Christmas sweaters turn from earnest to varying degrees of raunchy
By MAURA JUDKIS | The Washington Post | Published: December 18, 2019
The Santa Claus you see on Christmas sweaters lately is not the jolly old elf with a sack full of toys, an emblem of holiday cheer and generosity. He’s kind of a dirtbag, to be honest. He’s probably saying something like, "I do it for the ho’s," or "I have a big package for you."
He’s constantly relieving himself -- spelling out "Merry Christmas" in cursive with urine on one sweater, or pooping down a chimney. Like the worst dudes on Tinder, he demands: "Send nudes."
His companions aren’t much better. His reindeer? They and their antlers are on a sweater that reads "Horny." The elves are gathered around the North Pole, throwing money at a stripper who is dancing on it. If the newest wave of holiday sweaters has anything to say about the Christmas spirit, it’s that December is a 31-day-long kegger, and Mrs. Claus should probably consult a divorce attorney.
Ugly holiday sweater parties are not what they used to be. When the trend kicked off in the early aughts, it was a chance to browse the racks at thrift stores for over-the-top, ill-fitting kitschy knits of teddy bears and nutcrackers. But it’s rarer that people wear a thrifted ugly sweater these days, with the proliferation of companies offering stylishly unstylish new ones. And designers want to push the envelope.
"I feel like certain brands are trying to go for the edgiest, dirtiest, broiest dude they can find," said Amanda Neville, an ugly sweater designer for the wholesale company Fashion Avenue.
She’s designed some of those kinds of sweaters, too. In a previous job for a brand called Alex Stevens, she conjured up puking reindeer and naked Mrs. Clauses. One of their buyers told her they were "seeing all these people searching for ugly Christmas sweaters," she said, and she made those designs to keep up with trends.
In her current company, which produces branded sweaters for companies including T.J. Maxx, Target, Walmart and department stores, as well as its own brand, Blizzard Bay, the sweaters are cheeky, but less sexual. She’s made sweaters featuring, separately, the drag performer Divine, President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Il, and a break dancing Jesus - "probably the one that’s going to get me a good table in hell," she said.
The ugly sweater trend began earnestly, when they were just called Christmas sweaters and not yet considered ugly. They were the kind of outfit a certain kind of person (your elementary school teacher, your one aunt who tries too hard) would wear. As The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever wrote in 2001: "A woman in a Christmas sweater believes in the healing power of teddy bears and hugs and Hershey Kisses, and she isn’t wrong." Characters in movies including "National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation" and "Bridget Jones’s Diary" wearing ugly sweaters helped encourage the trend.
So innocent and pure. In those days, no one would have dreamed of wearing a sweater that featured one reindeer mounting another.
There are hundreds of retailers that stock ugly sweaters now, with varying degrees of raunchiness. Big box retailers such as Target and Walmart mostly sell the PG-rated ones, though Walmart Canada recently issued an apology for a sweater that said "Let it snow," which depicted Santa doing lines of cocaine.
"I think ours tend to be a little more on like the playful side," said Nick McPherson, a designer for Tipsy Elves, the home of the "Send Nudes" sweater. "We definitely are very mindful not to cross a certain line. We’ll never use cuss words on a sweater."
Online search advertising, which can make or break a sweater company’s business, plays a large part in this race to the bottom, says Jeff Benzenberg, the director of e-commerce marketing for ERetailing.com, which makes customizable sweaters.
"The edgier, the more controversial it is, the more attention it brings, so the higher it ranks everywhere," he said. "So controversial things aren’t always the best for society, but that’s the cycle."
Ugly Christmas sweaters are a year-round endeavor for the companies that make them. Companies are already working on designs for next year, which will be sent to factories in China in the spring. The ugly sweater industrial complex is growing every year. Tipsy Elves, which appeared on ABC’s "Shark Tank," has done more than $125 million in sales since its founding in 2011. Fashion Avenue estimates they sell about 6 million holiday sweaters a year.
The companies are doing well, in part, because of a culture that encourages ugly sweater aficionados to purchase a new sweater with the latest designs every year. Hanukkah is not exempt, with its "We Last Eight Days" and "Gelt Digger" designs.
Some, like Ryan Jones, 29, even own one for all 25 days leading up to Christmas. Last year, Jones posted a picture every day of himself and his sweaters on Instagram. Among his collection: Sweaters featuring a baby shark wearing a Santa hat, a reindeer with middle fingers for antlers, and one that says "You go, Glen Coco," a reference to a Christmas scene in the movie "Mean Girls."
"It’s kind of become like the second Halloween," he said. "It’s more like, let’s feel a little gaudy and crazy, and wear some tinsel and ornaments." (Though some sweaters, "I honestly wore for like, a second, to take the picture," he admits.)
The more companies jump into the ugly-sweater game, the more they take cues from their autumnal cousin, the sexy Halloween costume, a retail category that plumbs the depths of absurdity and taste. And they’ve followed a similar creative trajectory - starting out childlike, sweet and wholesome, transitioning into an object of mockery, and finally, a commercial product that is in on its own meta-joke.
Some even take the Halloween connection literally: A genre of spooky Christmas sweaters has emerged, with horror figures like Freddy Kreuger, blood-splattered snowmen, and Krampus, a Christmas demon from Central European folklore. Sarah Hayden, 34, who makes and sells horror-themed Christmas ornaments, says the connection began with holiday-themed slasher movies such as "Silent Night, Deadly Night."
"They’re such a great conversation starter," said Hayden, a self-professed "Halloween meme queen." When you wear them to the office, "it’s just a way to kind of express yourself, or something that you’re into, that maybe other people wouldn’t know."
Christmas is kind of like St. Patrick’s Day, too, because for a certain demographic, ugly sweater parties and events such as SantaCon are a chance to get totally hammered. Some sweaters even function as drinking games, with adhesive balls you can throw at a target emblazoned on a person’s torso, which reads "You Miss, You Drink."
An especially popular seller this year has been a sweatshirt from Funnyshirts.org that says "Epstein didn’t kill himself," a popular meme about the suspicion surrounding financier and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, surrounded by faux-cross-stitched nooses.
"It’s just an Internet meme, it’s a joke. It’s more about the conspiracy than about Epstein himself," said Benzenberg, who notes the sweater is the second best seller for the ERetailing-owned company. There are other products with the same design - "some ornaments, and, I’m a little ashamed to say, a onesie for a baby," he said.
As for the bro-iest sweaters, maybe they’re just another way of telling who is naughty, and who is nice.
"I feel like that kind of sweater is very useful to know who to watch your drink around at the bar," said designer Neville.