On the virtues of the comfy sweater, or: How sometimes old, green, and baggy is just right

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Lillie W.
My favorite ugly sweater.
My favorite ugly sweater.

Ah, the comfy sweater. You all have one, whether you want to admit it or not. Occasionally you think about donating it, but you just can't do it. Maybe it's like mine — old, green, at least two sizes too big, and shapeless as a potato sack. Or maybe it's brown, or purple, or emblazoned with the seal of your alma mater or your favorite sports team.

It might not be a sweater at all; it could be sweatpants, a hopelessly faded t-shirt, or jeans so old and worn it's like they were molded for your ass. My husband's is a sleeveless, red, fleece hoodie. For a friend of mine, it's pink, flannel pajama pants with pigs on them. Whatever form it may take, the sweater's purpose is the same, and I think it's time we celebrated this much-maligned garment. Some days, we all need to be dressed to the nines, but sometimes old, green, and baggy is just right.

Let me explain:

It's about comfort.

First of all, this is not a ratty, dirty, torn sweater, nor yet a fancy, itchy, oh-so-proper sweater, nor even your favorite sweater, but an ugly sweater, and that means comfort. The prime requirements for an ugly sweater are softness, warmth, and what I like to call its snuggle quotient. Does wearing it feel like getting a hug?

It doesn't have to be ugly, of course, but it should be old enough that you won't mind getting it dirty. It should also be just enough outside of your everyday style that you won't add it to your standard rotation of leaving-the-house clothes. These factors are crucial in attaining the ugly sweater's primary function — maximum relaxation, minimal stress, comforting associations. The ugly sweater says I love you, you are cared for.

It is there to make you comfortable enough that your body can fade into the background so that your mind can get on with its business with fewer corporeal distractions. Stress is also reduced for me by triggering thoughts of couch time and cuddles. Whether I'm cranking out a paper, grading homework assignments, or mainlining old episodes of Xena and Voyager while I lounge in bed, the ugly sweater is the perfect combination of laziness and real clothing to let my brain get down to serious business while my body floats in almost-pajama land. And if I happen to be sick, there is no better way to wrap up in self-love.

It's about freedom.

The ugly sweater is a judgment-free zone. When I put it on, I am actively quieting and soothing my body, but I'm also distancing myself from my inner critic. Negative self-talk cannot penetrate my chunky, knitted armor. The ugly sweater is about saying loud and clear that it doesn't matter what you look like or how you dress, but who you are.

That's why it's important for me that my ugly sweater actually be sort-of ugly. It's about feeling good in my own skin without any pinching seams or poking buttons to remind me of my supposed limits, boundaries, or flaws. It's about not caring that that particular shade of green clashes with my skin tone. In some ways, wearing my ugly sweater is a radical act. It allows my essential self to step into the limelight without fear of rejection, be it from myself or someone else.

More than that, by wearing an embodiment of my comfort zone, I'm giving myself permission to step outside of it in other ways. Can I start this new baking project I'm a little unsure of? Should I take on this new research idea and wrestle my way through it? Can I manage to go to the store for essentials even though I'm feeling a little depressed and introverted today? Is it all right to re-pot this plant in the middle of the kitchen with only a spoon for a trowel? With the ugly sweater, all of these things are possible. And if it gets dirty, I can wash it. And if it gets torn, I can mend it. And if it gets stained, that's ok. These may be small victories, but the ugly sweater gives me permission to live, if only for a moment, without limits.

It's about feelings and people.

Like Megan, I can occasionally be rather Vulcan-esque, meaning that I sometimes need to be clued in to my own emotional state. The ugly sweater is a life hack that lets me know how I feel. If I want to put on my ugly sweater, I can ask myself if it's because I'm feeling lazy, or depressed, or just because it's cozy enough to keep me going through a stressful day of research. Sometimes it can also be a short-hand for my partner that I may need some extra support.

Finally, the ugly sweater is a litmus test for my relationships. [Editor's note: relationship hack!?] If I'm comfortable with someone seeing me in my ugly sweater, then I probably feel pretty comfortable in that relationship. I don't have anything to hide or prove, and I know I won't be judged. It means we're either good friends or close family. If, on the other hand, I wouldn't want someone to see me in my ugly sweater, I know that means they aren't yet included in my inner circle. This of course then leads to considering why I'm not fully letting my guard down around that person and whether I want to redefine that relationship or not. The ugly sweater doesn't provide the answers, but it does remind me to ask the questions.

