Ugly sweaters infiltrate the holiday season with garish styles, public events

"If you can think it, they can make an ugly sweater out of it," said Dia Hancock.

Keisha Jones, 32, of Mitchellville dons a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" Christmas T-shirt decorated with pizza slices, a nod to her favorite childhood cartoon and her shirt of choice for her friend's annual ugly sweater party.

Jennifer Eisenberg, 23, of Federal Hill wears a black sweater with glimmering mistletoe and a reindeer with pursed lips that reads "Kiss Me." Hanukkah sweaters are hard to find, said Eisenberg, who is Jewish, so she'll likely save it for the coming holiday parties or a night out at the bars.

Dia Hancock displays her fandom for the band The Roots with cartoon versions of its members on her sweater.

"I think if you can think it, they can make an ugly sweater out of it," said Hancock, 32, who, inspired by hours of binge-watching Netflix, will sport a "Stranger Things"-themed sweater in Saturday's Ugly Sweater Run in Baltimore.

They're the tip of the ugly-sweater iceberg. There are ugly sweater parties, celebrity-endorsed lines, a designated "national day" and major-league sports franchises and big-box retailers in on the act. The theme has been adapted to ugly-sweater shirts, hats, leggings, pajamas and attire for pets, often embracing pop culture.

The roots of the trend date to (nonironic) holiday sweater-wearing in the 1980s, according to "Bringing Ugly Back: The Ugly Christmas Sweater Handbook," created in part by online retailer UglyChristmasSweater.com. The trend fell out of favor in the '90s — the sweaters came to be seen as unwelcome gifts, generally from grandmothers — but has enjoyed a resurgence that embraces the intentionally unattractive, gaudily knitted threads adorned with holiday motifs, colors and sometimes even lights.

It has evolved over the years into a holiday phenomenon, earning its own national day (Dec. 16 this year) and turning the weeks surrounding Christmas and Hanukkah into jovial dress-up opportunities.

UglyChristmasSweater.com launched in 2011 after finding that used sweaters were in high demand, with some selling online for more than $400.

"We've typically seen two types of customers," said Fred Hajjar, 36, co-founder and president of the Michigan-based company. "Some people really just want a sweater that they look at and say, 'Wow, that's ugly,' and there's others that want a trendy-type sweater."

UglyChristmasSweater.com sold $5 million worth of attire last year and expects to sell around 90,000 sweaters this year (prices typically range from $39.99 to $69.99); popular items this year are sweaters that include a 3-D component or a "Star Wars" theme in anticipation of the December release of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." More risque options are also for sale, including the "stripper pole sweater," which features an exotic dancer in the North Pole surrounded by elves tipping dollar bills.

This year, the website added a customizing tool, allowing customers to design their own sweaters — a strategy to stay ahead of competition like online rival Tipsy Elves, featured on ABC's "Shark Tank," and retail giants like Target, Macy's, and Wal-Mart.

Celebrities have also hopped on the bandwagon. Rapper 2 Chainz launched his line of ugly sweaters featuring a "Dabbin' Santa" in 2015, and actor Whoopi Goldberg released a limited-edition collection of holiday sweaters, priced at $139, at Lord & Taylor in November. Beyonce and rapper Nas also sell ugly-sweater-themed apparel.

Each fall, Mount Vernon vintage shop The Zone puts out its stock of ugly sweaters, many "made for moms in the '90s," according to sales associate Nikki Le Faye, 35. "People usually start looking for them a week before Thanksgiving," to get ready for the holiday festivities, she said.

The rise of the ugly sweater has also gone beyond intimate gatherings with friends and family. It has infiltrated work functions, themed nightlife parties, charity events, 5K runs and even churches.

"It's an opportunity to be individualistic and have fun ... to show off your creativity," said Ken Patterson, 35, who helped start the annual "Ugly Sweater Sunday" benefit at Grace International Church.

Each year, the Halethorpe congregation makes a $5 charity donation for every person wearing a sweater. They donated around $270 last year.

"You learn a lot about people by the ugly sweaters that they wear. I'm a laid-back, chill kind of guy, so my ugly sweater is going to be a laid-back, chill ugly sweater, but there's always the eccentric type that creates their own ugly sweater," said Patterson, who has worn the same Dallas Cowboys sweater for the past few years. His wife, Jo-Ann, 39, rotates her thrift store finds, which include a terrycloth sweatshirt with an upside-down snowman and a black cardigan covered with cotton snowballs, snowflake decorations and Christmas tree buttons, she said. Together, they cost her around $6, she said, which allows her to give more to charity.

"It usually stays in the back of my closet until it's time for me to wear it again," said Jo-Ann.

