Christmas is often connected for many with “ugly” reindeer sweaters or neckties featuring snowmen. And on the big screen, that’s especially true: There’s a general agreement that bad fashion flourishes during the holiday season because of all the paper crowns, Santa hats, and clashing colors, from Nora Krank’s gaudy, mistletoe-embroidered vest in “Christmas with the Kranks” to Mark Darcy’s Rudolph turtleneck in “Bridget Jones’ Diary.”
However, this need not be the case, as demonstrated by one specific holiday classic: The 2000 live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which received an Oscar nomination for costume designer Rita Ryack’s work, served as a reminder to audiences that dressing up need not be boring and that Christmas can and should be stylish. The maximalist interpretation of the Seussian origin story, which narrates the redemption arc of the irascible green anti-hero (Jim Carrey) who stole Christmas from the Whos of Whoville, was a far cry from the ultra-glamorous vision of Yuletide dressing that was available elsewhere.
In the avant-garde movie, Taylor Momsen played a young Cindy Lou Who, dressed to kill in coats, pajamas, and dresses with peter-pan collars and puff sleeves.
Molly Shannon (as Betty Lou Who) wore a surrealist teacup fascinator with her plaid corset frock, which was another striking ensemble. With regard to the couture cup-and-saucer look, Ryack declared, “It made the fashion world.” Soon after the movie’s premiere, she recalls going to a Versace store in Las Vegas and seeing mannequins decked out in their own teacup hats. “That was a pretty compliment to me.”
The Grinch’s lustful love interest, played by Christine Baranski, Martha May Whovier, is known for her theatrical costumes, which have recently gained a new following on the internet.
These days, Martha May costumes can be made at home with the help of YouTube tutorials made by Gen Z “Grinch” fashion enthusiasts, and several Etsy sellers are offering made-to-order replicas. Every December, images of Baranski on film, dressed in a Hollywood-style robe trimmed with ostrich feathers and powder blue and white, reappear on social media platforms such as clockwork. One Whoville fan described him as “the fashion icon” on X. “She did it better than anyone.”
Ryack finds the resurgence of interest surprising as well. “I discovered yesterday that Martha May is legendary,” she said over the phone from her Los Angeles residence. “That’s insane.”
While the Whos’ wardrobe was kept straightforward in the 1957 children’s book and the 1966 animated television special (nightgowns, leggings, jackets, and bow ties in a streamlined palette with Seussian flourishes), Ryack was encouraged to be imaginative in the live-action adaptation.
Ryack remarked, “I had grown up with Dr. Seuss; his style was so energetic, upbeat, and animated.” The challenge was to figure out how to record his drawings in three dimensions.
Texture was her answer: chenille, chemise, tufts, fleece, pom-poms, bouclé, corduroy, crochet, and chartreuse. “We worked on a great deal of fuzzy, mohair sweaters,” she remarked. “We attempted to create intarsia sweaters using actual shapes from the book.” A padded bodysuit served as the foundation for all of Ryack’s costumes, molding nearly every Who in Whoville into the shape of a pear.
With the exception of Martha May, whose silhouettes instead referenced 1950s fashion. “Because the movie was about family,” the actress remarked. “And as I got older, I developed a bond with specific visual objects.”
A specific image stuck in my mind: the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The late British monarch, who probably had no idea that she had served as a fashion inspiration, even attended the film’s London premiere. “I remember being incredibly excited about the gowns and Princess Margaret when I was a small child,” Ryack recalled.I adored the flowing skirt, the corset-like tops, and the tight bodice. They struck me as being really elegant and feminine.
Martha May’s Christmas ceremony dress was one look that was specifically inspired by the voluminous skirts and hourglass silhouettes. The forest green tulle that adorned the voluminous skirt was trimmed to create a sweetheart neckline on the velvet-crimson embellished bodice. Ryack remarked, “I was crazy about tulle.”
Actor and comedian Lucille Ball from the 1950s served as another source of inspiration for Martha May’s signature look. “I gave Lucille some thought,” Ryack remarked. There’s also a hint of musical comedy in Martha’s attire.
But if you blink, you might miss the Ball allusion. In one scene, Martha May wears the trouser and dress combo made popular by Ball in the 1951 sitcom “I Love Lucy” and sits on her sofa to narrate her first memories with the Grinch. “It didn’t receive much screen time,” Ryack bemoans. “However, it’s really amazing.” Ball had a reputation on the show for throwing dinner parties in a long housecoat over cigarette pants. At one point, Ball’s attempt to give her landlady, Ethel, a pair of pants even became a plot point. Ball remarked, “I saw them in Harper’s Bazaar last month.” The zinger is delivered to her: “Well, they’re certainly bizarre.”
The blue duchess satin used in Martha May’s version featured a portrait collar that accentuated her string of pearls. A huge taffeta bow was wrapped around Baranski’s waist. “Comic relief is a detail that has been exaggerated.” Subtle exaggerations combined with powerful silhouettes.
According to Ryack, there was nothing Baranski wouldn’t wear. Not every actress could, in my opinion, pull off (the pieces). But Christine was willing to do anything. She is adept at dressing up.
Among them is the sultry Mrs. Claus costume, a red and white minidress with fur trim that is worn when Martha May provocatively fires Christmas lights from a cannon. This is the item from the movie that Ryack would most like to possess. She remarked, “I like the Santa costume.” It’s sexy and entertaining. (Baranski) moves erratically, shooting those decorations while circling around.
Would she make any changes now that everyone is reliving Whoville and Ryack’s costumes as the holidays approach? She declared, “I want to change everything.” “Well, Martha is not someone I want to change. But all I would really want to do is go back and repeat some of it.