Kermit says it's not easy being green. I don't think it's much easier being any other color either. For me though, wearing this particular shade makes my life just a little softer and a little kinder. It lets me love myself more fully.

Do you have an ugly sweater in your life too?

  1. Yes! I loved this! My "ugly sweater" is actually a pair of those fake "velour" sweatpants from the early 2000's. Mine are tan, have a hole in the bottom leg, almost fall off of me now — but they are that comfy, always wear when I'm sick, just can't get rid of them pants. They've seen me through college, pregnancy, a toddler, and all of the spills that come along with each of those stages of life. Awwww. This was such a cool post.

    • I know what you mean about not being able to get rid of it. I actually did give my ugly sweater away to a friend in college, but it came back to me right before graduation.

  2. mine is an old college hoodie that was my hubby's; it is gray, and it has mascara stains on from crying that won't come out. Plus, I was wearing this glorious hoodie when he proposed to me (along with my oldest, most ripped pair of jeans). Excellent post!!

  3. Hahaha, a good third of the clothes I own are "ugly sweaters."

    I think my ultimate ugly sweater outfit is plaid flannel pajama pants, a clashing plaid flannel shirt, a pastel fleece bathrobe and this specific pair fleece socks with kitty faces on them.

    Those fuzzy kitty socks are my emergency socks. My partner knows the appearance of those socks is a sign I need chocolate, tea and a bath.

  4. Mine is an old hoodie from a show I did about six years ago. I've never figured out why, but it's somehow more comfy than any other hoodie I have ever owned – the inside is softer, and it has one of those pouches for your hands at the front. It's for sick days, difficult research days, and general not-going-out-today days.

  5. Mine is an Old Navy sweatshirt from high school. Although that thing is near 15 years old, it's still so damn comfy. Sure, there are holes here and there, the cuffs are about to come off, and it makes me look as shapeless as a bag of garbage, but damn, I'm so happy when I have that thing on. It takes me to a happy place I can't really describe. It makes me feel safe, secure, and comfortable with myself. It fixes bad days, soothes tears, cures sickness, and makes rainy days just perfect. I can't bring myself to get rid of it, I love it that much.

  6. I have an old blue woolly cardigan as my "ugly sweater." It started out quite classy but over the years it has developed a comfy bagginess and has ladders in the knit. I put it on when I get home from work and change out of my corporate clothes, and I can also change out of my responsible, decision-making, professional mode and into my comfy, relaxed, and homey mode.

    It doesn't matter if I accidentally splash it with some of the food that I am cooking for dinner while stirring, and I dust my hands off on it after picking vegetables from the garden. No matter how much it is washed it is still warm and soft, and a nice teal blue colour. I get embarassed when I am surprised at home by visitors while I'm wearing it though! It's like they can see the inner-most me.

  7. Ah yes…you are so wise. For me, it was a outdoorsy zip-up fleece but somehow I lost it after many years :(. I find myself yearning for it and not being able to satisfy the feeling with other sweaters/tops.

    "It's about feeling good in my own skin without any pinching seams or poking buttons to remind me of my supposed limits, boundaries, or flaws." Exactly. Clothes are a real struggle for me, not because of body image, but physical sensations. If you have ever read the spoon theory, that's how I feel. Like I only have so many spoons in a day, and even the slight stimulation/stress of a garment's edges can use up a spoon. Here's the spoon theory: http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/wpress/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/

    "More than that, by wearing an embodiment of my comfort zone, I'm giving myself permission to step outside of it in other ways…Can I manage to go to the store for essentials even though I'm feeling a little depressed and introverted today?" So yes, by wearing the comfy clothes, it saves that spoon to use on another stressor.

    Thanks for the post!

    • I completely agree about spoons. When I was wading through a serious depression last year, this sweater was sometimes the only thing that could make it okay for me to leave the house.

  8. I have a whole ugly outfit: my slightly-too-big-for-me fleece-lined men's carpenter jeans purchased at a Wal Mart in Farmington, Maine, and a Depeche Mode sweatshirt I got at their Tour of the Universe. Unlike some people, I was comfortable wearing my ugly outfit in public – if I was having an off day and wanted to be comfy, even if it was 90 degrees out, that outfit happens. To be fair, I don't see it as completely "ugly" – it makes me feel very butch, and while I'm generally pretty femme, I like the way being butch makes me feel. I like that I'm out wearing clothes that are too big for me and the freedom of not caring if I owe someone beautiful that day.

