October 28, 1897– Edith Head:
“Fashion is a language. Some know it, some learn it, some never will.”
Edith Head believed modesty was unbecoming and that you should have anything and everything you wanted in life, but, you had to be dressed for it. She once explained that what she did was:
“… A cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not.”
Head knew about how to dress people. The legendary designer saw nearly all the top stars in Hollywood in their underwear or even less. As the greatest actors in American film studied themselves in the mirror, it was Head who was standing right behind them, making them look impossibly glamorous while carefully avoiding any glamour herself.
Hollywood’s most famous and prolific costume designer, Head had a career that lasted six decades. She designed clothes for 1,131 films, an average of 35 projects a year. She was the last costume designer to be under contract to a major studio, Paramount Pictures. When Paramount didn’t renew her contract after 40 years, she moved over to Universal Pictures without a contract, where she continued to work until her passing in 1981. She was a woman who succeeded in a world dominated by men.
Head was the favorite of Alfred Hitchcock (To Catch A Thief, Rear Window, Vertigo), Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard) and William Wyler (The Heiress, Roman Holiday).
Head wrote a pair of books: The Dress Doctor (1959) and How To Dress For Success (1967). She was also a reluctant star in her own right, appearing on talk shows, commercials and a regular spot offering advice to housewives on Art Linkletter’s House Party (1945-1969). She even played herself, giving a fashion show commentary in Lucy Gallant (1955) starring Jane Wyman, The Oscar (1966), The Pleasure Of His Company (1961), and on television in Columbo: Requiem For A Falling Star (1973) acting as herself, the clothing designer for Anne Baxter’s character. Her Oscars were displayed on her work table in the scene.
Head was a self-made professional and self-made artist and she did most of which she did out of sheer determination. She could play fast a bit loose with the truth. She took credit for designs that she never created: Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress in Sabrina (1954) and the Paul Newman and Robert Redford wardrobe for The Sting (1973), for which she won an Academy Award.
Yet, she was always discreet about the size and shape of the stars’ bodies, she knew about all the skeletons in their closets, yet she was never known to gossip. Head knew about the secrets of Mae West’s bust, Gloria Swanson’s wide waist and tiny feet (size 2 1/2), and Audrey Hepburn’s broad shoulders. She sometimes boasted that she could perform miracles:
“I accentuated the positive and camouflaged the rest.”
Head would make the movie stars, with all their flaws, look a million bucks. She influenced the way civilian women dressed also. She was a designer for Vogue Patterns at a time when home dressmaking was the thing, although Head didn’t actually know how to sew.
The sarong she designed for Dorothy Lamour in The Jungle Princess (1935) made Lamour a star (Head had her stitched into it) and it was copied by every swimwear manufacturer in the USA. It is still copied today.
For Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In The Sun (1951), Head accentuated Taylor’s bust and tiny waist with a strapless, bouffant-skirted white ball gown, scattered with violets. It then became the go-to prom dress for American teens. According to Head, Taylor had the most beautiful shoulders in Hollywood, so she created dresses for her to show them off.
“Edith Head’s life was all about glamour, 60 years of it, in the most glamorous place in the world: Hollywood.”
Head designed the brown silk, sable trimmed cocktail dress Davis wore as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), you know, the one that where she was warning everyone as she swept down the staircase for the big party scene to fasten their seat belts because it was going to be a bumpy night. When Davis had a fitting of the finished dress, the bodice and neckline were way too big. Head was horrified, but Davis pulled it off her shoulders, shook one sexy shoulder and stated:
“Doesn’t it look better like this anyway?”
Head won one of her eight Oscars for that classic film. Davis later bought the dress for herself, because she loved it that much. Head:
“There were eight important men in my life, and they were all named Oscar.”
Head fell into costume design. She had a job as a French teacher at the Hollywood School For Girls, but she bluffed her way into Paramount’s wardrobe department in 1932. She had borrowed other people’s drawings, put them together in a portfolio.
Head wasn’t the greatest designer in Hollywood History, but she may have been the smartest. She had a BA from UC Berkeley and a MFA from Stanford, yet she took a job at the studio as a sketch artist.
By 1938, she was the head designer, so to speak, working on every prestigious production Paramount made during the studio’s greatest age.
When she went to Universal Pictures, it was because of her friendship with Hitchcock. She did Tippi Hedren’s smart green suit made of textured tweed that would snag easily during an avian attack.
Head knew exactly how to work with movie stars, setting up her studio so that when a star walked in, the mirrors were placed perfectly, and the star was put in front of the mirror perfectly. Head dressed in grey tones, so she faded into the background.
She also had some tricks up her sleeve; the famous gown Grace Kelly wears in To Catch A Thief (1955) really wasn’t all that except it was made with a gold, flashy, beautiful fabric that photographed really well. Head always said if all else fails, put fur on it. Head adored Kelly and was hurt when the actor slighted her by not inviting her to design the dress she wore when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco. But, Head did create Princess Grace’s much photographed grey going-away suit.
Head’s career was not without controversy. After winning that Academy Award for The Sting, she was sued by the illustrator who really designed Redford and Newman’s clothes. The truth about her design of Hepburn’s little black dress emerged only after Head’s passing when Hubert de Givenchy quietly admitted that he had designed the frock that was copied everywhere. Head designed all the other costumes in the film.
Near the end of her amazing life, Head said:
“I regret never having dressed Marilyn Monroe, never designing uniforms for the Chicago Cubs, and being alone. It is much easier being remembered than trying to remember.”
It was an open secret in Hollywood that Head was a lesbian. She was discreet, to say the least. My research brought me no information about her lovers, although it was long assumed that she had a thing with Barbara Stanwyck.
Her last film project was Carl Reiner’s black and white film noir parody Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), starring Steve Martin. The film is dedicated to her memory.
Head’s final credits rolled in 1981, just four days before her 84th birthday. You can find her nowadays at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.
In the Pixar film The Incredibles (2004), not to be confused with The Deplorables (2016), the film’s fictional superhero costume designer Edna Mode’s personality, mannerisms, sense of style, round glasses, and assertive no-nonsense character, are all homage to Head’s legendary accomplishments and personality.
I am so in touch with my inner 14-year-old boy, that I, of course, think it was fun to write the word Head, 34 times while composing this post.
I hold my copy like a Bible and have often referred to my edition of Dress For Success: Edith Head’s Formula For Dressing To Get A Man And Keep Him. Here are nine rules. Memorize them. There will be a test later:
- Decide want kind of man you want.
- Find out what kind of girls he likes.
- Know what kind of fashions pleases him.
- Don’t masquerade in clothes you hate just to attract a man. Be sure you are really, deep down inside, this kind of girl. If not, find another man!
- Learn all you can about him: his hobbies, his interests, his likes, his dislikes.
- Be interested in his interests.
- Choose your wardrobe to please him and suit his way of life.
- After you get him, stay the way you were and don’t relax into a post-marriage slump of careless marriage.
- Look reasonably enticing in the morning and better at night.