Several years ago, Keith Nielsen was not feeling in a good mood 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, he hoped to find a job that would merge his interests in fashion design and entertainment. When he couldn’t do that, he started working in retail. He said he started feeling depressed about his career the moment his friend mentioned the internship.
His only costume experience was in student films, but Mr. Nielsen, who said his grandmother taught him to sew, got the internship. “On the set of Mozart, I listened and learned,” he said.
Mr. Nielsen, now 30, worked on the show until its final season, rising from intern to costume coordinator. Afterwards, he began getting more costume designer jobs, including productions at the Westchester Broadway Theater, now closedand for the TV movie “My Adventures with Santa Claus”, released in 2019.
The film appealed to Mr. Nielsen’s longtime affection for Christmas, he said, and since then he has been hired as a costume designer for about a dozen Christmas TV movies.
This year, he oversaw costumes for four films: “Mystic Christmas,” a romance set in Mystic, Connecticut; “Where are you Christmas?” ”, a largely black and white film that imagines a world without holidays; “A Merry Scottish Christmas,” filmed in a castle in Scotland; and “A Biltmore Christmas,” filmed at Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina. All were for Hallmark Channel.
Working with theater helped prepare him for shooting films, he said, because he learned how to better manage fittings and deadlines while becoming familiar with outfits from different historical periods.
“Keith has a deep understanding of fashion, culture and history, as well as an uncanny taste and style, particularly in period pieces,” said Dustin Rikert, the director of “A Merry Scottish Christmas. Mr. Rikert also worked with Mr. Nielsen on “Next Stop, Christmas,” which aired in 2021. The costumes created by Mr. Nielsen for that film included the outfits worn by a time-traveling train conductor played by Christopher Lloyd.
Director John Putch, who worked with Mr. Nielsen on “A Biltmore Christmas” and on “A Holiday Spectacular,” a 2022 film starring the Radio City Rockettes, noted his love of details. “Keith likes laces and socks that people don’t see,” Mr. Putch said.
Mr. Nielsen, who lives in Manchester, Conn., said many of his costume ideas came from what he jokingly described as “my 12-year-old gay boy mind.” (He declined to provide specific wardrobe budgets for the films he worked on as a costume designer.) In the edited interview below, he discussed the aesthetic influences that inspired his work and the way he evoked the holiday spirit through clothing.
How do you get the costumes?
I read a script about four times and let my imagination run wild. Many holiday films are made in three weeks or less, so I often only have a few days to do fittings.
When I was dressing up for the theater, I started seeing old Broadway shows and going to warehouses that I still use. Seller Right to the Moon Alice this is where I get vintage items. I also receive them from Anne Rothan Academy Award-winning costume designer, who has some amazing pieces in her warehouse in Pennsylvania.
Hallmark loves color and saturation. To achieve that freshness on camera, I sometimes recreate an item of clothing so it doesn’t look like it’s been sitting in a closet for 70 years.
Do you ever buy clothes off the shelf?
I shop at points of sale and online. I like J. Crew, Banana Republic and, for suits and coats, Brooks Brothers. Kate Spade has bags in bright red and green colors. I don’t like ugly Christmas sweaters.
A costume in “A Biltmore Christmas” started out as a Carolina Herrera dress purchased from the RealReal. We had several fittings to re-drape the skirt, add a double layer of tulle and create a ruched bust that wraps around the back. When I transform an existing item of clothing into something else, I call it Frankenstein-ing.
What inspired your approach to costuming?
I’m a sap and I love nostalgia and old Hollywood. Bill TravillaMarilyn Monroe’s costumes are some of my favorites, especially those from “How to Marry a Millionaire.” I also like Arianne Phillips, who designed costumes for the cinema and for Madonna. I admire the scope of his work. I never want to be typecast.
How do places like Biltmore House influence your process?
I walked around the mansion for ideas in the space. I remember looking at the colors of the woodwork and limestone. Window blinds are kept at a certain level and rooms are dimly lit to shield objects inside from light. It’s very romantic and cozy, and I wanted cabinets that communicate warmth and comfort by 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 went with the tapestries, candles, and dark wood of the castle. We opted for MacDonald of Glencoe, a holiday jewel-toned tartan. The design was digitally printed onto the fabric used to make the dress and the kilt was made with a traditional wool tartan.
What are the challenges of costuming for holiday movies?
It’s the little things. All clothing sizes have changed: vintage shoes are narrower than today’s, jackets fit differently, and girdles are gone. It’s hard to find people to do embroidery and beading.
But I like classic, timeless looks because Christmas movies are watched over and over again.