Lacey Chabert, Scott Wolff in "A Merry Scottish Christmas"
Hallmark Media/Photographer: Mark Mainz

How to Dress Like You're in a Hallmark Christmas Movie, According to a Hallmark Costume Designer

Costume designer Keith Nielsen breaks it down.

You might not be within driving distance of a snowy small town, a charming, family-owned inn, or any of the other picturesque locations you'll commonly find in Hallmark's annual Christmas movie lineup. But that doesn't mean you can't dress the part to wander around your own local Christmas tree farm or holiday market.

I mean, how else are you ever supposed to find true love with a rugged but kind-hearted gingerbread cookie baker? Or catch the eye of a city slicker who learns the true meaning of Christmas while stranded in a small town after a snowstorm?

To help you achieve that quintessential Hallmark Christmas movie look, we consulted with costume designer Keith Nielsen. Also known in the industry as "Keith Costumes," Nielsen is responsible for outfitting the casts of "A Mystic Christmas" and "Where Are You Christmas" as well as Hallmark's newest films "A Merry Scottish Christmas" and "A Biltmore Christmas."

"A Merry Scottish Christmas" premiered on Nov. 18 and stars Lacey Chabert and Scott Wolf as estranged siblings who travel back home to Scotland to reunite with their mother. "A Biltmore Christmas" premiered on Nov. 26 and stars Bethany Joy Lenz as a screenwriter hired to write a script for a holiday movie remake only to find herself transported back in time to 1946. Needless to say, both of these settings made for some pretty incredible costumes.

So, we sat down with Nielsen to get the scoop on his latest films and what it takes to look like you're living in a Hallmark Christmas movie all year round.

Hallmark Media

How did you get started in costume design?

I'm not professionally trained in costumes, which I think is why what I do means so much to me. But I've definitely gone to the school of hard knocks and learned things from the ground up. I've done every role in the costume department at least once, and once I had my first design gig, which was an independent Christmas film, I never looked back.

The first one I did for [Hallmark) was "Next Stop, Christmas" with Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and Lyndsy Fonseca. The joke is that Christopher Lloyd's conductor outfit solidified my future with them because it was so magical. I think that movie is a really perfect Christmas movie, too. But I'm biased because I get the really cool ones. I did the 1950s with the Rockettes last year ["A Holiday Spectacular"]. This year, we have the 1940s, and I got to go to Scotland and Ireland. Christmas movies really are their own genre at this point.

Definitely. Even the movies that you have coming up are so different from the typical big-city-girl-small-town trope.

Yeah, they've evolved beyond that. A lot of people think Christmas movies are like they were 10-15 years ago. But it's its own genre and a great market to design for because people really notice the clothes. I get messages all the time asking about where things are from, which isn't always the case. Sometimes people just ignore the clothes.

What do you think it is about your design that makes the clothes more noticeable?

It definitely starts with the script. I have a crazy attention to detail. I think about character stories, color stories, color relationships, and how things relate to one another. If you really pay attention, things visually build onto one another.

Can you give us an example of that?

Lacey's color story in "A Merry Scottish Christmas" is a good example of that because when you first see her, she's arriving at the airport, and she clearly does not want to be there. So her color palette is very black and gray with some red in there because it's a festive movie. But as she evolves and learns more about her heritage, she adds more color, and it builds on itself. But there are still undertones of those original colors throughout.

"A Biltmore Christmas" was interesting because it wasn't just the story of the characters. It was the story and the history of the home that really influenced everything. A lot of colors and tones I pulled from the physical space.

Bethany Joy Lenz in "A Biltmore Christmas"

Hallmark Media/Photographer: David Scott Holloway

I'm sure getting inspiration from the Biltmore Estate was not hard.

Not at all. We all love a period movie. There's something so romantic about it. Add in a little snow flurries, and it's magical. I'm really so excited for everyone to see that one because I was able to go through my marinating process. I think I was hired in October and we shot in January. So, I did have time to sit on the general idea, and I was able to go back down there at Christmas.

You got to be there during Christmas to prep for a Christmas movie. How perfect is that?

Yeah, and that's really rare because we mostly film during the summer.

I'm sure this is going to be an impossible question to answer, but do you have a favorite outfit from these upcoming movies that you're very excited for people to see?

I think it's more my favorite scene because there's so much garment-wise, would be the party scene in "A Biltmore Christmas." Throughout history, they've had a party at The Biltmore for employees as well as the actual family. You see people from all different walks of life so you have a lot of different variety and silhouettes. It's a big feast for the eyes.

That sounds awesome. Whether it's partying in the 40s or working on a Christmas tree farm, what are some style tips for nailing that quintessential Hallmark Christmas look?

For me, you need the perfect jeans and the perfect coat. I know the joke is always, how many coats can they have in a Hallmark movie?

But for the jeans, it comes down to three things: the fit, the wash, and the rise. I like a mid- to high-rise. I like a darker wash because that's more of the season. You do white and lighter wash in the summer and a darker one in the winter. I also love a good hemline on a pair of jeans with boots. I think that proportion is very interesting to play with.

The other thing that really ties it in is monochromatic and tone-on-tone work. I'm tying the colors of the sweater with the jacket and with the scarf, but they're all slightly different. So if we're doing a purple coat, I'll probably make sure there's some element of purple in the scarf.

Scott Wolf, Lacey Chabert in "A Merry Scottish Christmas"

Hallmark Media/Photographer: Steffan Hill

Do you have a certain style of coat that you really love that feels very Hallmark?

The ultimate favorite is any J. Crew Italian stadium wool cloth coat. That fabric is so well made and is the perfect blend. Coats are one of the first things I actually buy when I start designing. I'm always hunting for coats because I want something that's different, and at this point, that's a little difficult. Especially when you're filming off-season.

So finding the red coat Lacey wears in "A Merry Scottish Christmas" was a real score.

She has the perfect red coat, and I'm really proud of my red coats because they're all different. That one was super fitted and almost had a retro vintage flair, but it was just, like, the perfect holiday red. Plus, she wore a great Alexander McQueen dress with it, so that really tied it into the space.

I actually acquired that coat when I worked in a theater. Unfortunately, that theater closed during the pandemic, but I had used it in a show, and my theater producer gave it to me. She always labeled it the perfect Christmas coat, and she was right.

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