From Fair Isle fishermen to Mark Darcy: how the ugly Christmas jumper became a festive mainstay

Tracing the history of this most garish of holiday traditions

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Bridget Jones's Diary,  Colin Firth
Film and Television
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When Colin Firth made his first appearance as the strait-laced Mark Darcy in the now classic film Bridget Jones's Diary, he immortalised on screen that most garish of festive traditions – the ugly Christmas jumper.

A particularly hideous turtleneck with a dopey-looking red-nosed reindeer emblazoned across the front (knitted by his mother, no less), Mr Darcy's effort has gone on to set the sartorial bar for terrible Christmas jumpers. And it was the result of much deliberation, the film's director, Sharon Maguire, subsequently revealed to USA Today.

"The original sweater went through many designs because it had to be just right. The character of Mr Darcy is an English prig when we first meet him, so we needed something totally ridiculous to pierce that pomposity. And for some reason, neither Santas nor Christmas trees nor snowmen worked as well as that red-nosed moose or reindeer we chose.”

Scroll through the gallery below to see some Christmas jumpers you can shop this year:

But the delectable Mr Darcy did not, in fact, start the ugly jumper trend, which is now as ingrained in modern-day festive celebrations as turkey and trimmings.

The Christmas jumper comes in countless guises, but usually sticks to an eye-watering combination of traditional festive hues – red, white and green – overlaid with farcical snowmen, Christmas trees, tinsel, snowflakes, Mr Claus himself, and any other number of tried-and-tested motifs.

For the truly committed, they can be topped with pompoms, bows and even bells.

TODAY -- Pictured: Matt Damon appears on NBC News' "Today" show  (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Matt Damon is a fan of the garish Christmas jumper. Getty Images

They are undeniably tacky – and unashamedly so. They may even be taken as a symbol of how far Christmas has travelled from its original, religious roots. But while they are generally coupled with a firm dash of irony, they are also strangely heart-warming. And in a year when we could all do with a bit of cheering up, a tacky Santa-themed jumper could go a long way.

The Christmas jumper can trace its roots back to the uber-practical, thick, geometrically patterned knitwear donned by the Scandinavians since the late 19th century, to stave off very cold, very dark winters.

Fair Isle knits were particularly popular with the region’s fishermen, with specific patterns acting as an indicator of which community each came from.

In the first half of the 20th century, these heavy knits, emblazoned with bold patterns and in palettes inspired by forest landscapes, became popular with Europe’s ski set, and this humble jumper became a symbol of glamorous globe-trotting lifestyles.

They first started appearing in the rest of the western world in the 1950s, as the commercialisation of Christmas went into overdrive. Although, in those early days, they were far more inconspicuous than their modern-day counterparts.

They made a resurgence in the 1980s, supported by TV personalities such as Noel Edmonds of Noel's House Party, Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and the now-fallen-from-grace Bill Cosby's Dr Cliff Huxtable, who was an early pioneer of the trend.

But it wasn’t really until the early 2000s that they became a mainstay of Christmas parties the world over. Enter Mr Darcy.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  Musician Pharrell Williams performs onstage during A VERY GRAMMY CHRISTMAS at The Shrine Auditorium on November 18, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Pharrell Williams displays his Christmas spirit. Courtesy Getty Images

Canada lays claim to bringing this sartorial tradition firmly into the mainstream, with the first official ugly Christmas jumper party taking place in Vancouver in 2002. Today, they sell by the millions, with high-street fashion brands outdoing themselves each year to produce the most garish designs.

High-end names such as Ralph Lauren, Burberry and even Dolce & Gabbana have followed suit, albeit with more sophisticated variations.

Multi-sensory knitwear, featuring light and sound, is the latest frontier in this ever-evolving style segment, and we can no doubt look forward to app-controlled, fibre-optic, 3D-printed variations soon.

Celebrities, too, have jumped on the bandwagon, with everyone from Taylor Swift and Will Smith to Kanye West seen sporting ugly Christmas-themed knitwear (although, as is often the case, it is unclear whether West was being ironic or not).

Late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon has even created a dedicated segment on his show called 12 Days of Christmas Sweaters.

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The Queen's favourite companions, four real corgis, don their own Christmas jumpers to help Save The Children's Christmas Jumper Day on 16th December.
Madame Tussauds London's Royal family don Christmas jumpers to support Save the Children, London, UK - 06 Dec 2016
Madame Tussauds London's royal family don Christmas jumpers to support Save the Children, London. Shutterstock

2012 brought about a major milestone for this semi-sarcastic sartorial style: UK charity Save the Children launched Christmas Jumper Day, a fundraising event encouraging people to don their most cringeworthy sweaters.

In 2016, Madame Tussauds London marked the occasion by donning its waxwork figures of the royal family in a selection of suitably awful Christmas jumpers (with Will and Kate wearing a particularly choice his-and-hers ensemble).

For true connoisseurs, they are best paired with a 1970s-style wide-legged trouser and reindeer horns. Makeshift tinsel necklace optional.