Social psychology is especially interested in the effect that the social group has in the determination of the experience and conduct of the individual member. There is no more intriguing example of the power of the social group than the contemporary phenomenon of the ugly sweater party.
We find ourselves adrift upon a modern conundrum: in a society otherwise built on the value of beauty, we gather now at a specious celebration of “ugliness,” hard to define in isolation but acutely visible in contrast to the beauty we strive for on every other occasion.
How did we arrive at this cultural inflection point, when our individual aims run directly counter to our societal values? Why sweaters? Why ugly? Why now?
In 2002, a handful of college students in Vancouver hosted the first such gathering in its primitive form, and in the span of little more than a decade, a whole generation of youth have embraced the concept. It has taken hold in our millennial age, notable for its reverence for irony, contempt of the patriarchy, and worship of what must, instinctively, be called absurd. Plainly, the soil was fertile for the roots of the Ugly Sweater Party to take hold.
How, I further ask, does one navigate such an event? Should one strive to achieve a sweater that is objectively ugly, i.e. not in fashion, plainly unattractive, thereby demonstrating true social adherence, or rather should one select a more flattering cut of jersey?
With copulation our most basic physiological aim, which brings us closer: the slim V-neck with a horizontal stripe? Or the chunky cable knit with an haphazard moose embroidery one might pick up for a twopence at Goodwill? In this case only, the latter wins out.
The individual mind can exist only in relation to other minds with shared meanings, and, in this context, shared garments of the torso.
A forced disregard for beauty, fueled by the even more powerful desire to join as a community in shared perceptions, might perhaps override our inborn drive for sexual congress, our innate will to further the species, if only for one evening of cheeses and charcuterie each year.
The ugliness of a sweater is not a separate quality but a relation or proportion of qualities to each other. To be interested in the public good we must be disinterested, that is, not interested in sweaters in which our personal selves are wrapped up.
In conclusion, yes Cheryl, I would be delighted to attend your Ugly Sweater Party. Shall I bring eggnog?