How to nail Christmas movie fashion, according to an acclaimed costume designer

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The creative genius behind Vanessa Hudgens’ wardrobe in The Knight Before Christmas inspires Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray to give festive fashion a chance. 

There’s nothing quite like settling down to watch a Christmas movie, is there? They make you feel warm and cosy, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, and… well, they make you feel incredibly hopeful about life, too. About the state of the world. About humanity.

Also, they’re packed to the brim with standout fashion moments, too. Don’t believe me? Think Cameron Diaz’s many, many coats in The Holiday – or Martine McCutcheon’s all-red ensemble in Love Actually. Think Zooey Deschanel in Elf, effortlessly disproving the theory that red and green should never be seen. And think every single bloody outfit Vanessa Hudgens donned in Netflix’s The Knight Before Christmas, from that lace dress to that snuggly brown cape.

In the real world, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who takes festive fashion as seriously as Hollywood’s Christmas rom-com heroines. Even I stick to my usual winter garb of safe dark colours – and I’m basically Buddy the Elf when it comes to Christmas.

This year, though, I was keen to switch things up. I wanted to emulate the gorgeous looks I see on screen every single Christmas. I wanted to live my best festive self. So who better to seek advice from than Barbara Gregusova, the acclaimed costume designer behind Hudgens’ wardrobe in the aforementioned The Knight Before Christmas?

First, a fun fact: Gregusova worked closely with Hudgens when it came to designing her wardrobe for the movie.

“I talked to Vanessa over the phone about the character as soon as I got her number,” she says, understandably (wouldn’t we all do the same in her position?), “and we discussed what she imagined Brooke would be wearing.”

She continues: “There is a difference when you are designing a contemporary film versus a period or fantasy film where we are building the costumes from scratch. For contemporary films I collaborate with the cast more because they know what works on them and we have to shop. We always over buy and then during the fittings we start eliminating by going through all the pieces on the costume rack and choosing the ones we want to try on and together we find the pieces which fit and resonate.”

Vanessa Hudgens wore a plethora of beautiful outfits in The Knight Before Christmas
Vanessa Hudgens wore a plethora of beautiful outfits in The Knight Before Christmas

And it’s not just Hudgens’ wardrobe which Gregusova worked endlessly on: it was that of on-screen love interest (and fish-outta-water knight) Josh Whitehouse’s, too.

“I wanted to tie Sir Cole’s 14th century period wardrobe with Brooke’s contemporary looks,” she tells me. “I was looking for interesting pieces for her which had beautiful details evocative of chainmail in a modern form. I wanted both of them to have something in common in a subtle way despite their different worlds. To me, that’s romantic.”

All of this is brilliant and all, but I’m desperate for Christmas dressing tips I can use myself. And so dive into it, headfirst: what are Gregusova’s top festive fashion tips?

Here’s what she had to share…

On the subject of Christmas outfit inspiration

My conversation with Gregusova is certainly eye-opening. While my festive style inspiration is firmly rooted in the big blockbuster rom-coms of Christmases past and present, Gregusova prefers to go back to the lesser-known Slovakian films she fell in love with as a child.

“I go back to my childhood in Slovakia,” she says, “such as The Feather Fairy, which was written and directed by Juraj Jakubisko, and Three Wishes for Cinderella, directed by Václav Vorlícek. Although I also love Miracle on 34th Street and Home Alone.”

On the subject of Christmas coats

It’s not long before the conversation turns to coats. After all, outerwear is obviously huge in Christmas rom coms: Hudgens wears an array of gorgeous coats in The Knight Before Christmas, Diaz dons that shearling coat in The Holiday, McCutcheon will forever in our minds be wearing her character’s red coat in Love Actually – the list goes on and on, forever and ever. And almost every single one of them has thousands of pins on Pinterest. I ask Gregusova why she believes this is – and how I can recreate that perfect outerwear look for myself this December.

“Erm, come visit my closet,” she jokes. “I love coats and I’m always in search for the perfect coat. I loved watching Miracle on 34th Street and the Susan Walker character played by Mara Wilson had the most gorgeous coats which I absolutely adored. So, when I first learned to sew, I made a jacket for my Barbie. A little later, I designed and made a coat inspired by 18th century France. But I think for each person the perfect coat means something different.”

Below: Check out Cameron Diaz’s coat in The Holiday.

Warming to her theme, Gregusova continues: “Classic lines or interesting cuts are a must. Colour, texture and fabric or the hand of the fabric – which makes you feel good when you touch it – are also important. If the colour of the coat matches your eyes, it will make your eyes pop. Most importantly, how do you feel wearing it? Happy, comfortable or empowering? Then it’s the one for you.”

