Interview: The costume designer talks about Christmas magic for Hallmark and Lifetime

Keith Nielsen spoke to The Mary Sue about his extraordinary holiday and vintage-inspired costume design work on the sets of Hallmarks Christmas and Lifetimes Christmas Eve.

Hallmark and Lifetime earned their name on a cable channel by being the biggest source of made-for-TV holidays a year. Hallmarks Countdown to Christmas and Lifetimes This amazing life delights many viewers by presenting new, loved holiday movies every week between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In his career, the costume designer has both worked on Bond and Lifetime films, in which he designed the costume. The results of this year’s work were taken in Hallmarks A Holiday Spectacular and Christmas Eve.

For The Holiday Special, Nielsen celebrated the 50s in a stunning way and delivered his unique collection of vintage and contemporary artwork. In The Twelve Days of Christmas Eve, he tackled a groundhog day premise by changing the protagonists costume in order to understand his gradual change in outlook. His holiday spirit shines in both movies. He put together beautiful, vibrant, colorful and holiday-themed costumes. I could speak to Nielsen about his work on the sets of Holiday Spectacular and Christmas Eve Eve. In our interview, he revealed his various techniques and historical details in his costumes, some secret connections between characters costumes and how each costume relates to the premise and theme of his respective film.

Rachel Ulatowski (TMS): In The Holiday Spectacular, tones of red, blue and green were evident in the costumes. Was this color scheme intentional and, if so, what did it mean?

That’s interesting question, Keith. Right now, my favourite colors are green and blue, and then red is obviously due to its holiday movie. When you start a project, particularly a period, you start with an empty room and you have to fill the room with clothes. We started out sourcing stockits basically a good foundation of things you can use for your purposes when you are in the dark or in an emergency situation. When I was pulling out from the rental store the colors were naturally the colors I just wanted to see. There were certain things, such as a dress by a vendor in Massachusetts, and one is the green dress that Elisabeth (Carolyn McCormick) wears when they are doing wedding invitations but then he wants to wear a green sweater. In some sense, red, shape, form or tone is not consistent in any way because it’s a vacation movie. So, I looked like Maggies coat she wears when she arrives in New York. That should be red. As well as the neutrals of the city’s backdrop, it contrasted a lot. It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but it wasn’t just things I’d like to think about, especially in the context of blues. We generally prefer blues and navys to blacks just because of the way that it’s photographed. Black sucks so much light, but navys and darker blues give the same effect, but it’s somewhat richer. I’m just thinking about the natural style and the color.

TMS: The real-life Rockettes have debuted over 90 years of dances and costumes throughout the decade. Which radio city costumes did the 1958 Astronauts look like in a Holiday Special?

Nielsen: I’ve gotten many of the info from the Madison Square Garden, which owns The Rockettes. I didn’t develop those clothes for Rockettes. Those are true shows, so we chose things really timeless and that were possible, like how that was set and filmed for 1958. I designed the ones like the Rockettes wore in the rehearsal room, real Rockettes we still looked at. I looked at what they showed in the rehearsal.

I was looking at what they wore when they were hanging out or their wore in rehearsal, and when they rehearsed six hours a day six days a week, so they were big parts of their lives and everything went well with the period. As for the fact that being so serious in our research, many of the images are in costume fittings and are being measured because the height is an extremely specific matter. You look at matters like the seamstresses, like what were they wearing, how did they look in their aprons, what was the tone of the art? We have some background seamstresses doing their costume fittings. Even though he was using todays performance outfit, his things like the place he put it next to it can help sell it as the 1950s.

The materials used were very large as the choice was. And like you all talked about 90 years ago history was so inspiring because there is so much history with the space and that group of women. And you feel like the people who work with them are so inspiring when you meet them, because both in the community and on the off stage, they are just such a family – and it’s so inspiring. This was the big thing in our story that sisterhood was there. So I wanted to bring warmth and sisterhood to the screen. And with that, the space of Radio City, and the entire Rockefeller Plaza were very inspiring. I mean, its wonderful now, but how was it going in the 50s? It was an amalgamation between the environment and the culture of the stage.

TMS: What techniques have you used to capture the nostalgic 1950s vintage look of the costumes in A Holiday Spectacular?

Quite a lot of what the real deal is, so much of it straight from the 50s, which is great because I don’t think you’ll get any better than the real deal when it comes to character and attitude. When I sourced something like that with the poinsettias on it, when shes decorating the Christmas tree, I hadn’t even noticed who was going to wear it. However, when I got the piece, I had to have this piece because there’s something special about it. If these walls could talk, it would be like if these clothes could talk.

