The Ugly Sweater, Unraveled

Like artists taking over an old factory loft district, hipsters gentrified the naïve ugly sweater, turning it into a signal of cool. Now, they are being pushed out of the style they helped create, as it swiftly becomes a mall store commodity.

Before it became trendy, the ugly sweater was the ur-gift-from-grandma. It was the item that initiated you as a small child into the mystery of mandatory deception, aka politeness. No matter how hideous, garish and scratchy it was, you were told to say thank you, to squirmingly smile and say you loved it, and kiss grandma on her wrinkled cheek.

The sweater would have to be worn for Christmas day and the family photograph. Perhaps you were in one of those families in which everyone received a matching sweater and had the bonding experience of being part of a team wearing green Santas with red-nosed reindeer, or sparkly snowflake vests. These early sweaters were irony free. They symbolized holiday gaiety, consecrating the season with a garment that would be wildly inappropriate and downright strange at any other time of year. As gifts, they passed the “I wanted to get you something you wouldn’t get for yourself” test.

Sometime in the last decade, ugly sweaters became a hipster accessory and the once discarded gifts flew out of second hand shops and onto the torsos of trendy shoppers. It takes confidence in one’s coolness credentials to wear such an item, trusting that other details — one’s wispy asymmetric haircut, eyebrow ring or peekaboo neck tattoo — will make it clear that your taste is still impeccable: the sweater is just holiday burlesque, worn as an ironic nod to innocent, flat-footed, permed-hair, polyester American taste.
Like many hipster trends — home-brew, record-players, locally sourced smoothies in a mason jar — the ugly sweater represents authenticity, realness, the non-commercial. It is a garment intended for people fond of innocent practical jokes, the kind of people who wear paper hats to celebrate birthdays long after their years in candles no longer fit on the cake. Thus to wear the ugly sweater ironically requires delicate subcultural balancing, simultaneously embracing and mocking its naiveté.

An irony starter kit. Image courtesy Bruce Schneier

But it’s 2014 in America and authenticity and irony both have fleetingly short lifespans before being co-opted by the ravenous consumer market. The hipster ugly sweater had cachet because it took work to obtain (all that vintage shop rummaging!) and aplomb to pull off wearing one (the risk of being mistaken for a taste-challenged naif). But now you can just search on Amazon for “ugly sweater” and dozens of deliberately jokey versions appear, with peeing Santas and tipsy elves — and even ripoffs of these, with the dizzying multi-layered fakery of “Faux Real Men’s Ugly Frisky Deer Sweater Long Sleeve Shirt”.

And so, as you cheer on the runners in your local “Ugly Sweater Race”, can you parse their sartorial cues? Here’s a first generation ironic, off to toast the holidays with artisanal cocktails and locally sourced cookies, wearing the ugly sweater with humor — and perhaps a secret nostalgia for Midwestern childhood Christmas mornings. There’s a consumer, obediently adopting this season’s off-the-shelf outsider look. And where can we find the sincere reveler, proclaiming his love for the holiday season?

Commercialization grasps at the craving for the authentic — even the authentically ironic — hoping to cash in on the five minutes between popularization and the super-sales bin. The hipsters adopted thrift-shop sweaters as a medium for irony because of the knitwear’s lack of consumer appeal and its distance from the aspirational style of glossy fashion magazines. But this sort of authenticity-seeking taste is the modern-day Midas’s touch: everything it touches turns quickly into commercial gold. Niche trends are quickly imitated, in easier to buy and simpler to parse forms. The ugly sweater becomes part of the paradoxical irony starter kit, fashion outsiders copying insiders copying outsiders.

images courtesy The Ugly Sweater Shop

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