A Hallmark Holiday with Costume Designer Keith Nielsen

I know, I know, it’s been a while. Don’t worry, I’m still here.

Although the pandemic did put the brakes on some of my bigger Hallmark in Real Life plans (I was really looking forward to horseback riding in Montana!), the real reason I’ve been distracted from the blog is…homework. In addition to working full time, I’ve returned to graduate school for writing. I’m pursuing an MFA degree with a concentration in non-fiction.

The degree feels like it’s going to take a million years to finish, but I’m plugging along. That said, my brain can only work on so many projects at once, so I’ve had to prioritize: my real job that pays the bills; my homework, so that I pass my classes; my book project, which is a labor of love (plus I’m intending for it to double as my thesis to graduate); and finally, the blog for fun. 

Luckily, my homework is done, so a Hallmark in Real Life adventure is on 😊 And just in time for Christmas, too!

While taking a break from homework, I enjoyed watching Hallmark’s A Holiday Spectacular featuring the Radio City Rockettes. It’s a holiday tradition of mine to see the show in person, which I did during opening week. It was fun to see the fictional story of Maggie (played by Ginna Claire Mason), from high society Philadelphia, sneak away to New York City to dance with the Rockettes. Set in 1958, this movie was a full period piece for Hallmark, which to the best of my knowledge has only ever dabbled with portions of a movie set in a different time period. 

I had the opportunity to interview costume designer Keith Nielsen, who was responsible for the costumes in A Holiday Spectacular. So, where does one meet a costume designer who worked on one of the biggest movies in Hallmark’s 2022 Countdown to Christmas lineup?

At Saks Fifth Avenue, of course!

Located across the street from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and a block from Radio City Music Hall, where Hallmark’s A Holiday Spectacular was filmed, Saks Fifth Avenue seemed the perfect location for our conversation. As we walked around the shoe section—famous for being so large, it has its own zip code in NYC (10022-SHOE)—Keith explained that you, “always need a good boot in a Hallmark movie.” He prefers a pointed toe because it elongates your silhouette, whereas a rounded toe makes you look stumpy.  A pointed toe with a block heel is what he looks for because a Hallmark leading lady needs to look fabulous but functional while she is shopping for a Christmas tree.

In addition to Hallmark’s A Holiday Spectacular (2022), Keith was the costume designer for Hallmark’s Next Stop, Christmas (2021) and Sugar Plum Twist (2021), as well as Lifetime’s 12 Days of Christmas Eve (2022). For Spectacular, Keith dressed 180 principal characters (those with speaking roles) and 750 background characters (those without speaking roles). And, in fact, he has a special spot in his heart for Hallmark fans. “What I love about working with Hallmark—the audiences have an appreciation for the clothes,” Keith said. In particular, they appreciate the nuances of the most critical costume piece of Hallmark movies: the coats.

“It’s all about the coats, and it’s where you put the coats,” Keith said. If you have multiple exterior camera shots back-to-back, coats become a key visual feature because characters are bundled up outside in winter. Keith admits that a lot of people ask why there are so many coats in these movies, and he says, “because there has to be! Otherwise, you’re staring at the same coat, and you don’t know it’s a different day.”

The red coat that Maggie wore when she arrived in New York City was a showstopper. “Vibrancy is a big thing. I love the saturation of colors. I personally love awesome jewel tones that have a deep saturation. And obviously with a Hallmark movie you have to have our iconic red coat,” Keith said. “That’s one of the first things I bought for Spectacular was the red coat.”  It was a vintage find on Etsy.

Another iconic look that Keith grabbed early on was the finale dress. He wanted the dress to create a visual connection between the young Maggie (Ginna Claire Mason) and the older Maggie, played by Ann Margaret. When the lead characters (young Maggie and John) kiss, the camera crossfades, and both the younger and older images of Maggie are wearing ivory as she kisses her current and future husband, John.

The finale dress Ginna Claire Mason wears is a 2019 Caroline Herrera. “I found it on The RealReal. I bought it before I had casting because I just needed to have it,” Keith said. “It was floor length. We brought it up to tea length. We added the gathering in between the layers, threw four petticoats underneath it, redid the neckline.” The dress also had to be tapered in, which was challenging because of all the beading. Then Keith and his staff added the tulle and, of course, the nutcracker pin.

Keith had a team of 15 people on this movie. He shared that period work isn’t easy. It requires more money, more time, and more people because there are so many pieces: undergarments, underpinnings, petticoats, stockings, shoes—it’s a lot of stuff.

“I pulled stuff from [five-time Oscar nominee and two-time Oscar winner] Ann Roth’s collection in Pennsylvania. I pulled stuff from a rental house I use in upstate New York called Right to the Moon Alice, who has a fabulous collection in her family barn. I rented some stuff from LA. And then I shopped some stuff.”

The third iconic look in the film was the green top and pant set with the sash that Maggie wears. Keith shared that the knit top was actually a modern shirt from J.Crew that he was able to alter in a way to make it look like it was a period piece. Keith then paired the shirt with a rental pant and built the sash. “We are acquiring things from different places, but we are putting it together in a unique way,” Keith said. “We’re making something. We’re buying something. We’re altering it to make it look period.”

Sometimes a little fun on set leads to costume mishaps. According to Keith, on the green outfit with the sash, there “was originally a three-tier pearl around it [at the neckline], and Ginna Claire and I were holding hands skipping down 51st street to Radio City, and then we got into Radio City and the pearls were gone.” They recruited people up and down 51st Street looking for the pearls with no success. Thankfully, they had plenty of pearls in the costume department and could add them back in. 

There were obvious highlights to working on this movie, including working with the Radio City Rockettes, but Keith especially adored the opportunity to work with Ann Margaret. “I’ve worked with two people now who come from the old studio system. They have such a different way of working than we do now, and I admire it so much, and I learned so much just by watching them,” Keith said. “There is professionalism, but then there are people who are a delight to be around. They literally don’t make them like that anymore, people coming from the studio system.”

As we walked to the Rockefeller Christmas tree, Keith was dressed in J.Crew jeans, Derek Klena’s (aka John’s) Pendleton jacket from the movie (which he bought from L Train in Brooklyn, and boots. He looked like he had stepped right out of the screen. That’s Real Life magic for you!

3 thoughts on “A Hallmark Holiday with Costume Designer Keith Nielsen”

Leave a Reply