People have warmed to frightful-but-delightful ugly Christmas sweaters

12/18/2012 12:00 AM

12/18/2012 8:24 AM

A holiday sweater decorated with dancing snowmen in ski hats rarely has qualified as high fashion. But never have such festive frocks been so joyfully and openly ridiculed as they are today.

In Sacramento and across the nation, "ugly Christmas sweater" parties and contests are all the rage, and the louder and tackier the garment, the better.

The trend has given birth to a cottage industry of stores, blogs and books, and has been a bonanza for shops that sell vintage clothing.

"Every year, it gets bigger and bigger, and seems to start earlier," said Lorena Maxim, a sales associate at Thrift Town on El Camino Avenue in Sacramento. "People started asking about them around Labor Day this year, because they know we sell out so quickly."

Demand for vintage holiday sweaters decorated with images of rakish Santas and teddy bear soldiers and cute fluffy animals peeking out of Christmas stockings has been so brisk that Thrift Town is offering customers $5 to return their "ugly sweaters" after their parties are over.

"Ugly Christmas sweaters are big business for us as of the past few years," said Thrift Town spokeswoman Gina Doglione-Nielsen. "They tend to fly out of our stores as soon as our crews put them out on the floor."

Sales of the items have increased "10 percent year by year," she said. Last year, Thrift Town launched an online Ugly Sweater Contest, with a $250 prize for the top entry.

The holiday sweater racks were nearly bare late last week at the Sacramento SPCA's thrift shop on E Street, leaving customers angling for substitutes.

"They're selling like hotcakes," said clerk Cindy Taylor. "We've just about run out of sweaters, so people are going for sweatshirts and T-shirts and decorating them with ornaments and all kinds of things."

The goal is to snag the award for "ugliest sweater." At many parties, that means not just the garish, woven images of elves, candy canes and polar bears, but also dangling ornaments and electronic accoutrements such as blinking reindeer snouts and even sewn-in iPads playing a video of a cozy fire.

Two men in Vancouver, British Columbia, claim to have hosted the world's first ugly sweater party in 2002. The pair, Chris Boyd and Jordan Birch, hold an annual holiday bash at the prestigious Commodore Hotel, and have trademarked the phrases "ugly Christmas sweater" and "ugly Christmas sweater party" in Canada.

Now, people from New York to Los Angeles host sweater-themed events, and schools and businesses hold "ugly sweater days." Tonight at DeVere's Irish Pub in Sacramento, a local "Tweetup" group is holding a charity event featuring a prize for the person wearing the frock "deemed to be the most hideous holiday sweater ever seen in the Central Valley," said organizer Corinne Litchfield of ExploreSacto.

"This sweater thing has hit all the way with everyone, no matter the ethnicity, the age group, the background," said Maxim of Thrift Town. "We have businessmen coming in. We have teachers. We have office groups looking for them and doing the craziest things with them."

Of course, not everyone thinks fuzzy holiday sweaters in bright red-and-green are ugly. Undoubtedly, the garments were designed to be perceived as attractive, said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. But taste and fashion have evolved.

"Clothes have always been a canvas to express all kinds of things, and I'm sure there are still many people out there who wear these wild sweaters because they think they are pretty," said Thompson.

Even those who hold up the garments as hideous, Thompson said, may unwittingly be responding to a sense of nostalgia and fond memories of childhood.

"They're wearing them with a deep sense of irony," said Thompson. "It's sort of a tongue-in-cheek, pink flamingo sort of thing. They're making fun.

"At the same time, there is something beautiful about wearing a really obviously themed Christmas sweater. Most people, at some point in their lives, have owned something with snowflakes on it, or had a teacher who came to school decked out in outrageous sweaters because the kids loved them. They have fond memories of that."

Thompson himself has a soft spot for holiday sweaters.

Walking the winter streets in New York, "I'll see hundreds of people in black sweaters and ignore them," he said. "But when I see someone wearing a sweater with a reindeer pulling a sleigh, I'll take a look. That's much more interesting."

Not that he would ever wear such a sweater himself, he said.

Jennifer Villegas, 45, an executive assistant for the state of California, got invited to her first ugly sweater party earlier this month.

"I thought it sounded totally fun and quirky," she said. "I was very excited about it."

Her enthusiasm paid off. Villegas dug through her closet, "way in the back behind some jackets that don't fit me," she said, and found the perfect adornment.

It was a mock turtleneck sweater in red, green and white featuring horizontal swaths of reindeer, snowflakes and pine trees. "I received it as a gift," she said. "I'm not sure from who."

With the help of her mother, she added tinsel and ornaments. Then she purchased a tiny set of battery-operated lights and blinked her way to the party.

For her efforts, she won second place and went home with a ceramic Santa cup filled with candy.

"The party was a blast," she said. "Kitschy and quirky and a chance to make fun of yourself. I can't wait until next year."

And her winning sweater? It will get a second run this holiday season.

"My mom thinks it's absolutely beautiful," Villegas said. "She might wear it on Christmas Day."

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