White Christmas (1954) likely could have been about anything and become a hit movie. It starred Bing Crosby, one of the most popular singer/actors in the world, joined by Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney, as well as newcomer Vera-Ellen. The film is a showcase of Irving Berlin music, fine dance numbers, and just enough plot to string it all together.
White Christmas is lush and colorful, filmed in Technicolor and produced as the first film using Paramount’s VistaVision widescreen variant of the 35mm motion picture film format. In purpose and composition, it has all the elements a true holiday spectacle.
Though often an overlooked element of film composition, what every spectacle needs is a stunning wardrobe that fits the presence and personality of its characters. For White Christmas, that wardrobe was provided by legendary costume designer Edith Head.
Head was a dynamo in Hollywood from the late 1940s through the mid 1970s. She 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. As Pretty Clever Films writes, “Her costumes help to communicate the personalities and motivations of the characters, as well as highlighting the attributes of the actors themselves.”
In White Christmas, Head designed for both the male and female actors. The wardrobe ran the spectrum, ranging from contemporary daywear of the 1950s to big, flamboyant performance costumes employed in the film’s musical numbers. With four characters to dress, each individually distinct, such design is a challenge. PCF continues, “As the film progresses, we witness two of the characters, Clooney and Kaye, blossom through their costumes. It’s almost as if Head is advancing character development through style, and the audience feels as if the layers of the characters’ personalities are being peeled back to reveal their true selves.”
Head’s bold use of color is extremely prominent in White Christmas. The film’s story moves from the sunny warmth of Florida up to a Vermont ski lodge. The film’s two central girls, the Haynes Sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), wear tropical turquoises in Miami. Their costumes transform to the nautral deep greens and blacks of the Northeast as the story progresses. The first time we see them in Florida, they are dressed in red and white Christmas robes. Shortly after, they perform their act in a pair of bright, fitted turquoise outfits that would have captivated the Technicolor audiences of 1954.
Head puts the Barbie-shaped Vera-Ellen in tight, vibrant styles that match her outgoing personality. Of the sisters, she is the more outgoing and liberal character, often contrasted by the respectability of Clooney’s sister.
As Clooney emerges as the love interest of Crosby’s character, the transformation is seen through a black velvet gown, adorned with cut decolletage and a beautiful pinned brooch in the rear. It is a challenge to think of a more remarkable dress worn in film.
As noted, both the males and females were dressed by Head for White Christmas. She enjoyed the opportunity to dress men, as their egotism about costuming was far less extreme. Having done costuming for a number of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road pictures prior to White Christmas, she knew exactly how to make Crosby's character shine. Crosby and Kaye are both regularly adorned with tailored suits so the longest possible lines are maintained while dancing, and to give the men a poised, statuesque look.
Edith Head enjoyed the way men’s suits amplified clean lines and tailored cuts. These principles can be seen all through her work for both genders -- from Kim Novak’s suits in Vertigo (1958) to Clooney’s yellow blouse and pencil skirt in White Christmas.
When the story reaches its conclusion and the gang effectively brings the holiday (both in spirit and in substance) back to Vermont, the outfits scream Christmas. They look extreme today, but as they mark the culmination of a showy film narrative about the charitable spirit of the holidays, they work.
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 was no exception, giving the designer full reign to work on the entire cast of characters as her own personal design playground. The actual story of White Christmas is somewhat forgettable -- what makes it a classic are its performances, songs, charm, and visuals. Technicolor and lavish sets made those visuals pop, but Head's costume design brings it all together.