Full disclosure: I haven’t ever been a holiday movie person. The constant suspension of disbelief you need to get through one (how did they not see that mistletoe hanging above them?!), the chuckle-inducing over-exposition, the heteronormativity of it all… It’s all a bit much. But they’re an annual tradition for hopeless romantics and seasonal spirits—and networks go all in on them.
Lifetime is releasing 14 original holiday movies this year, while the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries properties are pumping out a whopping 37 through New Year’s Day. In 2017, 82 million—48 million women and 34 million men—watched Hallmark holiday programming “at least once” during the season, according to USA Today; Lifetime’s seasonal movies attracted 56.9 million viewers, per E!. This year, Netflix is getting in on the game, with such titles as The Princess Switch and the much-anticipated (and timely) A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding. And if you watch enough of them—as I now have, in the name of research—you start to notice how the fashion in these movies plays as much as a role in driving home those cherished holiday tropes as all those snowy carriage rides do.
There are the buttoned-up suits worn by the big-city lead, who has been disconnected from her roots (and holiday spirit.) There are the spectacular ball gowns that all those wink-wink implausible coincidences built up to. There are, of course, more red and green outfits that you’d normally see in any given closet. While you see some IRL trends reflected on screen, they might feel a little bit heightened—that’s because clothing plays a different role here, one that directly correlates to the emotional journey the character goes through.
For starters, structured pantsuits and corporate environs frequently help establish the lead character in these movies as no-nonsense, over-scheduled, and, oftentimes, job-obsessed. In Lifetime’s Every Day is Christmas, Atlanta finance CEO Alexis (Toni Braxton) wears a black streamlined Calvin Klein suit, courtesy of costume designer Patricia Hargreaves, in the opening office scenes—as she withholds her beleaguered staff’s holiday bonuses and makes them work on December 25 (when the markets aren’t even open!) When we first see lawyer Lucy (Tatyana Ali) in Hallmark’s Christmas Everlasting, she’s wheeling and dealing in an aubergine pantsuit. The message becomes clear: This is a person in need of some holiday down time.
Fashion exemplifies the divide between the two worlds coming head-to-head in the film: big-city and hometown, royalty and commoner… Like the towering heels Lucy wears when she first goes back to Nilson’s Bay, teetering around the snowy town square (there’s always a town square!): They’re totally out of place, and that’s precisely the point. Costume designer Amanda Riley tells me that Lucy’s impractical footwear is reflective of a fish-out-of-water New Yorker packing for a supposedly brief visit to the Midwest. Over time, though, this friction gradually subsides, as our heroine begins to feel the holiday spirit.
These movies regularly make us of a handful of beloved seasonal tropes, from the treasured tradition that is holiday cookie decorating to the climactic, perspective-altering event the plot hinges on, which could be anything from saving a treasured hometown landmark (Christmas Everlasting) or salvaging the Aldovian economy (A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding.) There’s also plenty of red and green, namely in the character’s wardrobes when they’re partaking in these holiday-specific events.
In Christmas Everlasting, Lucy demonstrates the can-do holiday spirit to save childhood favorite McHenry’s Bakery, while wearing in a polished red wool coat and forest green sweater. “It’s such a powerful time for reflection and family,” explains Riley. “I just wanted something felt like it really popped and really felt like there was a lot of strength brought to the moment.” (Fun fact: At one point in the movie, Lucy wears a fit-and-flare dress by Ted Baker in a cheery holiday hue—which department store HR manager Noelle also wears in A Shoe Addict’s Christmas, costume designed by Marya Duplaga.)
The red and green might read as “on-the-nose,” but designers have other ways of referencing the season through color. “The holidays feel really wrapped in a lot of these rich colors,” Riley says, specifically of Lucy’s affinity to purple: “Purple felt very close to red, which felt like this heart-opening color, which is the whole point of the movie. Lucy is really opening her heart for the first time in a really long time.”
If you’re really paying attention, you’ll also catch some reference to beloved holiday classics—we’re talking A Christmas Carol—in the costumes. In Every Day is Christmas, Alexis is clearly the Ebenezer Scrooge time-jumping with Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future—and while a set of Victorian-costumed carolers appear in a party scene, her nod to the Charles Dickens classic is more subtle: “We play a little bit with corseting [of the Victorian era] with the form fitting-ness of her clothes,” says Hargreaves.
Arguably, the most important fashion moment in any of these films is the major community event —a black-tie party, a Christmas wedding—that usually marks the pinnacle of the plot, when the lead comes to realize the value of family, the spirit of the season, and their true sense of love and self. That’s where the show-stopping (perhaps even “princess”) gowns come in.
In A Shoe Addict’s Christmas, Noelle relishes the chance to wear a striking red halter ball gown (a noticeable departure from the streamlined, earth-toned silhouettes she wears earlier in the movie) to the climatic holiday gala. Before the winter ball in A Very Nutty Christmas—and after a shopping montage full of delightful rejects, like an ‘80s studded “Madonna”-inspired number—Kate splurges on an ivory tulle and crystal-embellished confection, which Filson custom-designed with “a lot of Cinderella elements.” (“Her skirt had 10 layers of netting and I crammed in a glitter layer in the middle,” the costume designer adds.)
Then, of course, there’s the Royal Wedding dress of A Christmas Prince: Royal Wedding. The process of picking out said dress in the movie is a metaphor for Amber’s central conflict: reconciling her practical, journalistic roots with the reality of her imminent royalty. Her options start with “inspiration from the rigid Victorian era,” according to costume designer Luminita Lungu. “Then, I went more into the past for inspiration from the Renaissance period. Therefore the entire outfit is ridiculous and flamboyant—and, of course, uncomfortable. The result needed to be ridiculous.” But in the final reveal, Amber walks down the aisle in a streamlined, more Kate Middleton-esque style, paired with high-top sneakers that are so clearly her.
“The wedding sneakers are, of course, Amber’s trademark,” Lungu adds. “The wedding outfit would not have been authentic in their absence”
Your eyes may be fixated on the seemingly fake snow, but the effort that goes into the costumes of your favorite cheesy holiday movie—as romanticized and polished as the plot points—are just as crucial in immersing the viewer in this world. That’s as true for the big ball gown reveal as it is for the earmuffs and scarves worn by the background actors you see milling about the requisite holiday market and convening for tree-lighting ceremonies.
Because when it comes to holidays, everyone has to look the part.