This is my contribution to a mammoth blogathon event created by Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club, Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen that coincides with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar, February 1 to March 3, 2013. It’ll be a month filled with fabulous tales and screen wonders.
I’ve agreed to do a post on the famed costume designer Edith Head as I love fashion and movies. Seems like an easy subject right? Well, not quite. I found myself quite stumped as to where to start. I mean she has contributed to over a thousand films! But I’m going to attempt to enlighten myself with this post, and hopefully you’d learn a bit more about her in the process.
Edith Head (October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981)
- Born Edith Claire Posener in San Bernardino, California, the daughter of Jewish parents, Max Posener and Anna E. Levy.
- Received a bachelor of arts degree in letters and sciences with honors in French from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1919 and earned a master of arts degree in romance languages from Stanford University in 1920.
- Attended the Chouinard Art College where she met her husband, Charles Head, who was the brother of one of her Chouinard classmates, Betty Head. Though they got a divorce in 1936, she kept her maiden name to continued to be known professionally as Edith Head until her death.
- Before she entered the film industry, she was a high school teacher of French and art looking for a way to supplement her income.
- Famous for wearing “sunglasses” they actually weren’t sunglasses in the beginning, but blue glass lenses on regular frames. It was a common trick for Costume Designers to look through blue lenses to get a sense of how the clothing would read on black and white film. Instead of looking through a single lens monocle as was common, Head had blue lenses put in normal frames. Later, she replaced the lenses with regular tinted lenses. [per DailyMischief.com]
Edith Head died of Bone Marrow Diseases on October 24, 1981 in Los Angeles.
The petite (5’1″) Edith got her start at Paramount Pictures as a sketch artist when she was only 27 years old in 1924. Believe it or not, she actually borrowed another student’s sketches for her job interview (wonder what happened to that girl?). By 1927, she started working on silent films. She might even had a hand in the first Oscar-winning film Wings, though she was uncredited. By the 1930s, she had already established herself as one of the industry’s leading costume designers.
I think her key to her success could be that she consulted extensively with the female stars she worked with. I think that’s surely a lesson every costume designer should take to heart. I mean, it’s a mutually beneficial process when you keep the person you’re designing for in mind to make sure the outfit or dress is flattering on their figure. What worked for spindly Audrey Hepburn certainly wouldn’t have worked for the voluptuous Sophia Loren. It’s no wonder Edith became the favorite of the 40s and 50s leading ladies, such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Sophia Loren, Barbara Stanwyck, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Natalie Wood, amongst others. They would personally requested to work with her so Paramount often had to ‘loan’ her out to other studios.
“A designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes”
– Edith Head
According to Encyclopedia.com, Edith described herself on one occasion as “a better politician than costume designer,” Head was expert at handling star temperament, preferring to yield ground on a neckline or dress length than engage in a battle of wills. The conservative, neutral-colored suits she perennially wore symbolized her willingness to suppress her individuality in the interests of her craft.
She worked at Paramount for 43 years until she went to Universal Pictures in 1967, it’s perhaps no coincidence that her move was prompted by her extensive collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, who had also moved to Universal, in 1960.
I used to do sketches when I was growing up, so I LOVE looking at sketches like these I found on this Fashion Journal. Apparently she released a book called How to Dress for Success, published by Random House in 1967.
“You can have anything you want if you dress for it.”
– Edith Head
A Legendary Career
During her 44 years as head designer at Paramount, and additional 14 years at Universal, Head worked on a total of well over a thousand films. She won a record of eight Oscars for Best Costume Design out of 35 nominations (unrivaled to this day).
Here are her Oscar-winning costumes:
The Heiress, 1949
Samson and Delilah, 1950
All About Eve, 1950
The story goes that the silk cocktail dress that Bette Davis’s Margo wears in the Eve’s famous party scene didn’t fit her, in fact it slipped off her shoulders, causing Edith to freak out right before the scene was supposed to be shot. But Ms Davis pulled off the neckline, shook a shoulder, and said, “Don’t you like it better like this anyway?” [per RookieMag.com]
A Place in the Sun, 1951
Roman Holiday, 1953
Although Edith Head won an Oscar for Best Costumes, most of Audrey Hepburn’s “Parisian” ensembles were, in fact, designed by Hubert de Givenchy and chosen by the star herself. However, since the outfits were actually made in Edith Head’s Paramount Studios costume department, some felt that doing so created enough of a technicality to nominate Head, instead of Givenchy. And, indeed, since she refused to have her name alongside Givenchy’s in the credits, she was given credit for the costumes, even though the Academy’s votes were obviously for Hepburn’s attire. Head did not refuse the Oscar, however.
