Why I Hate Ugly Sweaters

As the month of December approaches, the algorithm for social media begins serving festive holiday content. Lattes, peppermint candies, greenery, red berries, and other markers of the season flood our feeds. One seemingly ubiquitous element of the winter holidays is the so-called “ugly sweater.” We’ve all seen these garish garments, which seem to compete to be the most egregious. Clashing colors, tinsel, functional lights, bells, glitter, familiar imagery, and wild patterns vie to draw your eye. People host “ugly sweater” parties, delighting in the irreverence and exuberance of these garments.

As the month of December approaches, the algorithm for social media begins serving festive holiday content. Lattes, peppermint candies, greenery, red berries, and other markers of the season flood our feeds. One seemingly ubiquitous element of the winter holidays is the so-called “ugly sweater.” We’ve all seen these garish garments, which seem to compete to be the most egregious. Clashing colors, tinsel, functional lights, bells, glitter, familiar imagery, and wild patterns vie to draw your eye. People host “ugly sweater” parties, delighting in the irreverence and exuberance of these garments.

After a fun and relaxing trip to visit my family for Thanksgiving, I returned to the small town in south central Kentucky which I call home. Despite being plied with leftovers as I departed the gathering, I needed to pick up a few grocery items to get through the week. With few options for groceries on a good day and only one late at night, I found myself in the local Walmart on the outskirts of town. I rushed through the store to grab my perishable groceries.

As I headed to the self-check stations, I passed the apparel section of the store. The racks and racks of “ugly sweaters” caught, or perhaps I should say overwhelmed, my eyes. Sparkly cats, tinsel, dinosaurs in rakish red hats, aggressive argyle, wreaths, bells, tendrils, and over the top details. These cheaply made polyester sweaters screamed ugly with all their might, the creation of a savvy design team striving to tap into peak postability. The sheer quantity of these garments was shocking. After days of post-Thanksgiving heavy shopping, the racks were still kept stocked with dozens of these garments.

Ugly Sweater Contest - Ugly Sweaters

Does this look familiar?

At this moment, I saw these sweaters for what they are: winter Halloween costumes. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may recall a post in early October in which I discussed the issues with Halloween costumes. Here’s the TLDR: These garments are cheaply and unethically made; the materials are environmentally unfriendly; people treat them as if they are disposable. 

Image of a dumpster truck at a landfill - Ugly Sweaters

This is where all those “disposable” items end up.

When you see a piece of clothing with a cheap monetary value on the price tag, that garment comes at great cost to the people who produced it and to the planet. The textile industry contributes significantly to pollution while violating human rights standards. 

The flimsy polyester and poor construction details used in these garments reflects the fact that they are manufactured and marketed as essentially single use, disposable items. The fabric from which they are made is generally cheap polyester which sheds microplastics. Frequently, the manufacturing prioritizes speed and quantity over quality of the garments, which makes them unlikely to stand up to prolonged use, if you were inclined to wear this sweater on a regular basis for weeks, months, or years. 

Furthermore, these garments seem intended to be worn a few times, photographed, posted, and discarded. Despite the huge footprint of production and the environmental and human cost of textile waste, purveyors and consumers of these garments treat them as if they are disposable. Such an attitude ignores the alarming fact that these garments are likely to outlast their makers and purchasers. Holding a greater respect for the clothing already in existence and treating purchases consciously allows you to slow down the cycle which the fast fashion industry has spent decades creating. 

  • Rather than purchasing a cheaply made “ugly” sweater and contributing to the demand for such goods, consumers have a few options. Perusing in person and online thrift shops for pre-loved garments. Funky sweaters abound from various decades with patterns and prints which fit the bill for an attention grabbing statement piece without the environmental footprint.
  • If you have your heart set on a conventional “ugly sweater” which includes specific imagery and you have a little energy and time, you might try your hand at a little upcycling of secondhand pieces or pieces which you already own. A little embroidery, fabric glue, iron on adhesive, or other additions might be options for you. There are a variety of tutorials available at all levels of skills and upcycling expertise. 
  • You might also consider combining accessories to create an over-the-top effect without committing to purchasing a garment which you will only wear a few times at most. Statement seasonal earrings, jewelry, scarves, and hats could be handmade, upcycled, vintage, thrifted, or purchased from a local maker. These accessories can then be worn and enjoyed individually throughout the season and for years to come.

I recognize that the issue of “ugly sweaters” is far from the most pressing matter. I offer this as a single example of the many insidious ways in which consumerist fast fashion has created social norms around treating clothing as if it were disposable. Even though I spend some time thinking about how, why and where I purchase clothing, I had never really thought through this phenomenon. 

I don’t hate ugly sweaters; I don’t hate people who buy “ugly sweaters.” I do not intend to malign a source of joy or to lay judgement at the door of individuals.  I take issue with the creation of an excuse to manufacture, sell, buy, and dispose of clothing in the name of “ugly sweater” season.

Eleni Georgiadis

Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.

Image of Eleni Georgiadis, writer