The Dress Code: The Politics of Ugly Christmas Sweaters & Plus-Sized Gift Card Woes

Three young men wear ugly Christmas sweaters
Photo from Flickr via

Welcome to The Dress Code, where we decode your fashion related anxieties, mysteries, and idle questions.

Some funny things started happening to us when we made fashion central to our scholarly work. At parties or meetings, really anywhere we’re asked what we do, we’re often treated like sartorial psychiatrists; anxiously, half-jokingly asked to diagnose a perceived fashion shortcoming. This is always strange to us because the asker can, like, see us. We’re very obviously academics, not stylists (for example, Sara is currently wearing a cashmere turtleneck, two wool cardigans, a frayed wool scarf and wool slippers with holes in the toes. This tells the world that she’s both too poor and too distracted to turn the heat on. She calls it Bob Cratchit chic, and she’s happy to provide links to help you get the look). But things get interesting when people start asking us about stuff that’s really bothering them. They want to know what “the rules” are, and what they can or can’t “pull off.” They want us to explain current trends or old traditions. Usually we demur, but not because they aren’t good questions or we don’t have answers. Our responses just aren’t cocktail party ready. We created this series to honor those questions and give them the care and research we think they deserve.  

For our first installment of The Dress Code, we respond to two holiday-themed questions we’ve gotten recently. (Note: We’re paraphrasing as these came up in conversation, not in writing.)

“What’s up with ugly Christmas sweaters?”

It’s been funny to watch this one evolve from ironic thrift store discovery to office party theme to Old Navy sale rack. The internet is already full of “histories” of ugly Christmas sweaters, but they mostly aren’t very good. For once, this isn’t really Internet’s fault. Trends (is it even a trend?) like this don’t have a clear genesis. They percolate out of a general secondhand aesthetic.

3 flappers in graphic knits and a car
Some very chic women in Sonia Delaunay knits, late 1920s.

I can tell you a few things that might be helpful though. First, despite what you may have read, graphic sweaters go back way before Cosby. For example, in the 1920s, as a new category of clothes — sportswear  — was coming into its own, visual artists like Elsa Schiaparelli and Sonia Delaunay translated their cubist and surrealist visions into gorgeous, vivid, playful knitwear.

Specifically holiday themed sweaters seemed to show up in the 1940s. According to Valerie Mendes and Amy De La Haye, yarn rationing during the war led to shorter tighter sweaters. Whimsical patterns like skiers or reindeer simultaneously livened things up and conserved materials. Christmas sweaters continued to be popular post-war; ironically, they fit in with the overall ethos of happiness through conspicuous consumption. Flocked trees, suburban houses lined with colorful electric lights, Santa cocktail shakers…what says American Dream more than spending a bunch of money on stuff you only use once a year?

A Jantzen ad featuring Christmas sweaters that aren't ugly.
Reindeer and snowflakes for her, fighter jets and parachutes for him…cute!

It makes sense then, that Christmas sweaters came back in the 1980s. Not only was that decade in love with all things 1950s, it was also the era of excessive “Let’s Make America Great Again,” “Greed is good” Reaganomics. Graphic sweaters were ubiquitous and their big and boxy style provided an ample palette. The middle-class was shrinking, but whole worlds could be created across the bosom of a lower-middle class mom. And if what was at the store didn’t do it for her, there were plenty of Bedazzlers and puff paint down at JoAnn’s.

So how did they become “ugly”? Well, here’s news: some of us always thought they were ugly. That’s the point. When they started showing up in thrift stores in the ‘90s, young people bought them the same way they bought trucker’s caps and souvenir t-shirts from places nobody should want to remember. As I’ve written before, it was part of a general ironic aesthetic that rejected American mass culture by re-appropriating its cast-offs. The look became most popular in the late 90s and early 2000s when the youngest Gen X’ers and oldest Millennials took irony to its logical extremes.

I think some of the credit for propelling it out of youth subcultural style has to go to the 2001 film of Bridget Jones’s Diary, which prominently featured Colin Firth at his Firthiest in a Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer jumper.

But as for the more important “what’s up”…a lot. The style was born as a way to simultaneously satirize and nostalgically embrace a look some of our parents and grandparents wore. As it became more codified — there are few un-ironic, not ugly Christmas sweaters now — I think the connotations have shifted. I don’t want to romanticize its history or claim that it “lost its aura.” There can be no tracing authenticity in this look, so if Target makes new “ugly” sweaters that immediately end up back in thrift stores, well…that’s sort of inevitable. But in 2018 the place you’re most likely to see them is at a corporate office or start-up’s “whacky” theme party. Last week I was at the kind of bar that sells craft cocktails with artisanal ice and feels like a theme park version of “hip” — and the staff were all wearing crisp new retro ugly sweaters. An element of playfulness was obvious, and maybe a nod to normcore. The trouble is, without that personal connection to its past, ugly Christmas sweaters are just bourgeois youth making fun of old people and lower-middle class taste. And that really is ugly.  

“My straight-sized relatives keep giving me gift cards for stores that don’t sell my size. I’m plus-sized, but just barely (I usually wear a 16) so it’s possible they don’t realize what they’re doing. Is there any way I can gently get them to stop without sounding ungrateful?”

Well, sadly, the realistic answer is that you probably can’t stop your relatives from doing this —  and even if you managed to get your point across gently, they might not remember when the next holiday rolls around.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that it stinks trying to find clothes that are comfortable and look good. It’s tough for straight-size people, and it’s even harder for bodies that are even just barely outside of the unbelievably tiny range of sizes available in mass-produced retail fashion. And especially for those of us who don’t make enough to have a real clothing budget, those gift cards can really come in handy. So when we get one that we can’t use, it can feel like a cruel joke.

So what do you do? There’s always the subtle Southern manners approach: write a meaningful and genuine thank you card/email/text (or make a phone call if that’s your style) and tell them just how much you appreciate the gift card, and that you bought an awesome scarf/jewelry/socks/other accessory with it. If it feels right, you can always throw in that you enjoyed the shopping trip/online browsing, and found a fabulous red top that wasn’t available in your size, which is why you chose the scarf. But you love that scarf. You really do.

They might get it. Or, as I mentioned above, they might get it and then forget about it next year. If they do, you will likely face another frustrating set of moments where you have to build the strength to combat the emotional assault that happens when you have well-intentioned relatives with blind spots. But you’ve had a whole year, so maybe you just laugh it off and buy another fabulous scarf.

The problem for many is that the holidays are incredibly stressful because obligatory gift-giving in the land of plenty, often with limited budgets, is hard. The gift card allows for the giver to say: I think about you. I care about you. We are connected. While it is not a unique object, that doesn’t matter. As Marcel Mauss helped us see, gift-giving is not really about the gift. It’s an act of social exchange.The great thing about a social exchange is that it creates opportunity to reshape our individual relationships and the larger cultural fabric that guides our lives. That is, the structure of gift-giving can aid in our attempts at making things better in the world. While the opportunity might not always come up, there’s always a chance. And that could be why the holidays – as twisted, crazy, and challenging as they can be – are so often filled with hope.

Now we want to hear from you! Send your fashion related questions, problems, or half-formed thoughts to dismantlemedia at gmail dot com.

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