Others will take to the streets donning their most dreadful and creative sweaters during the Ugly Sweater Run in Baltimore.

Colorado-based founder Jeff Suffolk and his wife, Jill, launched the 5K event in 2011 after deciding to combine holiday charity events with the ugly-sweater after-parties they hosted so sweaters could be worn throughout the day. The untimed run now spans 11 cities and is projected to see a total of 30,000 participants this year — around 3,000 in Baltimore's run, according to Josh Bachrach, marketing manager of the run's host event company, Human Movement.

At the workplace, the ugly sweater allows colleagues to socialize in a relaxed environment, according to Kelley Chase, 30, and Jessica Laird, 33, who work for the office of advancement engagement at McDaniel College. Last year, the office sweater party saw "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and Donald Trump-themed sweaters, sweater pants and even sweater suits.

"Everyone has a lot of fun with it, and we have a chance to do a fun little holiday-themed something before everyone heads out for the holiday," Laird said.

For the Baltimore Police Department's chief financial officer Caroline Sturgis, 41, combining the ugly sweater and cute holiday pajamas will mark a new tradition, as decided by her family after Thanksgiving dinner this year.

"We started thinking about, 'Well, you know Christmas is around the corner, so what are we going to do?' We had the debate among our family," Sturgis said. "Now everyone is on a mission trying to look for their cutest PJs and ugliest sweater."

But while many people seem to view the ugly sweater as a fashion rule-breaker that brings people together during the holiday season, others fear that it has become too commercialized.

To Darlene Pisani, a writer and interior designer in Annapolis, the tradition is now reminiscent of Halloween and is "way too much pressure." She'd rather see discarded ugly sweaters used as gift wrapping or a tree skirt, or perhaps given to a friend one wishes to see less of.

But to UglyChristmasSweater.com's Hajjar, the thought and effort put into an ugly sweater is what makes it special.

"Maybe add some lights, things hanging off of it, tinsel. There's tons of things you can do to really make it unique. It's like, if you buy a Halloween costume from Spirit Halloween, you're not gonna win the contest, whereas a person who puts a little more into it — you can really make it ugly."

But when the holiday parties are over, and you're left with an ugly sweater with your favorite cartoon or TV show, don't be too quick to retire it.

"The one that I bought last year, I've worn it so many times since last season," said McDaniel College's Chase, who will sport her "Game of Thrones" ugly sweater, which is strewn with wolves and the phrase "Winter Is Coming."

"You'll never know when you'll need it."

bbritto@baltsun.com

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Ugly sweater events

Ugly Sweater Bash: Jailbreak Brewing Company's party will feature $5 pints for those wearing sweaters, prizes and a performance by local Maryland band Loose Ties (6 p.m. to 8 p.m.). Event is 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dec. 14. Jailbreak Brewing Co., 9445 Washington Blvd., Ste. F, Laurel. Free. jailbreakbrewing.com

Howl at the Moon's Ugly Sweater Party: Drink specials until 1 a.m.; free drink if you wear your ugly sweater. 7 p.m.-2 a.m Dec. 16. 22 Market Place, Inner Harbor. Free. howlatthemoon.com/baltimore.

Ugly Sweater Party at The Chasseur: Drink and food specials, and an award. Unwrapped toys, gift cards and monetary donations for the needy are encouraged. 9 p.m. Dec. 17. 3328 Foster Ave. Free. thechasseur.com.

Ugly Sweater Run Baltimore: 5K through city streets, followed by after-parties and photo-ops in a larger-than-life snow globe. 9 a.m. Dec. 17. Rash Field, 201 Key Highway, Federal Hill. $30. Prices may vary closer to the race. theuglysweaterrun.com.

South Baltimore Ugly Sweater Stroll: Inaugural stroll kicks off at Delia Foley's at 12:30 p.m., leading into a day of bar-hopping, drink specials and giveaways. Noon-6 p.m. Dec. 17. 1439 S. Charles St. $10 wristband for drink deals. deliafoleys.pub

Baltimore Ugly Sweater Pawty: Families and leashed canines are invited for a Baltimore Humane Society benefit, featuring light refreshments, free Pet Valu goodie bags, giveaways and a mistletoe photo booth. 3 p.m.-5 p.m. Dec. 17. Pet Valu, 1209 N Charles St., Mount Vernon. $10 tickets online. baltimoreuglysweaterpawty.eventbrite.com

Annual Ugly Sweater Party at Mother's Grille: DJ and drink specials. 10 p.m. Dec. 17. Mother's Grille. 1113 S. Charles St. Free. mothersgrille.com

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