I was invited to an ugly Christmas sweater party, but the sweaters always struck me as waste of money and bad for the environment. And I don’t own one. Am I allowed to sit this dress code out, or does that make me a Grinch? — Tom, Kansas City, Mo.
It may be time to redefine the Ugly Christmas Sweater, or U.C.S. (Let’s just go with the abbreviation.) After all, the styles we now consider typical for such garments — synthetic creations in the worst versions of red and green bedecked in holiday clichés — are effectively the equivalent of wardrobe tchotchkes. But they didn’t start out that way!
The “jingle bell sweater” first appeared on shelves in the 1940s and 1950s, and was mostly a sincere attempt to add some (OK, kinda cheesy) snowflake- or reindeer-adjacent themed cheer into a knit. The ironic versions we now know really began to take off in the 1980s, thanks to Cliff Huxtable’s signature bad sweaters in “The Cosby Show” and to the 1989 movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
In 2001 came “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Colin Firth’s unforgettable entrance as Mark Darcy in a crew neck featuring a life-size reindeer face on the front. A year later, according to the “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On,” the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party (U.C.S.P.) was born.
At this stage, however, it’s all starting to seem a little less fun — and funny. Ugly sweaters have become one of the worst examples of disposable fashion: made, essentially, to be almost never worn, and most likely discarded, while at the same time being generally not recyclable (all that acrylic). Yet, this time of year, it often seems that even consumers who would not usually engage with fast fashion are welcoming its wares and starting to think, The cheaper, the better. Perhaps, because of that, the U.C.S., as well as its related parties, persist.
Given that one of the rules of parties is that, out of respect for the hosts, you should equally respect the dress code, what to do?
Consider the guiding principle of the U.C.S.P. If the idea is to spread cheer by lessening the burden of dressing up for the holidays and poking a little fun at tradition, and one’s self, in a way everyone can do with no consideration for age or gender (all good things), then in theory, you could dress for a U.C.S.P. without actually wearing a classically U.C.S.
For example, I recently went to a U.C.S.P. where, among the revelers, there was one man who simply selected the loudest sweater in his closet (it was a striped number). Another went with a sweater that had been a meal for moths, calling it his “holey” sweater. Personally, I wore a fuzzy silver knit and told everyone I was tinsel.
That brings me to the D.I.Y. U.C.S., a temporary version that involves pinning Christmas ornaments onto a plain cotton sweater or sweatshirt, which could lead you in all sorts of fun, crafty directions. Or you could hold a U.C.S.P. pregame swap in which, rather than buying new ugly sweaters, you trade an old U.C.S. for someone else’s, a cashless form of shopping that prioritizes existing ugly sweaters over new ones. (Extending the life cycle of clothes is one of the most effective things that all of us can do to combat fashion’s role in climate change.) One person’s U.C.S. could be another person’s perfect holiday gift.
The point is: Keep the spirit alive, but update the substance. It’s one way to have your fruitcake and eat it too.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.