Last week, my two teenage boys informed me that they needed Ugly Sweaters. The reason? High School Spirit Week had designated one day as Ugly Sweater Day.
Ugly Sweaters. You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you. Those fashion faux pas of the 90s. The overly appliquéd, hand painted, tasseled, fringed, be-jeweled, sequined, buttons and bows, multi-patterned sweaters of days gone by.
My boys’ school Spirit Day isn’t the first we’ve heard of Ugly Sweater themes. My daughters’ Girl’s Camp, for the past five years, has made ugly sweaters a campfire must. TV shows and commercials have recently heralded the ugly sweater. Jimmy Fallon has a 12 Days of Christmas Sweaters give-away. Good Morning America has featured them. There’s even a viral video about a tacky sweater dance: Swants, they call it.
How did something so wrong become so cool? You’d think that in our sophisticated 21st century, we’d have let bygones be bygones. And, if we have officially designated them as “Tacky” now, how is it that 20+ years ago, they were beloved by so many?
(Even though I give a respectful nod to the men who enjoyed the Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable groovy patterned, multi-textured sweaters, my sarcastic remarks are to the 90s crafty housewife/middle-aged woman of questionable taste.)
Back in the day, “Tacky” sweaters were the housewife’s version of high fashion. Couture with a glue gun, macramé, and fabric adhesive. Only, when a woman donned one of these puppies, she really didn’t wear her sweater. No. These knitted craft store explosions were so loud – they ended up wearing the woman.
My mother was one of its victims. She LOVED crafty sweaters. She not only wore them proudly, she collected them for all seasons. When shopping, it didn’t matter if we were in Nyman Marcus or JCPenney, she could smell ‘em a mile away. It was quite the phenomenon. She’d spy one 3 departments from its display, make a b-line, and come to a skidding halt at the rack – “Oh, look how cute!” was always the greeting, “Don’t you think it’s cute?” she’d ask me.
“Well, it’s your style, mom,” I’d say.
It didn’t take 2 minutes and a decision would be made, “Okay, I’ve got to have it!”
Wearing the busy sweater on its own was never enough for my mom. She had to “dress it up” by adding shoulder pads. Not your normal padded shoulder accent, mind you. She had to get the NFL sanctioned kind – the ones that are about 5 inches thick and extend 3 inches from the tip of the shoulder. Ya, she looked like a 5’4” middle-aged bedazzled running back with big hair.
“Mom,” I’d plead, “you don’t need shoulder pads.”
“Oh yes I do,” she’d say, “I don’t have enough shoulder. Besides, shoulder pads accentuate the sweater!” Just what the sweater needed – another accent (cue eye-roll).
You see? The sweater wore her. And that was my lot as a young mom. Though I abhorred busy sweaters, I’d spend my days, traipsing the malls and city along side a loud sweater in tennis shoes with big hair.
Can’t say I’m completely innocent of the patterned sweater offense. I did wear cutesy sweaters, but I had my limits. Yes, busy had its borders and I suppose I knew where to draw the line (which was on 99% of them). In today’s standards that would make my 90s knits only a misdemeanor.
So, though I wasn’t a full participant in the Ugly Sweater craze, I had daily encounters with it. One of the most uncomfortable times was at our yearly Boutique.
In the 1990s I participated in a Boutique in which a dozen or so of us crafted a variety of wares to sell during the holidays. I made dried/silk flower arrangements, but, since I’m an artist, my specialty was painting wood. Wall hangings, holiday figures, step stools – you name it, I painted it. It was a great way to make holiday cash.
One year, one of the merchants showed up with a pile of decorated sweatshirts. Yes, pullover sweatshirts that she had hand painted pictures of Santas and mittens and snowmen and snowflakes, with an occasional “Seasons Greetings” scrawled across the middle with glitter and rhinestones and ribbons. Some even had a scrumptious handmade collar attached. Simply dreadful. A veritable wonderland of tacky. Boy, I thought, her family really needs money this year and I don’t think she’s going to sell many of those.
That year, I was glad to see my stuff selling. When there was one step stool left, this gal, the sweatshirt merchant, approached me with the stool in hand and said she wanted it.
“But, instead of purchasing,” she said in excited anticipation, “I was wondering if we could work out a trade.”
Oooh, the dreaded trade. Rules of a trade are simple: she gets one of my items and I get one of her items – for free – and we both call it even. Sounds generous. Even, easy. Only, what if you don’t like what the other merchant has made? Then what? I found myself in a ridiculously difficult dilemma.
1. I needed the money from a sale.
2. Her sweatshirts were tacky.
3. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
Now she stood before me wanting to trade. “What do you say?” she asked. In her mind, our skills and product held the same appeal on the shelves (she should have bought a clue by noticing that she hadn’t sold a single sweatshirt yet). She thought, wholeheartedly, that her hand-painted appliquéd sweatshirts were the most beautiful thing in the boutique (and told everyone so). In my mind, however, this barter was deliriously unbalanced. Time stood still for a moment while I searched my decency databank on what to do.
If I decided to DO it, I would be short money and stuck with a horrible sweatshirt.
If I decided NOT to trade, her feelings would be crushed.
What to do? Well, in the end, decency won. I traded. Maybe my mom would appreciate the sweatshirt of tacky wonderland. I could give it to her.
“Are you kidding?” was all she said. Even the queen of tacky sweaters deemed this handmade marvel unsuitable. Now what should I do with it? I couldn’t gift it away, for fear that the giftee would think it was my taste. Finally, I opted to take it directly to the Deseret Industries Truck (Goodwill). Surely, there would be someone else who had this merchant’s same questionable taste and would treasure the creation as a wearable work of art.
Is that what tacky sweaters are – a wearable work of art?
If so, then who’s to say what’s tasteful or not? What’s tacky or not? Or what style of clothing makes a woman feel good or not? Maybe none of us have the right to judge.
All past judging aside, I’m just delighted to be living in a decade that not only calls-out tacky for the fashion assault that it is, but also celebrates it the same way a proud parent displays a child’s work of art. It may not be visually perfect or fashionably balanced or color-correct, but it is a creation of times past.
The Ugly Sweater. You can’t say it defined a generation because I was a part of the generation that did not succumb to its homespun lure, and it certainly didn’t define me. But, it did define many a crafter and many moms. My mom in particular.
She still has her collection of ugly shoulder-padded sweaters, and every now and again she’ll pull one out on a special occasion and wear it. We just smile and consider her presence a decoration for the event.
As for my sons’ Ugly Sweater Spirit Day at school, I could have asked my mom to loan us some of her sweaters to outfit her grandsons for the event, but I just didn’t have the heart (we bought them at a local second-hand store). Tacky sweaters are still a part of her and maybe that’s one of the endearing reasons I love her so much.
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