The life and work of one of the most successful costume designers in Old Hollywood
Hi, I'm Kat!
What I am most passionate about is to inspire you to see that your life is your own and biggest masterpiece.
Who is Edith Head?
- She is considered to be one of the greatest and most costume designers in movie history
- She has been nominated for 35 Academy awards
- She has been nominated for them 17 years in a row from 1949 to 1966
- She has won a record eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design
- She has been the role model for the figure of Edna in the Incredibles
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How did Edith Head achieve the status of star costume designer?
To tell her story, we have to start at the beginning.
She was born in the 19th century, in 1897, to be exact – which is now almost exactly 125 years ago. This sounds so far away, yet Edith Head and her work exude the vibe of newness and freshness till today. She was actually of Jewish origin with her mother and father having German heritage. Yet, she was raised in Catholic faith because her mom remarried and she was passed off as his child.
She attended the University of California, Berkeley and got degrees both in French an in Roman languages. She became a language teacher – first in French, then in Spanish. And .. drumroll, please .. she applied to teach art courses as well. Although she neither had a degree nor a specific talent nor advanced knowledge of art or drawing. So, she took evening classes and learned and improved her skills.
A short while later, in 1924, she applied as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures – admittedly without training in art, design or any costume design experience AT ALL. She even admitted that she had borrowed the sketches of other students for her application portfolio. But, nevertheless, she did get the job. Howard Greer, who was then the lead costume designer did not fire her when he realized she could not draw. Why, nobody knows. He kinda sensed that she was special and taught her to draw. One year later she already had risen the ranks and was designing costumes for her first silent movie, The Wanderer. Five years later, in 1930, she had established herself in Hollywood as one of the most influential costume designers. But the way to her being a famous and known costume designer was initially blocked and overshadowed by the leading male costume designers of Paramount – first Howard Greer, who resigned in 1927 and then Travis Banton who was forced to leave in 1938. Travis Banton apparently was an alcoholic and his abuse was getting worse throughout his work years. But, it was Edith Head, who apparently was conspiring against him and instigated his termination of contract. Because, now, the way was free to her to shine and she was considerably more noticed in the public.
Three events made her known widely: 1) The trademark sarong dress Edith Head designed for Dorothy Lamour was well-known in the public as was Edith Head herself, 2) Edith Head designed a mink-lined gown for Ginger Rogers during the austerity years of WW2 in 1944 and, finally 3) The establishment of the Academy Award for costume design, which she won the first year and got nominated 17 years in a row for 35 Academy Awards, of which she won eight. Her name was known among celebrities and the wider audience.
All in all she worked for Paramount 44 years (which today seems like forever) until her contract was not renewed. She was already 70 years old at that time. She then switched to Universal Pictures for the remaining 14 years of her life, when she was 84 years old.
Edith Head’s Working Style
Edith Head had a very different view on her job as a costume designer than many other, mostly male costume designers:
- She didn’t want to express her own creativity and style, but rather design for the character that she needed to dress
- She worked extensively with the actresses of the movies that she was designing for. Their personality, their likes, their body shapes, their take on the character.
That made her a favorite of some of the most famous leading ladies of Old Hollywood. Stars like Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn und Barbary Stanwyck requested her for their costumes. Thus, Edith Head was frequently loaned to other studios because of the personal requests of the headlining actresses.
Edith Head and the stars, films and projects she has worked on
Edith Head has basically designed for all major female stars of Old Hollywood. To name a few: Dorothy Lamour, Veronica Lake, Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman, Loretta Young, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Hedy Lamar, Joan Crawford, Julie Andrews, Lauren Bacall, Tippi Hedren, Doris Day and Sophia Loren. She notably also dressed Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii … which is really intriguing, she was around 64 years and he was the hottest man on earth!
Some of the movies that I most admire for the costumes are the following:
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. This movie is simply an absolute work of art – Gloria Swanson does one of the finest performances, the script is flawless, and the dresses are to die for.
Mae West in She Done him Wrong and Sextette. So, She done him wrong was the second movie of Mae West in Hollywood and her first leading role. West got Cary Grant into the movie, which we all should thank her for. It was a smashing box office hit and Edith Head surely contributed to this success with her trademark Mae West costume designs.