    • On bad days I wear my "ugly" sweater out and about. I don't think it's that ugly (though it is huge and a slightly off putting shade of red). And it definitely saves me a spoon… Note to self: I need to show my hubby that article.

  9. Oh man, I'm wearing my ugly sweater right now. It's hideous: this chenille, off/dirty white thing with a zip up neck. I'm honestly not sure how it was ever made to be stylish. I even got it for a gift from someone I don't even like that much. But the sweater is amazing. Soft no matter what. Not too hot, not too cool, and just ugly enough that if I leave the house in it, I'm seriously sick.

  10. In high school I bought a men's green fleece jumper from Kmart. It cost maybe $10 and was the most ugly, comfortable thing I have ever owned. I copped a lot of teasing from my best friend for it, but that jumper was amazing. I could wear it in cold weather, or when I felt icky, and I didn't care when my pet rat chewed holes in it. After a few years of heavy use it got a bit too scungy to keep wearing, but I have fond memories. Might be time for a trip to Kmart… 😉

  11. Mine is an old brown woolen cardigan thatmy dad bought in the 1970s. I stole it in the mid '90s and would never dream of getting rid of it. So comforting and reminds me of my family.

  12. I wrote the following about my mother's ugly green sweater, several years ago:

    My mother was beautiful, with an indefinable something about her that made people take notice. She loved clothes and was always well attired, which is why the ugly green sweater upset me so much. It was made of teal jersey, lined with the same material in a teal and white stripe, and featured something called a funnel neck. While I actually liked the color, it was too big, the cut was awful, and it was the most unflattering thing I ever saw her wear. To my frustration, she wore it all the time.

    After she died, I tried on the ugly green sweater to see why she liked it. I discovered that it was soft, warm, and felt like a hug. It was the perfect weight, somewhere between a sweater and a jacket, and it looked just as bad on me as it did on her. I wore it for several years, until I outgrew the reasons I needed it.

  13. I bought a men's hoodie on clearance from Aeropostale during my sophomore year of high school, and I have worn and worn and worn it since. The lettering has peeled off the sleeve, and the cuffs will forever have the slightly dirty look to them. There are more spots and pulls in that thing than I can count, but it is still the first thing I look for when I'm sick or in pain or want to hide. I am so glad it still fits over my baby belly because I am LIVING in that and yoga pants almost exclusively at 8 months, to the point where my husband has to bargain with me to take it off long enough to go through the wash. Love that thing!

  14. teeheehee I love this post 🙂 I have a comfy sweater too – it's a black chunky knit cotton zip front cardigan from H&M that I bought probably 10 years ago. I've never found another heavy cotton cardigan to replace it although I've tried (I'm allergic to wool and don't like synthetics much) That poor sweater has gesso splattered on it, pulls in the yarn, and it sported a near constant dusting of clay for at least a year or two in college. But it's so warm and cozy, I don't wear it out of the house often, but it's my chilly weekend attire so I don't burn up all the heating oil :-p

  15. Yes to all of this! My ugly sweater is enormous, stripey, and about five sizes too big. The floppy arms extend about a foot past my fingertips, which I get a huge kick out of as I'm super tall and things are *never* too long for me. It's my standard Sick Uniform, and is so super duper comfy and hideous.

    Plus if I'm feeling petulant I can always wave my arms at someone, the overlarge sleeves flapping comically.

  16. Mine's a fuzzy tiger-striped bathrobe that must be about fifteen years old. It wasn't bad when it was new but it isn't aging particularly gracefully. It's good for cold nights, but since the master bedroom is much warmer than my bedroom was in my parents' house, I think it's only come out when I was sick since I moved out.

  17. Mine is a pair of sage green sweatpants that I've had since eighth grade. They've seen me through good times and not so good times for the past eleven years and are stained and full of holes. I refuse to replace them, especially since I don't even usually LIKE sweatpants. I don't know how to patch clothes but I'll probably learn just so I can keep the sweats.

  18. I have had many items of clothing for up to 8 years that I still wear pretty often, but my favorite clothing item in this category is one I haven't had for nearly as long as that – one of those red knit union suits that buttons all the way up the front. If it's gonna be a day spent entirely at home relaxing, I get out of bed and straight into the jumpsuit without even putting underwear on. I love it! It doesn't have to be clean – I don't wash it any more often than every couple weeks.

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