He is a bit tall when he’s entering the house. If you flip the skirt upside down, you can see that all the handcrafts of tacking each of the petals a hundred times more. This skirt is so apt to make it look like a lot more realistic and a lot more beautiful. Even if we had this today, I don’t think that you could see it again. It’s really important to bring magic of the 50s because I really think that 50s is a magical time. I think people think, very old age. And it was, it was a very large piece, and playing with all these pieces really gave us the whole picture.

When I say something, it is my name: shoes, stockings, under-facing undergarments, accessories, gloves, scarves, hats that create the picture. It really creates a fantastic fantasy, and really helps keep accurate photos of the 50s, and also anything truly period. People dressed like this, for everything. And I loved this because I was like, Yes, it kind of mean, he is Magiga, just going on the street and, yes, she looks pretty awesome. When they dressed their clothes, they didn’t know where they were going to come. It was excellent because it’s show industry and its Hollywood. It’s very attractive, but worth it.

And mixed with this, I sourced vintage from the same group of people who I bought and rented, and as a result I mixed in a few new pieces because the 50s is almost 70 years ago. The change to keep it fresh has gone on. For example, the finale dress Maggie wears, and the ivory ones, that is a 2019 dress that we reconstructed to look like the 1950s, but then we mixed that with an original Dior headpiece. It was a really cute thing, a detail that nobody will know unless I tell you, but both Maggie and Elisabeth’s headpieces were Dior, which is just cute because it’s just mom-daughter, but it’s nothing you’d know just on the screen.

The wrapper cuff of a Christmas tree that houses the upper class, the latter of those in the middle of the street and the middle of the city’s living. How did you and your team know the differences between different classes in A Holiday Spectacular?

Nielsen: From the time I read the script, I loved this contrast, not because I like to be mindful of trends. Even today, trends have always hit cities like Chicago, hasn’t it? But when the communication began to become more fast and more instant as it is today, it hit New York or Boston first.

Mary (Maggie) was in the neighbourhood of Philadelphia and was born from an old-school, old-money family. In New York, I wanted to be a little older and more current for 1958. So youll see a huge variation in silhouettes here. You see pencils, you see full skirts, you see fuller coats, you see straighter coats, because they were kind of shamstick towards the 60s. You will find lots of pants, because as you saw, pants were the same thing in the story and the script. That’s more classic than it is in Philadelphia. They are much more basic 50s, namely fuller skirts, bone thigh, tight waist and a really good tailoring.

Even Elizabeth has one problem. She always wore a soft canvas (more 1940s), while everyone else wore a seamless canvassing for a reason that were introduced in 1954, hence it was obvious that it was that they should have been all wearing seamless. But since she’s old-school, I elected for a seamed stocking.

While Maggie is in Philadelphia, she’s much more innocent, so she’s dressed in more girly, feminine dresses that are youthful, fun, playful. They are not necessarily seeking to become something; they are just really pretty. But she is not just that pretty girl. It was that of her desire to go to the city and visit, and we see that through her costume journey we see her in all these different silhouettes throughout the film, so we really see her in all the different silhouettes from this yelle, so I wanted to enthrall her in a gown since this is going to be more appropriate at that time. However, I intend to find it harder to hold it to the back of the dress and it was a little shorter than when we met her in the sleeves, so as

During Christmas Eve, three days are the same – on repeat, with four weeks remaining. Although the costumes of the Brians are changed by the way they turn out to be in costumes. We are going from a sweater vest and suit to the multicolored PJs to a Santa Clause outfit. Why did his costumes not change without time changing?

Nielsen: So its Brians story. We’re following Brian. Brian is the woman who meets Santa and is given a real life face to the choice he made. Thats why he is trying all these new things to reconnect with his daughter and granddaughter. They follow his journey, so he’ll change. So he’s the only one who relives this day and know he’s reliving that time. Nobody else knows it.

So he’s changing and having to study all these new things with his granddaughter through different experiences. When they go shopping for Christmas, they are in crazy Christmas outfits, but at that time he isn’t fully free. He still has a little control and yet still hasn’t figured out what the Santas are doing. He is primarily in a suit, but his plaid suit is not matchable. Because fabric selection is different and evolutionary for him, but the cut is still a suit in classics, which we meet with him in.

