindeer. I had one when I was a kid and didn’t replace it until a few years back when I ran into a blue-and-white one at my local Housing Works Thrift Shop sporting a $15 price tag. I grabbed it and now pull it on several times every year—but only during December and January.

You can imagine my chagrin on discovering that when I stroll around in it people very likely think, “Look at him in that ugly sweater.” Since I’m happy with it and believe I look like the cat’s pajamas, I can only grin and bear it. Or grin and wear it.

Realizing that “ugly sweater” is an accepted and not, at that, a new term, I decided to find out more. How lagging behind the times am I? Plenty: “ugly sweater” is already in the Urban Dictionary: “A hideous article of clothing, received from  relatives who don’t like you.”

The definition goes on to mention Christmas ugly sweater parties. Can you imagine it? Perhaps you can. Events of this perverse nature are mentioned myriad other places, too—wherever the ugly sweater is discussed. Perhaps you’ve been to one. Perhaps you’ve thrown one.

Another thing I glommed onto while researching is that many outfits offer them. There’s Butt Ugly Sweaters where the promo says the staff is “excited to show you all the ugliness we’ve found for you.” There’s Ugly Sweater Store, where the coveted article is not only sold but where a “Best Ugly Sweater” trophy is available.

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The Ugly Sweater Store, founded by Mike Golomb in 2008, is actually a cyber-emporium for used sweaters that are restored and sold at very reasonable prices. A “Farm Town medium”—which still doesn’t look at all ugly to me, not even plain-as-dirt—is $23.

In a phone conversation, Golomb told me that business is down this year because “everybody is producing them.” He added that while 2013 was his best year ever, “we found a niche that isn’t even a niche anymore. Buyers are now from 16 to 70.” But Golomb’s totem-like trophies are flying off the shelves. “We can’t keep them in stock,“ he reports.

What’s the history of the “ugly sweater”? Inventors expert Mary Bellis says,

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We really can’t say who invented the first ugly Christmas sweater, since Christmas, sweaters and Christmas sweaters have been around for a while. As a matter of fact, we can presume that ugly sweaters were designed with the original intention of being attractive. It’s only our judgmental and the ever-changing sense of fashion that makes us deem once-considered-pretty sweaters as ugly.

When we all still thought Bill Cosby
was just a lovable ugly sweater icon.

Bellis and others trace the “ugly sweater” to Bill Cosby—which means he’s not showing up in this column in relation to other headlines he’s been causing recently. On The Cosby Show in the 1980s, he frequently wore sweaters designed by Koos van der Akker that evidently struck viewers as ugly. In time, they became known not only as “ugly sweaters” but “Cosby sweaters.” He is apparently regarded as such an ugly sweater icon that the Hilltop Hoods even came up with a song about him. The lyrics (which reference Biggie Smalls—Notorious B.I.G.—and his sweaters) go, in part:

I feel as large as Biggie, swear it could not get better.
I feel in charge like Biggie, wearing that Cosby sweater.

Which raises a question: As I make my way through the streets this Christmas season, how many so-called ugly sweaters am I seeing—apart from the one I’ve got on from my collection? The answer: Nothing especially ugly has caught my eye. To be even more specific: December 12, whether you know it or not, is Ugly Sweater Day, but try as I might as I made several rounds, I noticed no one observing it.

That’s to say that nothing I might find good-looking but others might find ugly has stopped me in my tracks. Since I’ve been invited to no Christmas “ugly sweater” parties, I suppose I won’t see any at those gatherings, either. More’s the pity, since I’d stand a good chance to go home with one of Mike Golomb’s trophies.

Happy ugly holidays, all the same.

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