I remember going back and forth over what to wear to all the parties back home last Christmas. How visible to be, how comfortable to be, how me to be. I’m from notoriously blue Massachusetts, home of marriage equality. But I knew my gender nonconforming version of dressing up for the holidays wasn’t going to look like anyone else’s at pretty much any holiday party I went to with my family. Plus, that I would be one of few—if not the only queer person at all of them. But I also knew I wouldn’t be comfortable unless I dressed like myself.
That’s why I’m glad Happiest Season gave us Abby, a soft butch romantic lead who is so thoroughly herself. Played by Kristen Stewart, Abby’s style is queer, gorgeous, and specific. While debate continues on the movie’s themes (#TeamRiley), part of me just wants to thirst-tweet KStew; another part of me wants to raid her closet. Beyond that, I consider what it would have meant to me to see this character when I was a teenager.
Costumes help tell the audience who these characters are. That’s especially important with LGBTQ characters, a community for whom presentation is an expression of self that’s often denied elsewhere. That’s certainly true for Harper (Mackenzie Davis). We see Harper at her freest in the opening scenes, at home in Pittsburgh with her girlfriend Abby. For Harper, lying to her family about who she is doesn’t just mean making up a story about Abby being a roommate. It also means altering her appearance.
We chatted with Happiest Season costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager about how clothing played into the characters’ identities. Speaking about Harper, Felix-Hager said, “She starts off fully herself, and when she goes home to her family, she slowly stats regressing and hiding herself.”
Felix-Hager explained that they didn’t so much think in terms of femme or masc, passing or visibly queer; rather, who was comfortable in their own skin. Sadly, the entire plot hinges on Harper not being there yet. In Felix-Hager’s mind, once she’s home, Harper is “trying to please her mom and be the perfect daughter. The green dress at the end is so young and girly and rather juvenile. That’s when she’s at her most lost.”
On the other end of the self-acceptance spectrum, there’s Kristen Stewart’s Abby, who’s always in a mix of soft and hard elements. Sexily disheveled in a waffle shirt and double-breasted peacoat. Felix-Hager, who also worked on Veep and Dexter, said, “She is super comfortable in her skin and has a self-assuredness that I wanted reflected in her costumes.” And then there’s the show-stopping outfit: Abby devastatingly slouchy-sexy-cool in an open-neck silk shirt, textured dove grey blazer, and black velvet ribbon (which Felix-Hager snipped herself) draped around her neck. It’s an image that rightfully broke queer and wlw Twitter the weekend Happiest Season premiered.
Felix-Hager said, “A dress never felt right for her character.” That seems obvious looking at Abby; but some struggle to imagine what it means for women to dress up without dresses, skirts, or a femme aesthetic until they see it in front of them. While Harper and her ex Riley might “pass,” Abby does not, due to her distinctly visible queerness, as Dan Levy’s character John jokingly noted. (“Have they ever met a lesbian!?”) Including Abby in the movie is a signal to viewers that she and people like her matter. They deserve to look amazing, and they deserve to find love and lead stories.
We can (and should!) debate the queer credentials of Happiest Season, but surely one of the merits is that it features four LGBTQ characters, all of whom have their own distinct style that helps tell the story of who they are. As I learned from the chat, Kristen Stewart had some input on how her character dressed. She wore a pair of her own Adidas in the movie and picked Felix-Hager’s own pair of boots as well.
Aubrey Plaza’s Riley, queen of powersuits, uses clothing as an olive branch, or something of a shibboleth. When a sideways attempt at talking to Abby about her situation with Harper doesn’t work, Riley tries one more time. She says, “Nice sweater,” a coded way of communicating, “I see you,” and “Yes, you’re among family—you’re safe.” If a casual straight observer happened upon the conversation, they might see no difference from Harper’s friends gushing and gabbing. But Riley’s quick remark is the kind that so many of us have made or received in public spaces. A conversational equivalent of “the nod.” A moment of recognition, of seeing and being seen.
A more cowardly version of Happiest Season would not have encouraged Kristen Stewart to infuse Abby with her own androgynous energy. Harper’s clothing would remain static, rather than having an arc to support the arc of emotional turbulence her character experiences. We don’t have to imagine what this movie looks like. This year, the Hallmark Channel produced The Christmas House, its first movie with a queer storyline. (This came in response to a boycott of the network following their pulling of a Zola commercial that featured two brides kissing.) It’s nearly identical to all other Hallmark movies, in a way that some see as equality. But this also sets strict parameters around the type of LGBTQ people the channel deems acceptable: those who seem as straight as possible.
Happiest Season is the kind of silly, sappy, aspirational wish fulfillment that straights take for granted. Everybody lives happily ever after, holiday hijinks! Unfortunately, films featuring queer women in the present tense are still thin on the ground, and even more so if you look for happy endings. Hot people on screen falling in love while wearing fun, gorgeous clothes feels like an extravagance, but here it is, in vintage Thom Browne and clothes my friends and I actually want to wear.
This Christmas may well see a run on velvet ribbon and a slew of selfies in slouchy silk shirts. But what’s actually so hot about Abby’s look is that she is so thoroughly comfortable in her own skin. Whether you look like Abby, love an Abby, or think someday you might want to do either of those things, Happiest Season is a rare affirmation that we all deserve to feel gorgeous and loved.