Blog 79 06/04/2019 Fashion and Hollywood: Award-Winning Costume Designer, Edith Head
Fashion and Hollywood: Award-Winning Costume Designer, Edith Head.
When it comes to Hollywood costume designers, you can’t get anyone more famous than Edith Head. Most of you would recognise a few of her clothes. Winning a record eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, she ranks as one of the all-time designers who left a lasting mark on Hollywood glamour. Edith Claire Posener was born on October 28, 1897, the daughter of Jewish parents, Max Posener and Anna Levy, in San Bernardino, California. In 1919, Edith received a B.A. in letters and sciences with honors in French from the University of California, Berkeley. This was followed by a M.A. in romance languages from Stanford University. For a while, she worked as a French teacher. Whilst teaching at the Hollywood School for Girls, Edith decided she wanted a better salary and told the school she could also teach art. Having only briefly studied art, she took evening classes at two Art Colleges to improve her drawing skills. It was during this time that she met and married Charles Head.
Her big break came in 1924 when, at the age of twenty-six, she was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount, despite her limited experience in art, design, and costume design. She later admitted to “borrowing” other student’s sketches for her job interview. One can already see that Edith was a determined woman. In 1925, she began to design for silent films. Her first film was The Wanderer, starring Greta Nissen and Tyrone Power Sr.
Over a decade later, she had established herself as one of Hollywood’s leading costume designers. Her association with the sarong dress designed for Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane in 1937, made her famous with the general public and she is credited with putting Dorothy Lamour in her first sarong in the earlier film, The Jungle Princess, 1936
In 1944, she gained notoriety when she created the top mink-lined gown for Ginger Rodgers in Lady in the Dark, owing to the mood of wartime austerity. In 1949, the Hollywood establishment created the category of an Academy Award for Costume Designer and this further boosted her career because it began her record-breaking run of Award nominations and wins. Her first nomination for an Oscar was for The Emperor Waltz. She didn’t win the Oscar, losing out to Joan of Arc. It was a devastating blow and she sat through the remainder of the ceremonies ‘in a state of stupor’.
From 1938 to 1966, she was Head of Design at Paramount, contributing in one way or another to over 1,000 films. In 1940 alone, she supervised over 47 films. After forty-three years at Paramount, in 1967, she went to Universal Pictures, most probably because of her association with Alfred Hitchcock who had moved there seven years earlier.
Throughout her Hollywood years, Edith Head was nominated 19 times for Oscar Best Picture nominees: Wings (1927), She Done Him Wrong (1933), Here Comes Mr. Jordan, (1941), Hold Back the Dawn, (1941), Going My Way, (1944), Double Indemnity, (1944), The Lost Weekend, (1945), The Bells of St. Mary’s, (1945), The Heiress, (1949), Sunset Boulevard, (1950), A Place in the Sun, (1951), The Greatest Show on Earth, (1952), Shane, (1953), Roman Holiday (1953), The Country Girl, (1954), The Rose Tattoo, (1955), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, (1969), Airport, (1970) and The Sting, (1973), She also designed costumes in four others: All About Eve, (1950), The Ten Commandments, (1956), Witness for the Prosecution, (1957), Separate Tables, (1958).
Wings, Going My Way, The Lost Weekend, All About Eve, The Greatest Show on Earth and The Sting all won Best Picture.
Throughout her working career, Edith was known for her close working relationships with her subjects, with whom she consulted extensively. Those with whom she worked included virtually every top female star in Hollywood. She was extremely diplomatic and went out of her way to get along with co-workers, and she rarely gossiped. In later interviews, however, she did say that she did not enjoy working with Mary Martin, Claudette Colbert and Hedy Lamarr. Neither was she drawn to Paulette Goddard who she thought was insensitive. The glamorous star used to bring her bulging jewelry boxes to the studio workroom and tell her seamstresses (who were working for minimum wage) that they could “look, but not touch.” Unlike many of her male contemporaries, Edith consulted extensively with the female stars with whom she worked and as a result, was a favourite among many of the leading female stars of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley MacLaine. Quite often the stars would only want to work with her which resulted in her being “loaned out” to other studios.
Edith was also famous for her trademark sunglasses which were not actually sunglasses, but rather glasses with blue lenses. Apparently looking through a blue glass was a common trick of costumers in the days of Black and White film to get a sense of how a colour would photograph. A clever trick! She had a pair of glasses made out of the correct shade of blue glass to save herself from looking through a single lens, but those who were close to her often saw her in regular “clear” glasses. Edith might have dressed the most glamorous women in Hollywood, but she dressed plainly herself, usually in conservative two-piece suits. Despite working in a glamorous world, the project for which she was most proud of was in 1970 when she designed a woman’s uniform for the United States Coast Guard in response to growing number of women in the service. She received the Meritorious Public Service Award for this work.
Although Edith’s marriage to Charles Head ended in divorce in 1936, she continued to be known professionally as Edith Head until her death. In 1940 she married award-winning art director, Wihard Ihnen. Their marriage lasted until his death in 1979. Edith Head died of bone marrow disease in Los Angeles on October 14th 1981
With such a long life in show business, it is only natural that people should want to know some of her thoughts. Here are a few:
I’ve designed films I’ve never seen.
If it is a Paramount film, I probably designed it.
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.
I have yet to see one completely unspoiled star, except for Lassie.
You can lead a horse to water and you can even make it drink, but you can’t make actresses wear what they don’t want to wear.
1977 comment on Jacqueline Bisset. One of the greatest bodies I’ve ever worked with. But besides that she is rather the opposite, because she is so damned intelligent. It’s a strange combination, almost a double personality.
On Grace Kelly. I’ve dressed thousands of actors, actresses and animals, but whenever I am asked which star is my personal favourite, I answer, “Grace Kelly.” She is a charming lady, a most gifted actress and, to me, a valued friend.
On Kim Novak, I don’t usually get into battles, but dressing Kim Novak for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) put to the test all my training in psychology.
On viewing what many tanned actresses wore to the 1966 Academy Awards] I looked at all those white dresses and I thought we were doing a reprise of White Christmas, (1954).
I never thought I did good work for Cecil B. DeMille. I always had to do what that conceited old goat wanted, whether it was correct or not.
On winning her fifth Oscar, 1954] I’m going to take it home and design a dress for it.
[Her reaction to losing the 1956 Colour Costume Award to Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, (1955)] Charles Le Maire is a good friend of mind and I would tell him to his face that his designs were blah compared to my gowns. All the costumes Jennifer Jones wore were chong sams, the traditional Chinese dress, which could have been purchased in Chinatown. That loss was the single greatest disappointment of my costume-design career.
On Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, I guess I’ve come full circle when I design the exact dress for Steve Martin that I did for Barbara Stanwyck.
In the 1930’s costumes didn’t have anything to do with real life. The poor working girl was smothered in furs, and [in She Done Him Wrong, (1933)] Mae West wore a simple black velvet festooned with rhinestones and ruffles when she met Cary Grant in the park.