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The Most High Fashion, Ugly Christmas Sweaters Are Courtesy of Jimmy Fallon

Jul 12, 2023

By Liana Satenstein

The ugly Christmas sweater is a long-running sartorial joke. Though not made for everyday wear, it’s become a seasonal staple—a funny conversation-starter complete with bizarre baubles and oddball embroidery of elves or reindeer. Not all ugly Christmas sweaters are created equal, though, and the best are the ones on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. For the past nine years, the costume design team on the show spends 12 days revealing over-the-top Christmas sweaters to Fallon and viewers. Every episode, one lucky audience member receives the creation. This year, the sweaters have taken magical forms, from one with an oversized collar and a groovy Santa plastered on the front to a hulking cape with a three-dimensional candy cane striped bow.

According to Fallon himself, the tradition started when a team member wore an ugly Christmas sweater to a party. “We were just doing it because it was a kind of [a] fun trend,” he tells Vogue. “We were like, ‘This is a pretty fun thing to just play with the audience and give it out to someone as a big prize, but it’s just really an ugly sweater.’” The concept transformed into a full-blown tradition—and signature programming—on the show.

The brain behind the sweater construction is the show’s costume designer Mario Martines. He and the costume department begin planning the sweaters almost 10 months in advance and work on the pieces in between making costumes for the show. Inspiration may strike at any moment, whether Martines is watching an old film or looking at a piece of fabric. “I try to keep my mind as open as possible at the beginning until I really lock in what I want them to look like,” says Martines. Once Martines has an idea, his team trawls fabric retailers, pet stores, and secondhand shops to find materials.

Construction is complex, since these aren’t your standard sweaters. Martines uses the example of the Victorian Portraits sweater, for which he combined a green cardigan with leg-of-mutton sleeves fused and a red sweater. In some cases, they have embedded lights that are operated with a battery pack covertly hidden inside of a pocket. The Oh! Tanenbaum sweater—a wearable version of a Christmas tree—has garlands of lights sewn into it. “They really are a piece of art,” Martines says.

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Astute fashion lovers will notice that many of these sweaters have themes that have appeared on the runways. The Snow Drift sweater—covered in stuffed animals—is reminiscent of a piece from Louis Vuitton’s spring 2021 collection. Meanwhile, the Santa Is That You? number—which shows a large chimney—and a jolly cardigan fused with a knit sweater called the Lady McNutcracker both employ the trompe l’oeil theme. Fallon agrees, noting: “Who knows if Mario will be the Bob Mackie of our time and we’ll all be talking about him when I’m 90 doing my one-man show touring around the country in an ugly Christmas sweater.”

Though there are certainly nods to the runway—and Fallon should do a mini segment on the creation of these pieces —the purpose of these sweaters is to bring joy. “Once [an audience member] pops that sweater on, there’s something really magical and beautiful that happens,” says Martines. And what’s a better gift than that?