The Ugly Christmas Sweater Renaissance, Fueled by Google

Garish seasonal tops are making a massive comeback, with huge year-on-year growth for at least one major seller, thanks to AdWords. But what is the origin of the ironic holiday sweater party?

The Ugly Christmas Sweater Renaissance, Fueled by Google
ugly Christmas sweater party


Christmas is around the corner, and that means one business is doing uncharacteristically well this time of year–the one that makes garish wooly tops. “We are just buried in ugly Christmas sweater orders,” Jennifer Chadwick of Vintage Clothing tells Fast Company.

What is it about ugly sweaters, and how does a small business ride the wave of demand? There follows an illustrated case study.

As of last week, Rusty Zipper had sold a whopping 3,000 ugly Christmas sweaters this year alone. They have a whole section devoted to the topic on their site, searchable by size, type (vest? pullover? turtleneck?), and decoration (reindeer, kitty cats, teddy bears). Chadwick says she can’t pinpoint the origin of the tradition, but that Americans have embraced it in recent years as “both a celebration and mockery of holiday excess and Christmas aesthetics.” Chadwick should know; according to her, Rusty Zipper was the first online clothing store when it launched back in 1995.

“While we’ve always added Christmas sweaters here and there to the site during the holidays, it wasn’t until last year that we decided to really stock up,” Chadwick says. “Last year we added about 500 to our website in December and quickly sold out.” This year, they decided to get strategic: they’ve been stocking up on them throughout the year and began the process of adding them to their website back in May.

The unlikely partner in this decidedly low-tech industry: Google. The ugly Christmas sweater boom is fueled by Google juice. A Google Insights graph shows how searches for “ugly holiday sweaters” soar in November and December, and how they’ve multiplied year over year.

Rusty Zipper has been using Google AdWords since its inception. Three million visitors have come to the site over the years via Google AdWords clicks. In any given month, AdWords clicks represent 20% of the site’s traffic. “Although we’ve been in business for 15 years, over 70% of our orders go out to new customers,” says Chadwick. “AdWords plays a big part in helping us reach these new customers.” Rusty Zipper takes a very broad bidding strategy, bidding on well over 20,000 keywords.


Several websites have attempted to trace the origins of this traditions. Suite101 feels confident declaring that “The phenomenon of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party seems, like many things in modern times, to have started on the Internet. Or, at least, it became huge on the Internet.”

Chadwick of Rusty Zipper is in the dark about the trend. “We wish we knew!” she says. “If your readers have any information on early ugly Christmas sweater parties (or photos attending a Christmas Sweater party prior to this decade), they can email me at”And let us know in the comments. After all, this is an important piece of Christmas scholarship–and a trend that’s only just beginning.

[Images: Flickr users lisa_at_home, erkillian5, wrestlingentropy, dpstyles. God bless you, every one.]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.