Although Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, has been a holiday classic since 1954, I finally got around to watching it only recently (I know I know). I of course discovered what so many people already know: it’s a wonderful movie full of good cheer, great songs by Berlin, lush set designs and snazzy musical numbers. It’s holiday gold.
What I was most taken with, though, are the dazzling costume designs of the legendary Edith Head. Head was nominated for 35 Academy Awards for costume design throughout her career and won eight of them, well more than any other costume designer in history. Although she was not nominated for White Christmas, her costumes for it still showcase her immense talent.
As the movie moves from an outdoor nightclub in Miami to the colder climes of Vermont, Head communicates this to us through her choice of textiles, color palette and intricate attention to details. She took advantage of Technicolor in her designs, from the vivid blue dresses that Vera-Ellen and Clooney wear in the “Sisters” number to Vera-Ellen’s vibrant yellow and sassy bright pink dance-practice dresses.
All of the dance-number costumes are glittering, and the party gowns, cocktail dresses and general every-day looks for the actors are glamorous and in the fashion of the day that was at its height: Christian Dior’s “New Look.” Featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and a full skirt, the New Look celebrates ultra-femininity and opulence. Head also perfectly matches the costumes with the characters’ personalities: Clooney’s character Betty is sleek and controlled, while Vera-Ellen’s Judy is all about the swish and swirl. The men also look dashing throughout.
There is a whole wonderland of festive fashions in the movie, and these are some of my favorites:
The Mod Turquoise
No palette from the mid-century modern era is complete without a shade of turquoise, a fresh, fun and timeless color. Here it’s showcased beautifully in the “Sisters” number, with the tea-length tulle and Chantilly lace confections that epitomize '50s’ fashion, and giant ostrich-feather fans. You can see the bits of glimmer and light sparkling from the tulle and there are also crystals or sequins in the feather fans that flash when they catch the light.
After the ladies change out of their matching turquoise outfits, they each shine in their own styles and colors from that point onward. Here Betty (Clooney) is in a lovely lavender (or maybe periwinkle) chiffon cocktail dress and Judy (Vera-Ellen) in a pale pink chiffon dress that shimmers with sequins. Head used a lot of sequins in this movie.
It’s also a dress that’s made for twirling and as she and Kaye glide and spin around dreamily to “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” you see not only Vera-Ellen’s amazing footwork, but also the surprise reveal of those layers of darker pink underneath the skirt. Beautiful. Kaye also looks handsome head to toe in gray.
Once the movie leaves Miami and the tropical palette, the shades start moving into Christmas color territory, exemplified by Vera-Ellen’s traveling outfit on the train ride to Vermont in warm gold/mustard yellow. I love how simple and tidy the turtleneck and cinched skirt are, but that big brooch or medallion fob embellishment on the belt and bracelet in the same color really add oomph and elevate the outfit.
The outfit also includes a matching coat that’s accessorized with black gloves and hat, and a cheetah-print scarf and handbag - and the hat has the same cheetah-print on top. Such a great touch.
I also love the way Head pulls the mustard/gold color of the coat to Crosby’s scarf to frame the scene. It’s marvelous detail. This color is also picked up later in a blouse Clooney wears with a long black pencil skirt and a cardigan Kaye dons.
At a holiday party in Vermont, Rosemary Clooney wears this deep forest green velvet frock in all its glory, with that wonderful New Look silhouette and delicate strapping detail around the neckline that carries over to the back of the dress.
The White Sweater Set
Although I am not a fan of white for clothing, I think this Vera-Ellen costume of a turtleneck and fit-and-flare skirt is gorgeous for its detailing: that ruching at the hip and especially those gold or silver rhinestone embellishments on the front and back of the sweater in what looks like an argyle pattern that add sparkle and shine. To me, they signal that the needed snow is on its way.
The Day Wear
This Vera-Ellen outfit is my second favorite in the movie. It’s a study in contrast, with the graphical punch of the black paired with white, and the houndstooth that combines them both; if that wasn’t enough, there are the flashes of color, with the red belt and matching red shoes. It’s so chic and pulled together, and sheer perfection. The only little quibble I have is that the skirt is so full, I would have loved to see its twirl-ability in action just once.
I have to give a shout-out to Crosby and Kaye, too, who look smart in the tailored fit and clean lines of their suits and other clothing.
Love may not be doing right by Betty at this point in the movie, but this glorious gown sure is and it’s my favorite costume of them all. Clooney is a sultry vision in this black velvet mermaid-style gown as she croons, “Love Didn’t Do Right By Me.” And just when you think Head has outdone herself with the sexy cut-outs along the décolletage, and the long white evening gloves lavishly swathed in silver-sparkled extravagance, Betty turns around and ...
BAM! You see that gorgeous, giant brooch pinned above the bustle. This outfit is just stunning and Clooney looks incredible in it.
Titular Outfits for the Titular Song
Everything culminates in the grand finale on Christmas Eve, when the story reaches its conclusion and the foursome effectively brings the holiday (both in spirit and substance) back to Vermont. A grand finale needs grand costumes, and with all of their white fur, red velvet, red silk charmeuse and sequins galore, these ones scream Christmas and of course go perfectly with the titular song, "White Christmas."
I also adore the not one, not two, but three giant holly and leaf brooches Clooney is wearing, and Crosby's own sequin sparkle.
The 1950s were arguably Edith Head’s heyday for costume design, as some of her most memorable work was produced during the decade. White Christmas is no exception. What makes the movie such a holiday classic are its performances, song and dance numbers, heartwarming charm and splendid visuals of the Technicolor, lavish sets - and Head’s costume design brings it all together.