Welcome to Fashionating, a column with scathing fashion truths you may not be ready to hear.
People make poor decisions every day when they get dressed. Multicolored striped socks are rather sad. Vests are unacceptable. But there is one funky garment trend that is more degrading than any other: the ironic sweater.
This style trope should be familiar to you by now; the popularity of ironic sweaters began a long-ass time ago. (The trouble is, it hasn’t gone away.) Just in case, though: These pullovers feature stupid shapes all over them, abstract color combinations, synthetic blends, and/or terrible images of cats, or snowmen. Sometimes they are vintage, but there is an entire industry devoted to creating meta versions of the old ones, now with intentional irony.
The essence of ironic sweaters is their references to familiar symbols that you don’t expect to be knit together—pop culture phenomena like Star Wars and dabbing. Knitted sweaters are associated with a dated, grandmotherly wholesomeness meant to suggest a lack of self-awareness—like the garment is constantly asking people, “What were they thinking back in the 80s?!”
The joke is that the sweater is adding something “cool” to that, rendering it ironic and, so, “funny.” It’s too-obvious commentary on how ugly that tradition supposedly was, made worse by thinking it’s creative to double down on the gregariousness innate to the “ugly sweater.”
This sort of sweater, at its most ubiquitous, does tend to be holiday-themed. Just this week, America’s favorite supersized family, the Duggars, put on their “first-ever” ugly Christmas sweater party, a celebration of mindlessness through fashion. And take, for example, the wildly successful Tipsy Elves brand, which has been in business since 2011. This company got its big break on Shark Tank in 2013, and has reportedly made over $70 million. Their product? Clothing that capitalizes on the “ugly Christmas sweater” trope by adding exaggerated jokey details, like drunk elves. It’s all a lot of fun if you have no self-respect.
A sweater reading “TITS OUT FOR SANTA” or covered with Ewoks holding candy canes isn’t about keeping you warm; it’s to make a joke. But the joke is on you, because you just look like an advertisement for tastelessness, letting a company do all the work of having a personality for you, but the personality sucks. What you have at the end is just a bunch of (bad) commentary from the most baseline level of cultural awareness which, inevitably, tries to strip people of their personality.
It’s all a lot of fun if you have no self-respect.
This is not to say that all eclectic sweaters are bad—that’s definitely not true. Just look at the work of designers Coogi, Kenzo, and Kansai Yamamoto, three famous lines that have all successfully crafted outrageous sweaters without insulting the people who wear them. Designer sweaters may be expensive, but if you get one on eBay or at a used clothing store, they can often be found for less than brand-new, poorly made crap—and they’ll last forever.
You shouldn’t need a guide to explain the difference between a Walter Van Bierendonck sweater and one with Donald Trump saying “yuge.” If this is an issue of cost: Tipsy Elves sweaters are priced around $60, and as someone who virtually only buys designer clothing used, I promise you that you can find something vastly superior within the same price range: You an even get a Kenzo x H&M collaboration sweater for prices closer to what most people like to spend.
There is nothing wrong with a classical knit holiday sweater, either. One need only look toward one patron saint of alt-cum-pop style, Seth Cohen of The O.C., to see someone who deftly incorporated a fondness for festive sweaters of yore into his outfits. Cohen was a ham for kitsch and obsessed with the holiday season. His use of the “ugly Christmas sweater” wasn’t offensive and corporate, it was droll and sincere—part of his actual identity.
Neither traditional holiday sweaters nor eccentric bulky sweaters covered in wild prints betray the people who wear them—they can communicate something more specialized for their wearers. On the other hand, ironic sweaters only care about themselves.
I understand that not all people care about clothes, nor take themselves too seriously. But festivity and humor in fashion should complement you, not degrade you and make you look like a fool. The sad fact is that, when you wear a sweater with a cat wearing clothes, reindeer having sex, or Bitcoin design, you’re submitting to the collapse of culture and identity, to consumerism—to exchanging your individuality for a symbol of creativity that is, ironically, generic.