The Anatomy of a Holiday Movie Outfit, According to Hallmark's Costume Designer

Yes, lots of coats are involved.

The Secret Outfit Formula for Those Hallmark Holiday Movies, According to a Costume Designer


Say what you want about mushy holiday movies, but for us, even the cheesiest of Hallmark flicks can bring immeasurable amounts of joy. We know what we're getting whenever we tune in: a seasonal love story that follows a somewhat predictable plot — main character comes to town, main character falls in love, main character gets a happy ending. Sprinkle in a few cozy-looking winter outfits and, boom. Seasonal perfection.

According to costume designer Keith Nielsen, there's a method to those movie outfits as well. Although he did get to play around with fashion for a period piece this year, Hallmark's A Holiday Spectacular, which takes place in the '50s and stars octogenarian Ann-Margret, Nielsen says that for more contemporary stories, like Lifetime's The 12 Days of Christmas Eve, which he also worked on, there is a formula he follows for each look.

Ahead, he breaks down the anatomy of a holiday movie outfit, including the pieces you'll likely spot on screen, the importance of color, and where to buy a classic coat.

The Classic Coats

According to Nielsen, great holiday movie fashion always begins with outerwear.

"Usually, there's a before coat, a during coat, and an after coat because, if you notice, they're typically traveling," he tells InStyle over Zoom. "Sometimes, through Christmas, I think they have 15 coats. In Spectacular, my lead had 24 changes, so she had about 10 coats. Color is so important, so I need to make sure the color of the coat goes with what's underneath. I can't be throwing on a navy coat with a hot pink skirt. It's just not going to work. I want to do something that works tonally."

The costume designer says his go-to movie coat is actually from J.Crew.

"Their Italian Stadium-Cloth coats are just, I think, the ultimate winter wonderland, holiday movie coat."

When dressing characters, Nielsen's ultimate goal is to make these looks feel timeless, so he often shops for pieces at Talbots and Banana Republic.

"In general, I always want to keep all my work super classic — especially for Hallmark and any Christmas movie — because we watch them year after year. I don't ever want anything to look dated unless it's supposed to look dated."

J.Crew Stadium Wool Coat
J.Crew coat.


The Initial Travel Outfit

"Usually, there's some kind of travel outfit slash, 'I'm just going to bump into you casually and I look fabulous,'" Nielsen tells InStyle, describing an outfit from the beginning of holiday movies. "There has to be some kind of something in the air and also in the visual."

To paint this picture, the pro thinks about the background: What the characters are standing up against, whether it's a set or background actors, determines what they wear.

"In Spectacular, when the main character meets John, she's in a bright red coat against the brick brownstones of New York City, so it's very neutral and she really pops. Then, there's a little ode to a connection because he's in a darker red pant. So they're tonally working together and then we don't know where that's going to lead."

The Falling In Love Outfit

Neilson loves playing with color throughout holiday movies, especially as the characters are beginning to bond and form relationships.

“There are always color connections between specific people," he tells InStyle. "We have our primary romance, and then there's a secondary or a third kind of romance happening around. So, in an ensemble cast, I have to look at all of the relationships and who's playing with who to create those color connections. This way we understand who's getting together over here, who's a family over here…"

Sometimes, the connections are so subtle you might not notice them at first glance, which seems to be the case in Spectacular.

"There's a scene where they're tree decorating and Maggie's in this vintage, robin's egg blue felt [skirt] with poinsettias on it. The tones in that pick up [the colors of the decorations] that John is picking up, and it's just a really beautiful picture. It's very colorful and festive."

The Secret Outfit Formula for Those Hallmark Holiday Movies, According to a Costume Designer
A Holiday Spectacular.


The Turmoil Outfit

This outfit — which is usually worn around the movie's midway mark — is one that Neilson describes as "I'm questioning but I still look fabulous.” When putting it together, he considers what is causing the turmoil and goes from there. For example, in Spectacular, Maggie is "being thrusted back into this controlled environment, so we're going back to silhouettes that we saw earlier."

"There are those elements of their old selves in there that are coming through," the costume designer tells us. Color is particularly important in these scenes, too, since warmer and cooler tones are used to express emotions.

"If you're happy then you're feeling warmer. if you're sad, you're feeling colder. So you're using different tones to achieve that feeling," he explains. "Color is such a thing in our lives, whether there's the existence of color or lack of color."

[The finale look] always needs to be amazing, whether it makes sense or not.

The Ending Outfit

Nielsen follows one rule when choosing a finale look: "It always needs to be amazing, whether it makes sense or not. For my first Hallmark movie, she leaves a 13-hour surgery and shows up to find the love of her life in a fabulous dress."

The costume designer assures us that this outfit doesn't need to be realistic, since that kind of playfulness is usually what we love about holiday movies.

"We have drama films that show reality and we also live reality, so I understand that the audience wants an escape. I have a creative escape doing it, too — creating that visual even though it might not quite make exact sense."

The best mix for the finale outfit, says Nielsen, is something that feels both "romantic and approachable."

"It's a mixture of who they were and who they become, because we've seen them on this entire journey."

The Secret Outfit Formula for Those Hallmark Holiday Movies, According to a Costume Designer
12 Days of Christmas Eve.

A+E Lifetime

The Must-Haves

Costume designing for these Hallmark holiday movies is Nielsen's job, so naturally, he's done a ton of research on what's been used in the past.

"I have looked at all of their back catalog of things as far as what the look and aesthetic is," he tells InStyle. "It's darker-washed jeans, because that reads more winter, but you have to mix it with color. We love a pointed-toe, block-heeled black bootie. I'm always trying to have a little bit of reality while still leaning into that fantasy. Because everybody makes fun of the ones where it's like, 'Oh she's in stilettos.' I'm like, 'Okay, a block-heeled boot, a little bit more practical.' It's also versatile and goes with everything."

Colorful, seasonally appropriate tops are also on Nielsen's shopping list. "We love a sweater," he says. "I want to do a line of sweaters for Hallmark."

Finding the Perfect Fit

Something else that makes those holiday movie outfits look especially dreamy? Many of them are tailored to perfection and customized, which is something Nielsen recommends doing with your own clothes.

"I think tailoring can make such a change in the way you look and feel," he says. "Once I get started tailoring, I'm always like, 'Let's cut off a sleeve and change the neckline.' You can create and make it your own." And therein lies the Hallmark Holiday outfit formula you can try at home: "Making it your own is part of style, too — there's being fashionable and then there's style. Style's very much an individual thing. What are you mixing? What are you changing? How are you putting it together?"

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