Clothes that Conjure the Holiday Spirit

Several years ago, Keith Nielsen was feeling less than cheerful when a friend told him about an internship opportunity with the costume department of the TV series “Mozart in the Jungle.”

After graduating from the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., in 2015, he had hoped to find a job that merged his interests in fashion design and entertainment. When he couldn’t, he started working in retail. He said he had begun to feel depressed about his career by the time his friend mentioned the internship.

His only experience in costuming had been on student films, but Mr. Nielsen, who said his grandmother had taught him to sew, got the internship. “On the ‘Mozart’ set, I listened and learned,” he said.

Mr. Nielsen, now 30, worked on the show through its final season, rising from an intern to a costume coordinator. Afterward, he started to get more costuming jobs, including for productions at the Westchester Broadway Theater, now closed, and for the TV movie “My Adventures With Santa,” which was released in 2019.

The movie tapped into Mr. Nielsen’s longtime fondness for Christmas, he said, and since then, he has been hired as the costume designer for about a dozen TV Christmas movies.

This year, he oversaw costumes for four films: “Mystic Christmas,” a romance set in Mystic, Conn.; “Where Are You Christmas?,” a largely black-and-white movie that imagines a world without the holiday; “A Merry Scottish Christmas,” which was filmed at a castle in Scotland; and “A Biltmore Christmas,” which was filmed at Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C. All were for the Hallmark Channel.

In “A Biltmore Christmas,” the actress Bethany Joy Lenz, left, wears a reworked Carolina Herrera gown. Credit…Hallmark Media

Working with the theater helped prepare him to take on films, he said, because he learned how to better manage fittings and deadlines while becoming more familiar with outfits from different historical periods.

“Keith has a deep understanding of fashion, culture and history, and an uncanny taste and style, especially for period pieces,” said Dustin Rikert, the director of “A Merry Scottish Christmas.” Mr. Rikert also worked with Mr. Nielsen on “Next Stop, Christmas,” which was broadcast in 2021. Costumes Mr. Nielsen created for that movie included the outfits worn by a time-traveling train conductor played by Christopher Lloyd.

The director John Putch, who worked with Mr. Nielsen on “A Biltmore Christmas” and on “A Holiday Spectacular,” a 2022 movie featuring the Radio City Rockettes, noted his love of details. “Keith is into the shoelaces and socks people don’t see,” Mr. Putch said.

Mr. Nielsen, who lives in Manchester, Conn., said many of his costume ideas originate from what he jokingly described as “my 12-year-old gay-boy mind.” (He declined to provide specific wardrobe budgets for films he has worked on as a costume designer.) In the edited interview below, he discussed the aesthetic influences that have inspired his work and the ways he has conjured the holiday spirit through clothes.

Christopher Lloyd, left, and Keith Nielsen on the set of “Next Stop, Christmas.”Credit…via Keith Nielsen

How do you source costumes?

I read a script about four times and let my imagination run. Many holiday films are made in three weeks or fewer, so I often only have a couple of days to get fittings done.

When I was costuming for theater, I started seeing old Broadway shows and going to warehouses that I still use. The vendor Right to the Moon Alice is where I get vintage items. I also get them from Ann Roth, an Oscar-winning costume designer, who has amazing pieces at her warehouse in Pennsylvania.

Hallmark likes color and saturation. To get that freshness on camera, sometimes I recreate a garment so it doesn’t look like it has been sitting in a closet for 70 years.

Do you ever buy clothes off the rack?

I shop at outlets and online. I like J. Crew, Banana Republic and, for suits and coats, Brooks Brothers. Kate Spade has bags in bright reds and greens. I don’t like ugly Christmas sweaters.

One costume in “A Biltmore Christmas” started as a Carolina Herrera gown that was bought from the RealReal. We had several fittings to re-drape the skirt, add a double-tulle layer and create a gathered bust that draped around the back. When I turn an existing garment into something else, I call it Frankenstein-ing.

What has inspired your approach to costuming?

I am a sap and love nostalgia and old Hollywood. Bill Travilla’s costumes for Marilyn Monroe are some of my favorites, especially those for “How to Marry a Millionaire.” I also like Arianne Phillips, who has designed costumes for film and for Madonna. I admire her breadth of work. I never want to get pigeonholed.

How do locations like Biltmore House influence your process?

I walked through the mansion to get ideas from the space. I remember looking at the colors of the wood paneling and of the limestone. Window shades are kept at a certain level and rooms are kept dimly lit to protect the things inside from light. It’s very romantic and cozy, and I wanted wardrobes that communicated warmth and coziness using colors besides red and green.

To create a gown and a kilt worn by the stars of “A Merry Scottish Christmas,” I pulled together a bunch of tartans that went with the tapestries, candles and dark wood at the castle. We settled on MacDonald of Glencoe, a tartan with holiday-like jewel tones. The pattern was digitally printed on the fabric used to make the gown, and the kilt was made with a traditional wool tartan.

What are some challenges with costuming holiday films?

It’s the little things. All clothing sizes have changed: Vintage shoes are narrower than shoes are today, jackets fit differently, and girdles are gone. It’s hard to find people to do embroidery and beading.

But I like classic and timeless looks because Christmas movies are watched over and over.

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