I take these thoughts on board when I tackle Diaz’s look in The Holiday – and the result is nothing short of a giddying experience. I opt for Boden’s Bell Teddy Lined Coat (£99) in the natural colour option, team it with a simple white roll-neck sweater and Topshop’s Indigo Flared Jamie Jeans (£40), and finish it all off – in true Diaz style – with a pair of the highest and most comfortable stilettos I’ve ever worn (£48 from Dune, if you’re interested). 

The Holiday fashion: Kayleigh Dray dresses as Cameron Diaz
The Holiday fashion: Kayleigh Dray dresses as Cameron Diaz

It’s the sort of outfit I’ve never even dreamed of attempting before, but it works. It works so well. I love how I look in this get-up, and I love how I feel: wintry, festive, fashionable, elegant. Not just happy, but ecstatic. Impossibly, effortlessly comfortable. I look back at these photos and I just look like I am having the best possible time, confidence shining from every single pore… and that is empowerment. 

Gregusova is certainly onto something here: henceforth, I shall shut my eyes when I try on a coat and focus on how it makes me feel over all else. Because this feeling? I want to bottle it up and drink it forever.

The Holiday fashion: Kayleigh Dray dresses as Cameron Diaz
The Holiday fashion: Kayleigh Dray dresses as Cameron Diaz

On the subject of the Christmas party dress

There’s no denying that Hudgens’ red dress in The Knight Before Christmas has become the standout fashion moment of the film. I ask Gregusova why she thinks this is, and she wastes no time in responding.

“I think in the most romantic movies, there is always that special moment which involves that special dress. The lead gets dressed up in something we have never seen them in before, something a little over the top. There’s always a twinkle in the eye of their co-star in the scene when he or she first sees him or her in this special outfit, and we as the audience start to melt.”

The Knight Before Christmas: Vanessa Hudgens looks fantastic in red, which is why she's the new queen of Christmas.

But that dress, I persist. Can we talk about that dress?

“This particular dress came from Ever New, and it is one my go-to places to look for that special dress or coat because they never disappoint – and this isn’t a paid promotion,” she tells me.

Luckily for me, Next has a very similar lacy red number in stock for £48 – and it’s gorgeous: deep red lace, with sheer sleeves and a beautiful fit-and-flare silhouette. I team it with a pair of golden embellished slingback heels from ASOS (£35), because I’m determined to be as extra as possible in this ensemble. But I soon wish I’d ordered two size options in this dress, as it becomes apparent I’ve spectacularly failed to allow for my – hmm, let’s call it generous – bust size (I’m a 32G). As such, the dress is ever so slightly too small for me, and so my Christmas party dreams are finished before they’ve even started. And yet… well, that colour is still perfect. It is perfect. And so I wear it for a little while around the office, just to make myself feel better about it all. 

The Knight Before Christmas: Kayleigh tries to find THAT red dress
The Knight Before Christmas: Kayleigh tries to find THAT red dress

Fun fact: I’m visiting my nearest Next IRL to try this dress on in as many sizes to find the perfect fit. I am point-blank obsessed.

On having fun with festive fashion

It’s not all about the glamour, of course. Gregusova advises me to add “at least one ugly Christmas sweater” to my wardrobe, too, to look out some “tights with interesting prints”, and to have fun with patterns and colour.

“You need a cosy sweater, and something with sparkles,” she adds. “Don’t leave out snowflakes, match it with a nice pair of jeans or pants, and a cute pair of boots. Add a chic coat, a beret or a toque with a pom pom. Look for interesting details, fabrics or prints and button details. And don’t be afraid of colour.”

I take all of this on board when I attempt to recreate Deschanel’s red-and-green outfit from the hit movie, Elf. Joe Browns has a gorgeous array of corduroy pinafores at the moment, and I select a rich burgundy one (£50) with pin tuck details, shiny buttons, and insanely cute details to the pockets. I layer it over a dark green long-sleeved top (£7.99) from New Look, and throw in a pair of gently twinkling tights from White Stuff (£17.50). You can’t see it in this photo, but there’s a discreet silver snowflake pendant (£28, Not On The High Street) in the mix, too. And I feel…

Well, I feel extraordinarily festive, and that’s an understatement to say the least. This is, quite possibly, the most fun I’ve had with fashion in a long old while, and I notice colleagues smiling at me fondly as I pose beside the office Christmas tree. Better still? All of these pieces work separately, too, meaning I can wear them over and over again, in a multitude of ways, never creating the same outfit twice. Sustainable, eh? Greta Thunberg would surely approve.

Elf: Kayleigh Dray gets her Christmas elf on
Elf: Kayleigh Dray gets her Christmas elf on

In the meantime, though, I know this is the only thing worth wearing on 25 December. Sure, the red dress is the big party moment, and the gorgeous coat and heels combo is ideal for the office, but this? This is ‘Christmas at home with the family’, summed up in the most sartorial way possible.

