20 Year Whobilation: The Costumes of Whoville

Photo via IMBD How the Grinch Stole Christmas

It feels like only yesterday that Universal Pictures, Director Ron Howard and Costume Designer Rita Ryack grew our hearts two sizes with the movie release of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It has been twenty years since the iconic Whoville was brought to life through our screens giving insight into the Grinch’s past. We have come a long way since the 1957 children’s book by Dr. Suess  (Theodor Suess Geisel) first depicted the iconic character in its black and white, pink-eyed version. It was only after the 1966  carton movie gave the Grinch a makeover resulting in the classic story and visual we have all come to know and love.  Costume Designer, Rita Ryack, took the transformation another step further bringing the animated visuals to life with her designs in the 2000 theatrical release.

Images from IMBD: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

According to the Los Angeles Times, Ryack “chose a 1950s aesthetic for the film’s 450 costumes, consulting vintage cookbooks for ideas for the many food-inspired outfits and scouring flea markets and antique shops for supplies.” She was able to capture the bottom-heavy pear-shaped Whoville residents with padding resulting in wide lower extremities to give the triangular appearance.  Every detail was considered and chosen wisely from the Seussical feel of the buttons to the handmade embellishments. Many of the child-like costume embellishments were in fact homemade by tiny fingers. Ryack enlisted the help of second-graders from Ventura County Brookside Elementary School to ensure that the Whobilation costumes looked as if they were created by the Whos themselves in annual preparations for their Christmas celebration. The Scandinavian influenced knitwear was created by designers, Maria Ficalora and Susanne Cousins. They produced 250 hand-knitted pieces in just 120 days, including eight identical red-striped sweaters for Jim Carrey.

Images from Left to Right obtained from Rita Ryack’s Facebooks page – Left: “Coast of Many Toys” Center “Snowman” Right: The “Biddies” cookies and candied fruit slices – all three fabricated by Michael Curry, Photos by Ron Batzdorf on the Universal Lot

We can’t write about How the Grinch Stole Christmas without mentioning Jim Carrey’s over the top performance perfection.  However, the road to achieving the character was brutal. Carrey describes the makeup process as “being buried alive” with many articles stating that a CIA operative was brought in to teach the art of overcoming torture to help develop coping mechanisms to deal with the agony. Director, Ron Howard came to set early one day and spent hours being made up into the full Grinch ensemble as a show of solidarity and appreciation for Carrey the process he had to endure daily during production. The excruciating 8 hours of the hair and makeup process was eventually streamlined down to three hours. All the hard work from the crew and cast was worth it as Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas won for Best Makeup (Rick Baker, Gail Ryan) and was nominated for Costume Design and Art Direction.

Images from Rita Ryack’s Facebooks page -Photos by Ron Batzdorf on the Universal Lot

Carrey brought Ryack’s designs to life with his depiction of the Grinch. The ensemble was created by green dyed Yak Fur that was individually sewn onto a spandex suit.  The designs that are worn over the Yak Suit aid in depicting the character’s essence.  The lederhosen would not have been complete without the Suessical embroidery.  The specific details on all of the costumes from the ensemble to background cast are not easy to discern on screen. It is almost a guarantee that each time you re-watch the movie, you will find something in the costumes that were missed the first twenty plus times.

Images from Rita Ryack’s Facebooks page – Photos by Ron Batzdorf on the Universal Lot – Leiderhosen build by David Ridge. Right Photo – Jim Carrey posing with Baker

Many things need to be considered when designing a costume, one specific consideration is how the garment needs to move. Not only did Ryack’s costumes move in the zany whimsical Who manner that many attributed to those characters, but the production also made sure that many of the background actors wearing those stylized costumes were Cirque du Soliel performers who were able to emulate the wacky Whoville way of life.  To achieve the organized chaos, spirit and embody the characters of Whoville, the entire cast, even those actors who had an acrobatic background,  had to attend “Who School” as seen in this Youtube video.

The movie is a family affair with Ron Howard’s brother, Clint Howard as the Mayor’s assistant his father, Rance Howard as the Elderly timekeeper, and his daughter along with Christine Baranski’s daughter was cast to play Who extras. Baranski told South Jersey.com  that spending time with her daughter, Lily, in the film were fond memories, especially the 4 am makeup calls.

Photos taken from the Movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Images from Rita Ryack’s Facebooks page – Photos by Ron Batzdorf on the Universal Lot – Left: Ms Rue Who, Center: Mailman’s uniform built by Nestor at Western Costume – Right: Candy Canes built by Muto Little

From the Candy Cane Unitards, Snowman Headpieces, Table Cloth, and utensil ponchos just to name a who-bit, Ryack had an abundance of imagination and her amazing talent can be seen from Who to Who in the over 450 costumes created for the movie.

Fun Facts about the Grinch

  • Jack Nicholson and Eddie Murphy were considered for the Big Green Guy but Jim Carrey won the role and our hearts.
  • Tim Burton almost directed the movie but had a conflict and it was serendipitous that  Ron Howard would obtain the role.
  • Sir Anthony Hopkins Narrated the film and completed the task in one day.
  • Costume Designer Rita Ryack graduated from Yale and worked in Animation before making the switch to Costume Design.

Photo from the Movie – How the Grinch Stole Christmas, captured to feature the donut scarf.

While timeless is not usually a word associated with whimsy and over the top costumes, that is exactly what Costume Designer Rita Ryack created. The costumes have been enjoyed each holiday season by different generations each year. Many recreate the icon images of How the Grinch Stole Christmas on Halloween as well.

Did you know that there was a Creepy Halloween Grinch Cartoon from 1977 titled “Halloween Is Grinch Night” that won an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program? It is also referred to as “Grinch Night”. You can view it below.

What is your favorite costume from How the Grinch Stole Christmas?

From all of us at The Art of Costume – MERRY GRINCHMAS!

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