So, we changed her because her story was his story, but everything else went in and went with her to show a contrast and make her journey obvious. The end of the day, it is true that he is Santa with a conga line and we finish with the family in Christmas pajamas, which was a fun bookend, too, because we meet in pajamas and then we decide to stop a goodbye to him by pajamas. The pajamas are the classic that is made up of, like Mens Brooks Brothers, merely a pair of pants and a button-up, but it is in two different colours. In turn, the suit was same as the pajamas.

TMS: For Christmas Eve, Spencer Grammars Michelle wears a nice red jumpsuit. Can you tell us a bit more about why you chose that particular style for Michelle?

Nielsen: We often don’t film in the house where we have been set in. We actually filmed this on a coast in Connecticut, but we have set in New York. So I really wanted to create something that doesn’t look similar to New York. Also, she doesn’t need to go out a lot. She has a surgeon. He is a working mom. I wanted her to look great in something, but it wasn’t necessary for me to want a traditional dress, just because this script was very different from the other holiday movies I saw and done.

As well, our director, Dustin Richard, wanted to close a little from the expectancy. So I was like, let’s do a jumpsuit. Like, it’s a little bit practical. She’s a mom. She’s a surgeon. That jumpsuit was just like, but she was easy, but she was chic, and I liked the clean lines. I would like to see that this is actually fuchsia, and that is not red. And I liked that, because it listened very well to the tones and was very rich, but it wasn’t the tachy red or green and whatever it sounds like, like gold but still read Holiday.

TMS: What costume was your favorite during Christmas’s 12 Days and The Holiday Night event?

Nielsen: Twelve days, I definitely loved elf costumes. I liked Spencers a lot, because I was going for this unison of Victorian era meeting the stereotypical illustration of an elf. I didn’t want it to look hokey, but I wanted it to look intentional, but I also wanted it to have a type of handmade element, because of her mind, that was her idea, to be like, Dad, come on, lets do that. When not as bad as it gets all on the ground, then it’s too bad about it.

We actually took existing things and really reworked them and put them together in an interesting way. And everyone was completely over that. I thought it was really fun, just because sometimes you don’t know what to expect. I love it. The cast from the cast were so short of playing and being elves, and this is really cool – especially when you have young actresses with you. It’s pretty cool that everybody can enjoy the movie and the season with it.

I think that, a true love is everything Ginna Claire wore. She is a dream of hers. I love that woman, and im very grateful I was her best friend. But the most precious thing I get is his final gown, it would be so, I’m surprised to find that she’s in this gown. I bought that before I made it, I didn’t look like it had a much change, but as you thought, that’s perfect. Since I bought that before I knew nothing, it actually decided to chose lots of things tonally for me, especially since since on Holiday Spectacular, the color of ivory, when you meet Grandma Margaret with her fiance, when she breaks up in ivory, and when she finishes in ivory with real love of her life, the colors are the same.

But there are three different silhouettes because they are contemporary in her period. The tent pole isn’t so much you figure out. You have your beginning, your middle, and your end. And that was totally justified by that final gown. I like everything my team does and I can say it all in our favor. So, it was a full-robed train that we brought up to a length of tea. We added some layering. There are four tidoos under there, mixed with an enclosed tidoo. Then we, Ginna Claire, started thinking about bringing up the actual 50’s underpinnings, and then we redid the neckline and added her tool swoop, which really highlights the toy soldier pin John gives her at the end. Good to see. It’s my favorite thing. That’s just my heart’s singing.

TMS: What is your favourite film to costume design for your career?

Nielsen: Holidaywise, im loving my first Hallmark movie, Next Stop, Christmas. Just because I remember when I got that script, and I was literally beaming because it was literally a Back to the Future reunion with Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson. And we filmed on a steam engine a real cool. And, what do I mean, who doesn’t want Christopher Lloyd to become your magician? That was another thing, and again.

In cinema, it’s so rare that you’re going to do anything just because building takes time and money. And many of these turnarounds are very quick. In the same way, I walked into Spectacular by a man on December 8 last year, and we started rolling cameras on January 9th. Anyway, it took a month to fix the problem, but as the holiday has been mixed in, so you have many other factors to blame. Christmas is a big deal. We also built a stuff for Sugar Plum Twist. OK, I mean, Next Stop was kind of the first Hallmark film that I loved.

(featured picture: Hallmark, Elan Photography, Lifetime)