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Designing for Timeless Merry Little Christmas Classics

A lot of people are tired of the traditional Christmas films.  How many times can a person watch "It's a Wonderful life" and does anyone really want to watch black and white movies anymore?

 Holiday Inn Fred Astaire

Holiday Inn 1942 Costumes Designed by Edith Head

For me, those holiday classics hold memories, simplicity, and happily ever afters that just make everything seem a little brighter in an often times very gray world.  Colorizing didn't make these movies more interesting to me - I could already feel the colors without seeing them.

Holiday inn

Designing clothing for black and white films was much more difficult than one would imagine.  It was essential to use the proper contrast and details to make the clothing have a defined presence in the film.  

holiday inn christmas

"When you do a black-and-white film, and remember I have worked in both, you have to depend on two things. You have to depend on extreme contrast, to get variation in light and shade. Then you have to be much more intricate in construction of clothes and much more elaborate in accessories, decoration, embroidery and things of that sort.…you take a girl in a perfectly simple beige, blue, or rose dress or sweater and skirt, with nothing on it – just a beautiful, glowing color, and it’s beautiful. It’s magic on the screen. In black-and-white, here’s a perfectly beautiful stark grey figure with no delineation, no line in between." Edith Head - The American Institute Seminars

Jimmy Stewart Donna Reed

It's A Wonderful Life 1946 - Costumes designed by Edward Stevenson

I have had the great to honor and privilege to work with some of today's best costume designers on major films over the years and I can tell you that I've gained an incredible amount of respect for what they do. They have so many factors to consider including; the script itself, the art director's vision, the director's vision, the accuracy of the time period, the location and time of year of the film, and the personalities, sizes and appearances of the actors and characters themselves.


Back when most of the classic films were made, the costume designers weren't as concerned with being period correct as they were with appealing to the style sense of the modern day audience. It's a Wonderful Life is a great example of that. Mary's dress here hardly looks like it is from the 1920's.  It was also common for the studio to recycle the costumes and use them in later films. The costumes didn't hold the same importance or value that they do today.  As a result, many of the originals don't exist anymore, or were changed beyond recognition for re-use.

Donna Reed Jimmy Stewart

So when colorizing films, unless someone is still alive who can verify the colors used, color choices are based on educated guesses.  

its a wonderful life swimming pool dance scene

But for me, there is something really magical about black and white films.  I think it allows the viewer to see the film without distraction.  The clothing is still so fascinating, and in some cases, the details are even more pronounced.  

Its a wonderful life hat


In a hectic, over produced, over scheduled, over screened world, the escape to the simplicity of black and white movies can bring a calming, welcomed relief.

miracle on 34th street

Maureen O'Hara and Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street 1947 Costumes designed by Kay Nelson

Being someone who considers aesthetics as essential as air, I care a great deal about color, don't get me wrong!  But I can appreciate and soak in black and white films for their own aesthetic value and I find the contrast of the films to be truly beautiful. 

miracle on 34th street movie


Once technicolor became the norm, it was hard for most people to go back to watching black and white on the screen again.  After all, when Dorothy landed in Oz, we all felt that color magic that transported us to a brighter world.

Meet Me in St. Louis Judy Garland

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis 1944 Costumes designed by Irene Sharaff

Judy Garland Meet Me in St. Louis

When Vincent Minelli used saturated color in "Meet me in St. Louis" in 1944, it was a technicolor masterpiece that was only second in popularity to "Gone with the Wind."

judy garland meet me in st louis striped dress

Judy Garland red dress Meet me In St. Louis

Irene Sharaff costume designer  

By the time White Christmas came along, we no longer needed to wonder about the color of Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen's feathered fans - we already knew they were blue.

sisters white christmas

White Christmas 1954 Costumes designed by Edith Head

vera ellen white christmas

rosemary clooney white christmas

White Christmas

Designing for color films took on new challenges for costume designers that they embraced and met.   Color gave fashion on film new meaning, but I'm not convinced that it was the color that makes us still pine for Grace Kelly's wardrobe or if it was the way she twirled into a room and carried herself with such.. well, grace.

Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder 1954 Costumes designed by Edith Head

And I'm not sure that Audrey Hepburn needed color - ever.

Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany's 1961 Costumes by Edith Head and Givenchy

My favorite designer, Gilbert Adrian, designed for film before there was a category for costume design at the Academy Awards and he never needed color to showcase his extraordinary talent.

Jean harlow gilbert adrian

Jean Harlow Dinner at Eight in Gilbert Adrian gown

For me, there is still magic in the history and simplicity of black and white movies.  The Christmas movies especially hold timeless truths that can't be altered by any color method or fashion trend.  Whether it be a man who gave up his dreams to save something bigger than himself or a little girl who believes in Santa Claus, there is always a nugget of goodness to be found. 

 Its a wonderful life

So, whether you watch them in the colorized or black and white versions, let these timeless classics inspire you to take the time to be kind to others and to enjoy a simple moment this holiday season.  Put away your screens, make some tea and maybe even lasso a moon for the one you love!

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