Keith Nielsen Talks Costumes For Hallmark Christmas Movies

Keith Nielsen. Photo Courtesy of Keith Nielsen
Keith Nielsen. Photo Courtesy of Keith Nielsen /

Costumes help embody the movie. Without outfits that help better understand the time period and characters, it may be easier to get lost without something that can so clearly distinguish one person, or timeline, from another. Keith Nielsen’s background in Christmas films certainly helped him embark on the Hallmark Channel films A Biltmore Christmas and A Merry Scottish Christmas.

However, his dedication to the craft and understanding of how to create designs for specific characters and storylines allow for costume work that looks authentic, whether it be in the present day or the 1940s.

Culturess: What goes into designing costumes for period pieces, such as A Biltmore Christmas?

Keith Nielsen: Well, it’s quite the undertaking. I always say basically we start with an empty room, an empty office, and we have to fill it with everything. So with period stuff, it really comes from everywhere and anywhere. Just because you don’t know which rental house has what, what condition it’s in. For Biltmore, I brought uniforms from LA, I ordered some vintage pieces from all over the globe. I did prep most of it in New York City and I used Ann Roth has a really great collection in Pennsylvania that I have access to, and I rent a lot from there.

And that sets up a really good base for our background characters as well as our principals. And then I use another really great rental house, Right To The Moon Alice in the Catskills, and she’s just this awesome hidden gem and her collections in 1800s old feed barn, it’s a really cool space and she has some really pristine pieces like Joy’s plaid suit with the grey skirt, that’s one of her pristine 1940s real pieces. Also mixed with renting pieces from rental houses or people’s collections from their theatre work and stuff. We also do a mixture of buying and sometimes building.

I call them alter-filled. We don’t really have time to build things from scratch because, with fast fashion, people really forget how much work goes into garment making. So it’s a mix and that’s what I love. I like finding different pieces from all different places and you have to really catch the wide net because you never know where you’re gonna find it or not gonna find it.

Culturess: How did you accomplish your job in two weeks?

Keith Nielsen: It kind of was, this one, I think, technically, I probably had closer to three because I prepped it in New York, December of last year, for two weeks, and that like I just mentioned, I had an office space in the city, that was basically a storage space, and it was just like, fill it, we just knew we were gonna need so many pieces. When you do a period piece, we’ve evolved. I mean, we’re always evolving as human beings. But, old vintage shoes don’t fit modern feet, feet are wider. And you also need not just like one small and one medium. You don’t know who’s gonna walk in the door. You might get twenty mediums and ten smalls. You need to have all the stock of options so you’re able to dress them.

So doing it in a tight time frame, it’s a lot of organization, it’s a lot of teamwork. It’s knowing the right people. And you get a rush from it like the clock is ticking, and you gotta do it. Also, the thing is, I do a lot of my preliminary work, and I take my preliminary work very seriously, so in that tight time frame, I know what we’re looking for as a team, and I can make those decisions.

I walk in before I even start my official day. I’ve already done my research. I’ve probably already had one or two meetings with the network. So that way, when I’m like on the books on the ground I can execute. Once I get into my fittings I don’t necessarily have fittings at the beginning of that two weeks. Sometimes I have it two or, if I’m lucky, I can have it five days before we start shooting, but for some people on Biltmore, I fit with them on a Saturday and we shot with them on Monday, so it’s knowing what you need. It’s getting what you need. It’s being decisive. It’s communicating with your team. I’m really lucky with the people I work for and with.

We have a lot of conversations dedicated an awesome amount of time to me. So once we get to fittings, I’ve pretty much already laid out what I’m doing. It’s just that’s the final checkmark, and then, once I get their thumbs up, everything gets completely altered and labeled and it goes down the pipeline and then once it gets on camera we take a big sigh of relief, and then start prepping the next day.

Culturess: What inspired you the most about the 1940s?

Keith Nielsen: I think the 40s is, I mean, I could say that about any decade in the twentieth century, but the 40s, I think, working in Hollywood and then getting to do a movie that’s about LA/old Hollywood, it’s just such a fanciful area to play in because our time is set after the war and after coming off of that people wanted to enjoy life and explore with fashion and a lot of my visual research, I looked at, with any period piece, hats and gloves are a big thing. I was giving my assistant a debrief on women’s hats and I was kind of like, there were some crazy hats in the 40s in a cool way.

