For many, Christmas is a time typically associated with “ugly” reindeer sweaters or snowman neckties. And that’s particularly the case on the big screen: From Nora Krank’s garish, mistletoe-embroidered vest in “Christmas with the Kranks” to Mark Darcy’s Rudolph turtleneck in “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” there’s a consensus that, between all the paper crowns, Santa hats and clashing colors, bad fashion thrives during the festive season.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and one particular holiday classic is proof: Costume designer Rita Ryack’s Oscar-nominated work on the 2000 live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” reminded viewers that bundling up needn’t be boring, and that Christmas can — and should — be chic. The ultra-glamorous vision of Yuletide dressing was a far cry from what was on offer elsewhere; a maximalist take on the humble Seussian origin story, which follows the redemption arc of the irascible green anti-hero (Jim Carrey) who snatched Christmas away from the Whos of Whoville.
The fashion-forward film saw then-child star Taylor Momsen as little Cindy Lou Who, in an impressive wardrobe filled with puff-sleeved, peter-pan collared dresses, coats and pajamas.
Another memorable look was the plaid corset frock paired with a surrealist teacup fascinator worn by Molly Shannon (playing Betty Lou Who). “It made the fashion world,” said Ryack of the couture cup-and-saucer look. She remembers visiting a Versace boutique in Las Vegas shortly after the film’s release and saw mannequins dressed in their own teacup hats. “I was pretty complimented by that.”
Most notable, however, were the theatrical costumes of Martha May Whovier — the Grinch’s lustful love interest, played by Christine Baranski — which have recently found a new audience online.
Today, Gen Z “Grinch” fashion enthusiasts have created YouTube tutorials detailing how to make Martha May costumes at home, while a number of Etsy sellers advertise made-to-order replicas. Screenshots of Baranski on set in a powder blue and white ostrich feather-trimmed Hollywood-style robe resurface on social media sites like clockwork every December. “The fashion icon of Whoville,” wrote one fan on X. “No one did it like her.”
The renewed interest is even a surprise for Ryack. “I found out yesterday that Martha May is iconic,” she said via telephone from her home in Los Angeles. “It’s crazy.”
While both the original children’s book from 1957 and the animated television special from 1966 kept the Whos’ fashion simple — nightdresses, leggings, jackets and bow-ties in a streamlined palette and Seussian flourishes — in the live-action adaptation, Ryack was encouraged to be fantastical.
“I had grown up with Dr. Seuss, his style was so energetic and upbeat — and animated,” said Ryack. “The problem was to figure out how to capture his drawings in 3D.”
Her solution was texture: tufts, fleece, pom-poms, bouclé, corduroy, crochet, chenille, chemise and chartreuse. “We did a lot of sweaters, all mohair and all fuzzy,” she said. “We tried to take actual shapes from the book and make them into intarsia sweaters.” The base layer to each of Ryack’s costumes was a padded bodysuit, sculpting almost every Who in Whoville into a distinct pear shape.
Except for Martha May, that is, whose silhouettes instead drew on styles from the 1950s. “Because (the film) was about family,” she said. “And it’s when I grew up, so I had an attachment to certain visual things.”
One visual in particular was the memory of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation (The late British monarch even attended the film’s London premiere, though likely unaware of the fashion inspiration she’d provided.) “When I was a tiny little girl I was so excited about the gowns and Princess Margaret,” said Ryack.” I loved the tight bodice, the flowing skirt, those corset-like tops. I thought they were so feminine and beautiful.”
The grand skirts and hourglass silhouettes inspired one look in particular: Martha May’s Christmas ceremony dress. The velvet crimson embellished bodice had a sweetheart neckline, finished with a trimmed edge of the same forest green tulle that made up the voluminous skirt. “I was crazy about tulle,” said Ryack.
Another inspiration for Martha May’s signature style was 1950s actor and comedian Lucille Ball. “I thought a little bit about Lucille,” said Ryack. “Martha’s clothes have a little bit of musical comedy spirit as well.
Blink and you might miss the Ball reference, though. In one scene, as Martha May recounts her earliest memories with the Grinch, she sits on her sofa in a “hostess” outfit — a trouser and dress combination popularized by Ball in the 1951 sitcom “I Love Lucy.” (“It didn’t get much screen time,” laments Ryack. “But it’s quite stunning.”) On the show, Ball was known to wear a long housecoat over cigarette pants while hosting dinner parties. The “hostess” pants even became a plotline during one episode when Ball tries to give her landlady, Ethel, a pair. “I saw them last month in Harper’s Bazaar,” said Ball. She’s met with the zinger: “Well, they’re certainly bizarre.”
Martha May’s version was made from blue duchess satin, with a portrait collar to emphasize her string of pearls. Around Baranski’s waist was a giant taffeta bow. “It’s an exaggerated detail, which is what I mean by comedy. Little exaggerations and strong silhouettes.”
There was nothing, Ryack said, that Baranski wasn’t up for wearing. “I don’t think every actress could pull (the pieces) off. But Christine was so game. She knows how to work a costume.”
Including the racy Mrs. Claus outfit, a red and white fur trimmed mini dress worn as Martha May suggestively shoots Christmas lights out of a cannon. If Ryack could own any piece from the movie, it would be this one. “I like the Santa costume,” she said. “It’s fun, and very sexy. (Baranski) is very aggressive, flouncing around and shooting those decorations.”
Now, as the world revisits Whoville and the costumes of Ryack once more in the countdown to the holidays, would she change anything? “I want to change everything,” she said. “Well, I don’t want to change Martha. But I would just love to go back and do some of it again.”