There is a science to the ugly sweater. Prior to the onset of the holiday sweater party fad in the early 2000s, the knitted color-block sweater – known to some as a “Grandma sweater” for the likelihood of receiving one as a Christmas gift from a grandparent and to others as the sweater proudly worn by Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” – was the wearable equivalent of a fruitcake. Cloyingly sweet, mind-numbingly colorful, and tasteful only under limited, extreme circumstances, the ugly sweater tied with argyle socks and coal as the most dreaded Christmas gifts.
Then 2001 happened. In the mid-1980s, the “tacky” knitted sweater – which, at the time, was already a throwback to 1960s Swiss skiing culture – hit its peak of popularity as apparel somewhere between genuine and ironic. In 2001, according to the book “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On” (as quoted in the Washington Post), a themed Christmas party played off this glut of ’80s-style poor fashion sense by telling guests to wear ugly holiday sweaters. Word of the party spread, inspiring other ugly sweater parties, and the trend grew into a phenomenon.
Jumping back to today, ugly sweaters have become big business. One sweater, for example, sold by Barneys New York, was put on sale for $1,375 in 2013, while a second – currently sold out on Farfetch – retailed for $2,990. High-fashion retail stores – such as Bloomingdale’s, H&M, and Abercrombie & Fitch – all have lines of ugly holiday sweaters while shows such as “Glee” regularly incorporate ugly sweaters as props in Christmas shows. In thrift stores across the nation, the inventory of knitted color-block sweaters is regularly cleaned out – a marked difference from 20 years ago, when such a sweater could easily be bought on the secondhand market for less than a dollar.
Seeking to cash in on the craze, most sports teams offer a holiday “ugly” team sweater. In 2013, Michael Lewis, the chief executive of Forever Collectibles – the exclusive manufacturer of ugly sweaters for the NBA, NHL, NFL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and more than 200 NCAA teams – noticed many of his employees came to work in December wearing the knitted color-block sweaters. After realizing that there may be a market for team-related ugly sweaters, Lewis hesitantly made the pitch.
“We don’t do apparel,” said Lewis to The New York Times. His company, according to Lewis, was the leading manufacturer at the time of sports-related memorabilia. “I thought the leagues would laugh at me if I brought this to them. But my people were insistent: ‘Michael, we’ll draw up some sketches.’”
As reported by Forbes, Forever Collectibles sold out all 300,000 units of sports teams sweaters it produced in 2014. In 2015, in addition to its contracts with all of North America’s major professional sports leagues and the NCAA, the company will expand internationally to include licensed sweaters for all the major English soccer clubs.
As the popularity of ugly sweaters grows, the drive to get the “best” ugly team sweater is sure to follow.
“Sports licensing is such a powerful sales driver, because it is built on an emotional connection between the fans and the team,” Marty Brochstein, senior vice president of Industry Relations and Information for the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association, told Forbes. “In the apparel category, it seems as if we are moving to an era of getting loud and making a strong statement through the clothes you wear. You have seen it on the field uniforms, such as the University of Maryland the Oregon Ducks, and now it is moving off the field into licensing. These sweaters are capitalizing on the fans’ desire to make the same kind of statement off the field that the players are making on it.”
Understanding the Growth of Ugly Sweaters’ Popularity
Shop for Ugly team sweaters on Fanatics: College, NHL, NBA, MLB & NFL
In 2014, the number of online searches for ugly sweaters skyrocketed. This corresponds to a shift in perception of ugly sweaters – from a fashion oddity to a tradition deeply ingrained in the modern psyche.
An example of this is the National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day – an observance recognized since 2011 during which lovers of the knitted color-block sweater can proudly sport their favorite outerwear in solidarity on the third Friday of December. According to the organizers, about 1,000 people participated in 2011. An estimated 5 million, however, participated in 2014.
While many believe that the popularity of the ugly sweaters fad may be a backlash to the seriousness and stuffiness of the holiday season, that – by itself – does not explain why this trend has grown the way it has or why the ugly sweater has grown to be purchased and worn year-round and not just during the Christmas season.
However, the growth of search prevalence for ugly sweaters from 2013 to 2014 may be best attributed to the growing trend of designers producing “fashionable” ugly sweaters, the increase in celebrities’ appearances in ugly sweaters, the introduction of teams’ ugly sweaters, and the resurgence of the ugly sweater market after a two-year sales slump.
According to Google Trends, the states that record the most online inquiries of ugly sweaters in the United States are North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Delaware, West Virginia, and Oklahoma. This, curiously, differs from mentions of the search term “sweater,” for which Alaska, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire were the top states.
The reason for this is unclear, although the Midwest and Upper Great Plains may have a greater affinity for ugly holiday sweaters than the rest of the nation. The knitted color-block sweater sold best in these areas in the ’80s, suggesting both a larger built-in nostalgia market and a bigger secondhand supply.
The trends in metro areas with the most searches, however, reflect a different pattern. Philadelphia had the most online ugly sweaters inquiries, followed by Baltimore, Sacramento/Stockton/Modesto, Boston/Manchester, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and San Diego.
The Demand for Bad Fashion
Overall, among sports ugly sweaters, NFL-specific ugly sweaters are most in demand, and the Seattle Seahawks sweater is the most popular team ugly sweater. Some of the reasons for demand are obvious – for example, the success of the long-suffering Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals in the last two seasons or the fact that a team is located in a cold-weather area, such as the Michigan State Spartans or the Seattle Sounders. Others are harder to explain: One example is the Alabama Crimson Tide; among all regions, the Southeast ranks as the lowest in regards to online ugly sweater searches, as recorded by Google Trends.
The popularity of the Alabama ugly sweater may best be explained by the fact that collegiate logo marketing is growing as a part of the overall sports marketing industry – which has seen its fourth straight year of growth. Simply put, the team ugly sweater is a fun, kitschy addition to a market that is bursting at the seams.
“The sports market is built in large part on a solid base of core fans. The emotion that keeps fans attached to a team is a powerful sales driver,” Brochstein told Forbes. “There are variations year to year based on ‘wins and losses’ – obviously, success draws more purchases from the core and attracts more casual fans – but the basic appeal of sports-licensed merchandise is continual.”