A Hallmark Christmas Movie Costume Designer Shares His Secrets

Several years ago, Keith Nielsen was not at all happy when a friend told him about an internship opportunity in the costume department of the television series “Mozart in the Jungle.”

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

Her only costume experience had been in student films, but Nielsen, who said her grandmother had taught her how to sew, got the internship. “On the set of ‘Mozart’ I listened and learned,” she said.

Nielsen, now 30, worked on the show during its final season, rising from intern to costume coordinator. Afterwards, he began landing more costume work, including for productions at the now-closed Westchester Broadway Theater and for the TV movie “My Adventures With Santa,” which premiered in 2019.

The film tapped into Mr. Nielsen’s long-standing love of Christmas, he said, and since then, he has been hired as a costume designer for about a dozen Christmas television movies.

This year he supervised the costumes for four films: “Mystic Christmas,” a romance set in Mystic, Connecticut; “Where Are You Christmas?”, a primarily black-and-white film that imagines a world without holidays; “A Merry Scottish Christmas,” which was filmed in a castle in Scotland; and “A Biltmore Christmas,” which was filmed at the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina. They were all for the Hallmark Channel.

Working with theater helped him prepare for making films, he said, because he learned to better manage tests and deadlines while becoming familiar with costumes from different historical periods.

“Keith has a deep knowledge of fashion, culture and history, and extraordinary taste and style, especially for period pieces,” said Dustin Rikert, director of “A Merry Scottish Christmas.” Rikert also worked with Nielsen on “Next Stop, Christmas,” which aired in 2021. The costumes Nielsen created for that film included the suits worn by a time-traveling train conductor played by Christopher Lloyd.

Director John Puttch, who worked with Nielsen on “A Biltmore Christmas” and “A Holiday Spectacular,” a 2022 film starring the Radio City Rockettes, noted her love of detail. “Keith likes shoelaces and socks that people don’t see,” Putch said.

Nielsen, who lives in Manchester, Connecticut, 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 costume budgets for the films on which he worked as a costume designer.) In the edited interview below, he spoke about the aesthetic influences that have inspired his work and the ways in which he has evoked the Christmas spirit through clothing.

How do you get the costumes?

I read a script about four times and let my imagination run wild. Many Christmas movies are made in three weeks or less, so I often only have a couple of days to test.

When I was dressing for the theater, I started watching old Broadway shows and going to department stores that I still use. Right to the Moon seller Alice is where I get vintage items. I also get them from Ann Roth, an Oscar-winning costume designer, who has incredible pieces in her Pennsylvania warehouse.

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

Do you ever buy clothes off the rack?

I buy in 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.

A “A Biltmore Christmas” costume started out as a Carolina Herrera dress purchased at RealReal. We had several fittings to re-drape the skirt, add a double layer of tulle, and create a gathered bust that covered her back. When I turn an existing garment into something else, I call it Frankenstein.

What has inspired your approach to costumes?

I’m a goofball and I love nostalgia and old Hollywood. Bill Travilla’s costumes for Marilyn Monroe are some of my favorites, especially the ones from “How to Marry a Millionaire.” I also like Arianne Phillips, who has designed costumes for movies and for Madonna. I admire her breadth of work. I never want to be pigeonholed.

How do places like Biltmore House influence your process?

I walked around the mansion to get ideas from the space. I remember looking at the colors of the wood paneling and limestone. Window curtains are kept at a certain level and rooms are kept dimly lit to protect the interior from light. It’s very romantic and cozy, and I wanted cabinets that communicate warmth and comfort using colors other than red and green.

To create a dress and kilt worn by the stars of “A Merry Scottish Christmas,” I gathered a bunch of tartans that matched the tapestries, candles, and dark wood of the castle. We decided on MacDonald of Glencoe, a Christmas jewel-toned tartan. The pattern was digitally printed onto the fabric used to make the dress and the kilt was made from a traditional wool tartan.

What are some of the challenges of Christmas movie costumes?

It’s the little things. All clothing sizes have changed: old shoes are narrower than current shoes, jackets fit differently, and sashes are gone. It is difficult to find people who do embroidery and beading.

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

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