'Tis the season for ugly holiday sweater parties

I don’t know if ugly is the new beautiful, but somehow it seems to fit the times

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I don’t know when ugly holiday sweater parties became a thing (probably about the time clumsy grammatical constructions like “became a thing” began to appear).

But I do think ugly holiday attire is some kind of social indicator – a barometer of something a bit difficult to define – even as it has become a cultural phenomenon.

When people talk about “ugly holiday clothing” they don’t really mean “ugly” they usually mean tacky, grotesque, garish and pretentious – usually with bright green and red – and lots of glitter and maybe even lights or puffy parts incorporated into the design.


The thing about tacky and ugly holiday clothing that makes it so “appealing” is that it was never intended to be tacky.

The vast majority of “tacky” holiday clothing was hand-made, crafted in affection with an intended wearer in mind. The colorful affectations were touches – even reminders – of love, appreciation or fond memories.  (1*)

And yes, there is a National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day on the third Friday of December. This year you have an excuse for wearing your best worst Christmas attire on Friday, December 21. You can find details here.

Somehow, at some glacial, barely noticeable pace, fashion sensibilities have changed; what had been an expression of sincere respect, care and love has now become an endless source of mockery and satire.

Some eras lend themselves to mockery more than others. For whatever reason, the fashions, music and philosophies of the 1970s are ideal fodder for tacky tributes.

Perhaps only in the context of disco-inspired white polyester bell-bottoms could knitted red and green (and uncomfortable) holiday-specific attire become a party theme and a continuous (non) fashion statement.

Where did this fascination with the formerly cute but now atrocious fashion choice come from?

Some cultural historians “credit” Bill Cosby (or at least his on air persona of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable) for the initial prominence and popularization of this garish, inexplicable, unavoidable  (and now highly collectible) fashion choice.  (2*)

In short, it was the 1980s mocking the many fashion absurdities of the 1970s.

When my daughter was in high school, she was invited to a “tacky clothes” party.

I took her to my mother-in-law’s house (her grandmother) with a friend to borrow some clothes for the party.

At first, my mother-in-law took it as a compliment that her grand daughter sought out her wardrobe for an upcoming party – until she heard shrieks of hysterical laughter coming from her bedroom.

Yes, grandma’s clothing closet was a gold mine – just not in the way grandma expected.

I was not surprised though.

Earlier that week I had taken my daughter to Goodwill to search for “tacky” clothes.

She was eagerly sorting through a rack of dresses and pulled out a dreadful looking thing with a fluorescent orange top with black velour highlights as she proclaimed, “This is SO ugly, I have to buy it!”

The 1970s was not only the lodestar of regrettable fashion choices (we should all be thankful that tattoos barely existed back then) but that decade (described by the novelist Tom Wolfe as “a kidney stone of a decade) also gave us a full menu of tacky board games which led to tacky game shows leading into “reality” TV shows like America’s Got Talent, The Apprentice and The Bachelor.

Holiday decorations have always puzzled me. On the deer, everything EXCEPT the nose is lit up. Is this a Christmas beaver? Photo: Morf Morford
Holiday decorations have always puzzled me. On the deer, everything EXCEPT the nose is lit up. Is this a Christmas beaver? Photo: Morf Morford

But the holidays have brought us a new of confectionery distraction – holiday movies.

Whether you love or hate cloying Hallmark Christmas movies, some say that they are more like slow moving horror movies (https://www.salon.com/2018/11/19/all-hallmark-christmas-movies-are-horror-films-in-disguise/) with their forced choices, deceptive identities, isolated locations and mangled communications.

Hallmark movies have their fans – and they might even serve us as an important refuge in uncertain times.

Instead of worrying about your job security, North Korea or the gyrations of the stock market, take a look at a Christmas movie or two (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-we-need-hallmark-holiday-movies_us_5a40126be4b06cd2bd03dbd2).

As with any art form, there are good holiday movies  and there are terrible ones. We all have our favorites, the ones we see almost every year, but here is a list of the 20 worst Christmas movies if you need something different – https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2014/12/the-20-worst-christmas-movies-of-all-time.htmlw

2018’s contribution to mixed feelings about the holiday season could perhaps be best summed up by the controversy over the ultimate date rape hymn “Baby, it’s cold outside.”  (3*)

In art, fashion, music and politics, the line between satire and reality grow more blurry by the day.

Is technology our savior or our ultimate enslavement? Is Russia our enemy or our friend? Is that a doctor telling us on TV what drug we should use or an actor that is portraying a doctor. Was Ronald Reagan an actor playing a president, or was he a real president? What does it mean when we call an appliance or vehicle “smart”? Is Alexa really always listening to us? Who does she tell?

What does it say about us when Fox News anchors are appointed as heads of federal government agencies because….well, I don’t know why, but I am sure it will be fodder for future questions on the next Trivial Pursuits game on the second decade of the 21st Century.

Like the 1970s, we live in an era where fantasy and reality are nearly indistinguishable, where the preposterous has become the normal, where compassion and generosity and decency have become punch lines and bare-naked opportunism has become somehow valorous.

The shallow pretentiousness of the 1970s seems almost innocent compared to the callous obliviousness of our typical urban scene, standard conversation or entertainment.

We have a record number of homeless, addicted and incarcerated in America right now. We, who have prided ourselves on welcoming refugees and even being a nation of immigrants, currently gas fugitives from persecution, corruption and oppression at our borders. History will not look kindly on our betrayal of our own principles.

When we incarcerate children and toddlers represent themselves in court (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/children-immigration-court/567490/) we have long ago abandoned human decency and earned every word of mockery we get.

Even as David Attenborough warns us of the imminent collapse of civilization (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/03/david-attenborough-collapse-civilisation-on-horizon-un-climate-summit?) we act as if we don’t know any better.

Perhaps we don’t.


(1*)   Does anyone use the word “fond” anymore?

(2*)   https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/the-truth-about-cosby-sweaters/  or http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/12/22/a-brief-history-of-the-ugly-christmas-sweater/. Even Britain’s Royal family cannot escape the taint of the ugly holiday sweater phase – https://people.com/royals/meghan-markle-prince-harry-wax-figures-ugly-christmas-sweaters/

(3*)   This might be my bias, but any song, marketing phrase or political slogan with “baby” in it deserves as much mockery as it can get.


The Museum of Flight is offering $2 admission discounts to each visitor to the Museum wearing an “ugly” holiday sweater on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21!


Alaska Airlines is offering early boarding to those wearing holiday sweaters on Dec.  21 – see article here.