Who knew Elf would prove such a fashion winner, eh?

On adding romance to our Christmas wardrobes

When I ask Gregusova how to spin some of that movie romance into my winter wardrobe, she has one word for me: “Experiment!”

She continues: “Trying clothes on in the store doesn’t cost anything. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. Don’t wear only black. There are a lot of beautiful colours out there. And, if you prefer simplicity in your wardrobe, play with accessories like belts and hats… maybe a nice textured beret? Accessories can definitely bring the outfit to next level.”

Love Actually: Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon
Love Actually: Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon

It’s all I need to inspire my next movie moment: McCutcheon’s all-red look in Love Actually. Because, let’s face it, other than the third lobster, McCutcheon’s Natalie is 100% the character we all picture when we screw up our eyes and picture the film’s festive fashion. It’s always that red coat, teamed with a matching jumper and white beret.

Wallis provides the red tailored coat (now £30 in the sale), and I layer it over Phase Eight’s cherry-red sweater (£32) for that iconic red-on-red look. Heeding Gregusova’s advice, I source a red belt (£6.99, H&M) and a beautiful wool beret (£6, ASOS), too. The result is nothing short of magnificent: my colleagues shower me with compliments as I show off my new look, and they instantly know where I took inspiration from, too. “OH MY GOD, YOU’RE NATALIE FROM LOVE ACTUALLY!” one shrieks, with sudden realisation.

Love Actually: Kayleigh Dray gives us her best Martine McCutcheon
Love Actually: Kayleigh Dray gives us her best Martine McCutcheon

Yes, yes I am. And, just as I did in the Boden coat, I’m feeling very, very good about this look. In fact, I feel sad when it comes to taking it all off again. Who knew I’d be so comfortable in such a bold colour palette, eh?

On what to do when it all goes wrong

There are outfits which prove less successful, and it’s nothing to do with the clothes. I attempt Keira Knightley’s cropped white jumper (ASOS, £18), teaming it with a sparkling pair of sequin pumps (£14, also ASOS) and something I’ve been lusting after for ages: a pair of E.L.V DENIM’s cult eco-friendly boyfriend jeans (£315) in the lightest, most delicate shade of blue. I look in the mirror at the finished effect, and I shake my head. I swap the jeans for a pair of Next’s insanely comfy high-waisted skinny jeans (£115), for a little more coverage. Just like the first pair, though, they look great… until I pair them with that jumper.

Why? Well, I guess I feel uncomfortable having my belly out in the middle of winter. It’s been a chilly, rainy December, for starters, and I recently blistered my poor stomach using a too-hot hot water bottle (don’t ask). This is not the look for me, and it leaves me uncharacteristically upset. Every single item is well-made and gorgeous, but they make me feel the opposite.

As such, I wave away my colleague when she attempts to photograph me for the article. “Not this one,” I tell her, mutinously crossing my arms over my goose-pimpled stomach. She rolls her eyes at me – she thinks I look fine – but if there’s anything I’ve learned from Gregusova, it’s to focus on how I feel and not how I look.

The experience leaves me sour on the whole experiment, so I ask Gregusova, in desperation, why festive fashion always looks so much better on screen. And her answer is immediately reassuring.

“There’s direction, production design, hair, make-up, cinematography, and lighting,” she reminds me gently. “Teams of talented people help. For costumes we make alterations and not everything fits off the rack. Each department makes those screen moments look beautiful.”

Her comments remind me of a conversation I once had with a male friend after my interview with Ane Crabtree (as in, yes, the same Ane Crabtree who designed those iconic red outfits in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Ignoring the fact that Crabtree’s designs have now become a symbol of real resistance, he scoffed at my finished article.

“There’s so many more important things you could have focused on,” he told me, and I was gutted.

So what would Gregusova say to someone like this, who dismisses the importance of costume design and fashion in a movie or TV show, I wonder.

“What do you see on the screen the most?” she says, when I ask her. “Actors in their costumes. Costume designers and their work need to work with the production team, the sets, the dressing, the action but most importantly the character. Some costumes help the actor to portray their part and the help can just come by wearing that perfect pair of shoes. They are vital but shouldn’t compete or stand out too much, unless the script calls for it.”

She adds: “Maybe just imagine how movies would look without any costumes.”

I give it my best attempt, and the result makes me feel as if my heart (in the style of The Grinch) has shrunk about two sizes. Christmas movies are basically greetings cards brought to life, and we need all the trappings to help their beautiful messages of love, hope and friendship to shine through all the brighter.

And, with that in mind, I’m off to buy a sparkly bobble hat. Merry Christmas, one and all!

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Images: Alessia Armenise/Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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