Few garments simultaneously celebrate nostalgia, parody and fun like the ugly Christmas sweater.
Michael Mulvey, a marketing professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in consumer behaviour and social trends, recently talked to Xtra about the infamous ugly Christmas sweater. Chris Tsujiuchi, a Toronto cabaret performer who celebrates all things Christmas at his annual Chris-terical Christmas Cabaret at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, also weighed in on the gaudy garment in question.
“They’ve been around a long time in their sort of iconic, appliqué jingle-bell splendour,” says Mulvey, who has a doctorate in marketing. “If you looked historically, certainly in the ’50s and ’60s you saw them, so when you watch episodes of Mad Men you’ll see a nostalgic scene of the ’60s where somebody’s going to be sporting one.”
In recent years, the ugly Christmas sweater has reappeared, but instead of being forced to wear the sweater Grandma knitted you for a family photo, the sweater is often at the centre of a theme party or fundraising for a good cause.
“Out west in the early 2000s, 2002 or so, there were some parties thrown which had this ugly Christmas sweater theme,” Mulvey says. “Individuals had a mandate or quest to go out and find a sweater that could out-do the others.”
The Now That’s Ugly Society, a not-for-profit organization based in Port Moody, BC, raises money for the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada by throwing what they dub “the world’s largest and Original Ugly Sweater Party” in Vancouver. This is the 13th year for the party; the group also puts on other events, including the Ugly Christmas Sweater Dash, which involves donning the aforementioned sweater while running five kilometres to raise money for the Children’s Wish Foundation.
Whether it’s raising money for a good cause or having fun dressing up, Mulvey says the popularity of ugly Christmas sweaters is multifaceted.
“It’s bigger than the sweater,” he says. “The sweater is just the prop in the social interaction.”
One of the greatest attributes of the ugly Christmas sweater is that it plays up the fun and whimsy of the season while downplaying some of the stress, Mulvey says. Instead of worrying that you can’t afford a designer outfit to wow everyone at the annual Christmas party, your garish garment is a great social leveller and provides an instant icebreaker with other guests, Mulvey says. Even the shyest guest can make conversation by asking, “So, where did you get your sweater?”
The popularity of these sweaters seems boundless, and LGBT people are not immune. If you assume gay men would shun such sweaters to privilege looking good over wearing something that’s by definition ugly, you’d be mistaken.
“I’ve always favoured being whimsical and fun over being fashionable,” Tsujiuchi says. “But I think that the whole Christmas season is kind of over the top. It’s fun, it’s garish, sometimes tacky and ‘ugly,’ so why shouldn’t Christmas sweaters echo that garishness? And ‘ugly’ is subjective. I think a lot of the ugly Christmas sweaters I see on people are amazing. And the smile they bring to other people’s faces is beautiful.”
Mulvey agrees that bringing some humour and lightheartedness into what is, for many, a stressful time of year is a good thing. At the same time, he says, the sweaters are a form of rebellion. You can rebel against your memories of being forced to pose in an itchy sweater or participate in a collective rebellion that celebrates Christmas while simultaneously mocking all the high expectations and fuss of the season.
“In a way, it’s sort of poking fun at some of the sacred cows of the season,” Mulvey says. “Usually, nostalgia is framed in this very romantic way of yearning for the past and how wonderful it was, but occasionally, we do find moments in our history — our personal history and our collective experience — where we say maybe we thought it was wonderful, but in hindsight it was kind of silly.”
Tsujiuchi recommends playing up the silly instead of taking the season so seriously.
“I don’t think anyone has ever had the perfect Christmas,” he says. “It’s hard, stressful and sometimes sad. I’ve lost a lot of friends and family this year unexpectedly, and I expect I’ll miss them most as soon as I see some downtime on Christmas. But the Christmas season — as is the case with most things in life — couldn’t really be happy if it wasn’t also sad, or beautiful if it wasn’t also ugly. Without opposites, everything would be the same. And without the banal, there could be nothing extraordinary.”