The Facts of Life, 1960
The Sting, 1973
What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen he’s become a different person.
– Edith Head…
My personal five favorite Edith Head dresses
Picking just FIVE favorite Edith Head dresses are akin to Sophie’s Choice. So I’m not ranking these, I mean they are all equally exquisite, largely because of the elegant beauties who wore them. Edith certainly knew how to dress each woman in a way that they accentuate the best of her figure.
- Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina
When I first beheld this amazingly beautiful dress I literally gasped. I mean the ornate details on the bodice and flowing skirt is nothing short of breathtaking.
- Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
The classic little black dress (LBD). Worn to perfection dress by Audrey Hepburn, it actually gave her a bit of curves to her extremely slender figure. I think the accessories here are key, the pearls, tiara, large black sunglasses, and of course, the right ‘tude, made this look eternally chic.
- Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun
I actually haven’t seen this film yet but I came across this photo a while back and I did a double take. It’s not the kind of dress I’d ever have the courage to wear, but Liz Taylor had the figure and gracefulness to pull it off beautifully. The cluster of little flowers on her chest, fitted bodice that accentuate her teeny-tiny waist, and the full organza skirt… this is a fairy tale dress fit for a Disney princess!
- Grace Kelly’s in Rear Window
I guess when you’re working with an unbelievable beauty like miss Kelly, anything you put on her would look amazing. But Edith’s dresses are often as gorgeous as those who wore them, and this one is definitely one of them. It’s a simple dress yet so incredibly striking… I love that Edith pared down the accessories so the dress became the focal point.
- Ann Baxter in All About Eve
There are certainly a boat-load of gorgeous costumes in this film, but for some reason I love this simple one that most people probably don’t remember, favoring the one that Bette Davis wore when she said her famous line, ‘It’s gonna be a bumpy night.’ What I like about this one is how understated ans sweet it is, but that sheer neckline is just sublime. It accentuates Ann’s petite figure beautifully, and it’s interesting that in this sweet, demure dress, she displayed her most cunning scheme to Celeste Holm’s character. It’s an intriguing dichotomy.
“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to show you’re a lady.”
– Edith Head
Edith in Popular Culture
Not only did Edna created iconic gowns for Hollywood’s classic beauties, but she’s also got her own iconic look of her own with her round-rimmed glasses, short blunt cropped hair and full bangs and her ‘uniform’ of pencil skirt suit. She even made her mark in popular culture in The Incredibles, as Edna Mode, the fashion designer to the Supers, was based on Mrs. Head. [Another bit of trivia: she was voiced by director Brad Bird].
Edith became as big a star as the leading ladies she dressed. There’s even a play based on her which wrapped in L.A. in the Fall of 2010. A Conversation with Edith Head was brought to life by Susan Claassen — who bears a striking resemblance to the real life designer — in her one-woman show. See the ad below:
Edith was commemorated by a US 37 cents postage stamp, issued on February 25, 2003, depicting Ms Head at work.
Check out this screen test of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, where Edith was interviewed on her process of creating the costumes for the film:
Books written by Edith:
- With Jane Kesner Ardmore, The Dress Doctor, Boston, Massachusetts, 1959.
- With Joe Hyams, How to Dress for Success, New York, 1967.
- With Paddy Calistro, Edith Head’s Hollywood, New York, 1983.
There a Pinterest devoted to her sketches, see below:
I feel like I could never do Ms Head justice with my post. Having been reading all kinds of articles on her the past week, I’ve hugely admired her talents and work ethic and marveled on her beautiful costumes. Catherine Martin, the Oscar-winning costume designer for Moulin Rouge! whose work will be seen in the upcoming The Great Gatsby called Edith ‘the quintessential costume designer.’ Edith has become synonymous with fashion on film, and her amazing work left such a huge mark on Hollywood, more than any other person in her profession.
Per TCM.com, screen legend Bette Davis gave this eulogy at Edith’s funeral:
“A queen has left us, the queen of her profession. She will never be replaced. Her contribution to our industry in her field of design, her contribution to the taste of our town of Hollywood, her elegance as a person, her charms as a woman – none of us who worked with her will ever forgot. Goodbye, dear Edith. There will never be another you.”
What an icon… what a woman!
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