Grace Kelly in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Both movies are splendid and entertaining and wonderfully elegant. In „To Catch a Thief“, Edith’s work and focus on the character can be seen for example in the color transition. Grace Kelly starts out in a cold, icy-blue evening gown and over the course of the film the colors get warmer as does the character. At the end, Grace Kelly wears a large gold robe – warmer is impossible.
Shirley MacLaine and Edith Head collaborated three times: On „Artists and Models“, „The Matchmaker“ and „What a Way to Go!“. The last picture is one of my favorite movies – because of the outfits. I don’t actually need the storyline. Vogue even named the movie „the campiest movie“. There are different outfit styles for each of Shirley MacLaine’s iterations as a wife and they are over the top and are an integral part of the movie. It is hilarious to watch and I just advise any fashion lover to see this movie. It is legendary.
Apart from movies, Edith Head also did TV during her Universal years, when Hollywood was no longer what it had used to be and was the one designing the costumes for Endora in the TV series Bewitched – and you know that she is legendary. She even had a cameo on Columbo.
A project that I did not know of for the longest time was her designs for the woman’s uniform for the United States Coast Guard, for which she received Meritorious Public Service Award. How awesome is that?
When it comes to Audrey Hepburn and her costumes in Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Edith Head is actually listed as the costume designer. But the key styles were actually designed by Hubert de Givenchy, Audrey Hepburns favorite designer, of whom Audrey said: „Givenchy’s clothes are the only ones I feel myself in.“ So, for these movies, Givenchy provided the key pieces that underlined the character of Audrey Hepburn and Paramount overlooked by Edith Head were only making them. Nevertheless, Edith Head won the Academy Award for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and did not mention Hubert de Givenchy at all. It was only after Edith’s death that he confessed that he had been the brains and talent behind it.
Edith Head’s influence on mainstream fashion
Her influence on fashion is threefold:
- She dressed the greatest stars of the movie, which everybody looked up to. Of course, she influenced the fashions of the time. For example with the sarong dress of Dorothy Lamour in the Hurricane: Sarongs had not been a part of Western culture before and were freely adopted afterwards.
- She wrote two successful books: The Dress Doctor (1959) and How to Dress for Success (1967). They were targeted towards the wider audience and normal women who had trouble dressing the right way. The books are still relevant today and hold advice for every woman.
- She particularly dressed Natalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl. This movie is based on the book by Helen Gurley Brown, the future editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for 32 years. This book advices women how to become financially independent and have affairs and sexual relationships before or without marriage. This was in 1962, the movie came out in 1964. This marked the beginning of a liberation movement – continued through Cosmopolitan, which was then remodeled into a magazine for the woman that reads exactly this book. So, Gurley Brown was part of the sexual revolution – and Edith Head designed the costumes for it.
Why is Edith Head’s story important?
Apart from having designed some of the most beautiful clothes in Hollywood, I think Edith Head’s story is one of an incredible and inspiring woman.
- She has been one of the first professional women that used personal branding for success. Edna from the Incredibles is so easily identifiable because Edith Head had done what Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs would do: Have a professional uniform. For Head, that was a classic two-piece suit, large-rimmed and darkened glasses, short fringe and hair in a bun. Regarding the glasses: Originally, she wore blue tinted glasses because it allowed her to view fabrics as they would look in a black-and-white movie. Smoky lenses also made her inscrutable as well as disguising a slightly-crossed right eye.
- She might have cheated her way into the dressing department of Paramount, but she proved with hard work that she was the right choice. She worked diligently and succeeded
- She brought her own work style into the position. She understood what she was supposed to do and went all in. She wanted the costumes to underline the characters, make them come to life and emphasize the storyline.
- Remarkably, she dressed the character each actress would play, not the character alone, not her interpretation of it. She collaborated intensively and aimed for a magical potion of a) what the actress would feel and look really good in, 2) satisfy the director and 3) underline the character in the way the actresses would play it.
- She never stopped. She changed employers at the age of 70. She never intended to stop – she just went on designing. Her last movie opened two days after her death. She is an inspiration in the sense of „if you really like what you are doing“, you will not stop. That is your life’s work.
- And her work, to me at least, emphasizes, that what you wear really does matter. It is the style of your life story, it shows the people around you who you are, what you are all about and what setting you see yourself in. This is just so very important.
With all my love!