Costume Designers Never Tire of Dressing Santa and His Crew, Whether Naughty or Nice
By Valli Herman
Designing costumes for Christmas-themed movies offers a built-in kind of resource library—the vast, collective store of holiday memories and the iconic imagery that comes with them.
Far from limiting, the Santa Claus suits, elf outfits and bad sweaters inspire costume designers to create wardrobes that have become as memorable as the storylines themselves. Whether they’re dressing disheveled Santas, couture elves or kids in grandma’s bad idea of pajamas, costume designers for several classic holiday films have tapped into the childlike sense of wonder that Christmas tends to bring out in everyone. The movies have inspired sequels, Broadway plays, countless Halloween costumes, and often, ritual annual family viewings – and they all started with a sense of fun.
Mary McLeod was just a few years into her career when director Bob Clark hired her to create the wardrobe for “A Christmas Story,” the 1983 film version of Jean Shepherd’s short story about Ralphie, a boy in 1930s Hammond, Ind., who really, really wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.
Clark enlisted many of the same crew members he had just employed on “Porky’s” and “Porky’s II,” and carried forth with a similar anything-goes approach to the Christmas tale.
“You’re looking at Christmas through a kid’s eyes, so everything is bigger, brighter, more fantastic and as big as your imagination wants to go,” McLeod said. “That was key to the look of it—seeing it through Ralphie’s eyes—and then going crazy.”
Though the era and Midwestern location called for restraint, the story provided irresistible costume opportunities. When Ralphie gets pink fake-fur bunny pajamas with matching slippers from a relative, McLeod made them more ridiculous by wiring the large, floppy ears at odd angles.
The bitterly cold Northwest Indiana winters inspired another sight gag: Ralphie’s little brother is so overly bundled into a snowsuit that he can’t put his arms down.
“The special effects guy made a bracket out of Plexiglas so it would always prop his arms up,” she says. “He just had to rest his arms and look like a zombie in a bundle of boiled wool.” Adding to the humor: A yards-long scarf that his mother wraps, and wraps, around his neck.
Ralphie’s fantasy sequences had McLeod crafting a memorable sequin-saturated kid’s cowboy outfit and 10-gallon hat. “How fun is that?! That’s how that movie was—the crazier the better,” she says.
When Carol Ramsey designed 1994’s “The Santa Clause,” director John Pasquin also gave her free reign. “Anything I could dream up, I could do,” she says.
She started by researching Santa myths worldwide to get just the right look. After all, the plot revolves around a costume—Santa’s suit. After accidentally killing Santa, star Tim Allen’s character is instructed to put on the suit, which magically turns him into Santa Claus. Ramsey also had to create convincing costumes for the entire North Pole, complete with nearly 150 child actors as elves.
For Santa, Ramsey wanted a look that was just as magical as the suit. Using vivid and luscious red silk velvet, she embroidered the sleeves, trimmed it with plush, white fake fur, edged it with her personal stock of antique gold lace and cinched it with a custom-made belt and buckle adorned with Christmas motifs. A final touch: A red sash inspired by those on Civil War officers’ uniforms.
For a casual Santa look, Ramsey bought a red hand-knit sweater from a Toronto department store. Her work struck a chord. “I get calls to this day asking, ‘Where did you get that sweater?’ And, ‘Where can I get that Santa suit?’”
Though the movie shot in Toronto during a hot June, Ramsey loved making the movie.
“When you go into that world of the North Pole as a costume designer, that is the most fun thing to do,” she says. Even when Santa is naughty, not nice, creating his suit is still a creative kick, says Wendy Chuck, who dressed Billy Bob Thornton in 2003’s “Bad Santa.”
Thornton plays an alcoholic con man who works as a mall Santa so that he can rip off the stores. No couture silk and velvet for this decidedly unsaintly St. Nick. Instead, Chuck did what the character would have done: Buy the cheapest, cheesiest Santa costume she could find.
“Santa himself is really not open to interpretation,” Chuck says. “It’s about how you wear it and how you dress it.” Her skinny Santa didn’t bother with padding, but she did make sure his boots fit a whiskey flask.
Chuck was ideally equipped to shoot a Christmas movie in sunny Los Angeles that was set in arid Phoenix. She grew up in Australia where Christmas is celebrated in the heat of summer, but with all of the trappings of a winter holiday. For “Bad Santa,” she dressed the cast in the Southwest’s dusty palette, the better to contrast with Santa’s red.
No matter the setting, the infinitely adaptable Christmas tale no doubt will continue to inspire fresh, new stories—and endless, welcome opportunities for costume designers to interpret elves, Santa and the rest of his crew.
“There is a recurring rumor that they will be making a ‘Bad Santa 2,’ or a “Very Bad Santa,” says Chuck. “I relish the idea of working on that again. Bring it on!”