We have one that looks like Peter Pan and little fedoras with fascinators and feathers, and everybody wanted to show off and have a personality for coming off of the war. I did a holiday spectacular for Hallmark last year which was all fifties, so I really didn’t want to lean too much into the new Dior look, which was like ’47, I think it was. I wanted something that was like true forties. And especially setting it at such an estate and then putting those two things together was so inspiring. But I wanna play more in the forties. I think, there are so many things. Like I said, I love Pearl Harbor the movie because of the drama and old Hollywood, the forties. The fifties were big for Hollywood too. But the forties were coming off of The Wizard Of Oz and Gone With The Wind, so it is a fun time.

Culturess: How did you mix the different styles of European and Scottish looks while keeping an American influence on A Merry Scottish Christmas?

Keith Nielsen: That’s an interesting question because, in the story, I only dressed Lacey and Scott, an Irish team did everybody else. Lacey and Scott, they’re American, so the mindset is they’re carrying most of their clothes with them. But I wanted to get to Ireland, where we filmed mostly, a little early because I did wanna shop locally there because when we’re out traveling, you pick up something and then you might wear it to dinner. Also, it shows that, in their storyline, they do have roots there, so maybe they did go buy a sweater or this dress because there’s a dress shop that the mom’s friend owns, that’s an element. So I wanted to add things that looked like they were locally sourced there. But not overboard. I like an element of realism.

You’re not gonna completely re-outfit yourself just because you’re there for a couple of days. Even though I know we all love the fantasy. And then I also sourced a lot of brands that have roots in Scotland like Alexander McQueen. Lacey wears two dresses by Alexander McQueen and she wears a coat at the end that’s by Burberry, who’s British but Scotland’s attached. So I wanted that aspect to because brands, depending on where they originate, keep this stylistic bones. And that last coat I really loved because it reminded me of a riding coat that you would see in horse stables which was, there are horses in the movie.

And then also, speaking of, I mean, everybody has pretty much seen The Crown, looking at when that family was in Scotland, I noticed color-wise their garments really blend with the scenery they’re in. I don’t know if part of that is intentional, for, like, they go on hunts and things and want to be one with the environment. But I kinda took note of that, so some of Lacey’s greens when she’s with the ponies, she kind of, she doesn’t blend but she’s becoming one with the space.

Culturess: How did you work toward creating individual looks for Lacey Chabert and Scott Wolf’s characters?

Keith Nielsen: So the way I work is in ways I’m very technical but also very organic. Lacey’s done over thirty movies for Hallmark. Not all Christmas, but I wanted to see what she’s done before and what I personally liked about it and then what new things can I contribute here. Because there’s consistency which everybody likes. But then I also wanna throw in something new. And so if I think it’s a potential opportunity, that’s what our fitting’s for. That’s our time to play and explore. So there were certain things I knew I was gonna love, and then there were certain wild cards, and then certain wild cards that Lacey and I weren’t feeling.

And then the gown we built, and that’s actually Marc Jacobs fabric mixed with a digitally printed tartan, which I thought was actually cool, which I probably didn’t realize it consciously until happened. But, Scott’s kilt is a traditionally woven wool tartan and hers is digitally printed, which was kind of cool because it’s kind of like the old school mixed with the new school. The dress is a cool tie-in. As I said, her mom’s friend has a dress shop. The look of it is rooted as well in Scotland with Vivian Westwood looking between the top and I wanted to create something for Lacey that was, I know she can pull off a ballgown, and she’s done a million ballgowns. But I wanted to do something that’s a bit different. I didn’t wanna do just red. If you look closely at the gown, it drapes and fits on the hip a little bit more than the normal Cinderella-style ballgown.

And then Scott was a delight and a delight to dress and he looks great in a sweater, so no complaints from me there.

Culturess: Is there a difference in how you approach Christmas movies in comparison to other projects?

Keith Nielsen: Not really, and I think that’s what makes my Christmas movies interesting is that I don’t look at them as a tacky Christmas movie. I look at them as an actual real production and these people have real stories so I’m not going down the list of ‘I have four red jackets and I have ten green and everybody wears a darkwash jean.’ I’m looking at the story and character development as I would any other production. It happens to be in the genre of Christmas.

Culturess: How did you get your start in costume design?

Keith Nielsen: By accident. Well, not accident. So in college, I would do student film stuff for, I didn’t study film I have a business degree, but the film students would do their pre-requisite for costume design and production design. As long as you weren’t taking away a position from a film student, anybody could do it as an extra-curricular. So my friend Hannah and I, and Hannah was always gonna be the costume designer and I was gonna be the fashion one. But we’d do student films for fun and a little something on the resume.

And then when I graduated school, I thought I was gonna be in the entertainment business, something fashion, I don’t know. I thought it was gonna be great but I don’t know what it was. And then I had an internship opportunity arise out of the blue, which this business is very out of the blue, like, ‘Where are you? Can you be here right now?’ I did an internship for about six weeks at the tail end of season two of Mozart In The Jungle for Amazon, and I really paid attention and learned I’m a big visual learner, so I would just watch how the department functions. And I think that’s really what hooked me.

I love the design and I love working with fabrics and garments and things. I love the process of it all. There’s a whole tracking of the budget and how you track things as they come into the space and how they get returned and it’s a whole massive undertaking. Everybody thinks you just shop for pretty clothes all day. I do but I’m usually shlepping in a warehouse pulling ballgowns for twelve hours on concrete floors and bad lighting. So it’s not that great. It is great because you get to see some really cool things but you know, it’s like I just did a photoshoot in my storage unit, and it’s like this is the reality of it. It’s like we’re in dusty crawl spaces looking at vintage clothes.

So once I finished the internship, I was back and forth on wondering if I was gonna move to New York, and then eventually I moved to New York, was working in TV, and then I got my first Christmas movie in like three or four years into the business. And then I kinda never looked back. Just because I felt like once I got a taste of being the leader of a department and fulfilling my creative vision it was kinda hard to go backwards. Two years ago, I did my first Hallmark movie and we all worked super well together.

Culturess: How much do you work with the director and actors to complete a costume look?

Keith Nielsen: It’s everything. Usually, I’m the first stop they come to. Usually, you’ll have actors land and then they come right to me to the point where I’ll have directors text me and be like, ‘Can I come say hi? I haven’t met them yet.’ I’m one of the really early people.

The actors, it’s such a collaboration because they’re the person inhabiting this character. Everybody’s different. Some people have really passionate thoughts and feelings and some people are fine to inhabit whatever I create. So you feel that out really early. I always ask people do they have any thoughts or ideas, even if it’s just a blue tie. Sometimes people just see things. When I read a script I see things too. So I get it.

And I’m always constantly talking to the director. There are certain things, John Putch, who directed Biltmore, and I keep thinking about how he’s so on it and so specific. Whatever this outfit is, as long as it has pockets they need to pull it out. Which is technical stuff. They have to pull a prop or a phone from somewhere. It’s a super big collaboration. I’m my own department. I’m at every single meeting. I share as much and more as I can so everybody knows what I’m visually doing.

And I’m also really lucky I’ve worked with a lot of the same people over the years, so that trust is already there. And that’s cool now, too, because I’m working with some of the same actors again, and it’s nice because I’ve noticed not that the trust wasn’t there but they’re super trusting the second time and they’re like, ‘He’s got me.’ I always say it’s my name on you too.

Culturess: What is the difference between designing for a period piece versus a present-day story?

Keith Nielsen: So they’re totally different in the way that if it’s all contemporary, you have to really look at the nuance that you’re presenting and what smaller things mean. Choices of color and the width of a knit on a sweater or the width of a knit on a scarf, and what does that mean?

I did a movie last year for Paramount and there were these kids that were squatting in a house. All of their clothes looked like they came from Churches and thrift stores and stuff. I found this awesome scarf that had this really thick knit that looked like someone at the Church might have made it and donated it.

You have to be obvious but not too obvious. But choices for a period, sometimes you just know. With Jack on Biltmore, that’s a good example because I just wanted a blue pinstripe double-breasted forties suit, and we called LA and got three pictures and I was like, boom, that’s it, done. And that’s an example of decisiveness. That’s what we’re looking for, that’s what we got, next, moving on.

They’re both fun. They’re both really fun. They’re different. The frustrating thing sometimes with period, is you can’t just run down the street to Target and find a shirt in a pinch. So you have to get really creative. And also filming in North Carolina, we had to bring everything with us that we could have thought of because there’s not really any vintage. Actually, we found some really great local vintage stores but there’s no vintage rental, especially specific things like a ballgown. So you have to really be prepared.

The cool thing about Biltmore, too is there are elements of contemporary because it flashes back and forth through time travel.

Culturess: Is there any genre that excites you the most to work on?

Keith Nielsen: I think everything’s interesting. I’m biased on my projects. I’ve done some really cool ones. I want to do a movie musical but do it on stage first because how you design for the stage and then how you design for the camera are two different things and they’re different approaches. I think that could be really cool. Also, I love a movie musical. It kind of harkens back to that old Hollywood story.

I love the character development and the thought process of really intense dramas. I also really love, personally, stories of unsung heroes that history has overlooked. So I always love when I hear people doing projects about somebody about someone that lived a really remarkable life but somehow history overlooked them. Now somebody discovered it and is sharing it with the world. I love all that stuff.

Related Story. Actor Rushi Kota talks about his role in Hallmark’s Make Me A Match. light