Edith Head

As we watch movies, most of us don’t think about the elements that had to come together to create the film, or all the people with specific expertise in their field behind the scenes who influenced the finished product’s particular style.

While film costumes are created behind the scenes, they are one of the most evident elements on screen.  The way characters are dressed, has a huge impact on how they are perceived.   Often when we think of our favorite scene in a movie, we can remember what the actor was wearing.  Remember Marilyn Monroe’s white dress in Some Like It Hot?  Or Keanu Reeves black coat in The Matrix?  Costumers were responsible for creating the unforgettable clothing for these actors.  Unlike most runway designs that move in and out of the spotlight, effective movie costuming will sometimes be remembered for years, and maybe even decades.

The challenge of inventing costumes is to create timeless designs.  It’s not unusual for films to be produced, then left to sit on a shelf because of budget or casting problems.  When this happens it obviously means a release date much later than originally scheduled.  Sometimes that delay may represent months or years.  Costumers must try to keep that in mind and avoid fad clothing that would date a contemporary film.

Edith Head was known for her timeless designs and is the most honored costumer in Academy Award history.  She earned a total of eight Oscars for her work and 35 nominations.  It wasn’t uncommon for Head to be nominated for two pictures in one year, one for the category Best Costume Design/Black and White film, and one for Best Costume Design/Color.   In 1951 that’s exactly what happened.  She was nominated and won for All About Eve as well as Samson and Delilah.

Head worked hard to make her mark in the studio system and in 1938 finally received recognition, achieving the attention she so well deserved.  But it came only after her predecessor had resigned.  As she evolved, her success would eventually trump the male dominated network of costumers who came before her at Paramount Studios.

A Stanford graduate, Head started earning a living by teaching language in LaJolla,  California before moving north to Hollywood for a job as a French teacher at a private school.  There she took art classes in the evening to improve on her drawing ability.  She was determined to earn more money than teaching offered.  She set her sights on designing fashions for the movie industry. 

Borrowing sketches from a fellow student with superior drawing talent, she was interviewed and hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures.  While she may have tricked her way into the studio, she soon proved herself.  Her initial creations were for silent films and her first picture was 1925s The Wanderer with Wallace Beery and Tryone Power Sr.  

It only took Head five years to establish herself as one of Hollywood’s most respected costume designers with a reign at Paramount that lasted 44 years. During that time she received seven of her eight Oscars:

The Heiress 1950

All About Eve 1951

Samson And Delilah 1951

A Place In The Sun 1952

Roman Holiday 1954

Sabrina 1955

The Facts Of Life 1961

The Sting 1974

Head was known for some specific and unforgettable designs like the sarong dress worn by Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane in 1937, and the mink-lined gown that draped Ginger Rogers in the 1944 film, Lady In The Dark.  Head was favored by Alfred Hitchcock and many other film directors and producers.

Actresses also appreciated her low key working style, which made her the favorite designer to many leading stars like Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor and Natalie Wood.   She worked well with others, even difficult stars like Paulette Goddard who openly flaunted her expensive jewels in front of seamstresses who earned only minimum wage.  Although she was capable of diplomacy in difficult situations, one of Head’s famous quotes reflected on her interaction with actors – “I have yet to see one completely unspoiled star, except for Lassie.” 

Head received an Academy Award Nomination every year from 1948 through 1966.  She created unforgettable fashion images in Hollywood worn by sirens and wholesome screen actresses alike.  By the 1950s she had become a celebrity and author of books on fashion.

Controversy loomed over Head’s Oscar win for the film Sabrina, questioning the source of Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe.  Designed by Givenchy, the clothes were personally picked out by Hepburn.  But the costumes were then created in Edith Head’s Paramount Studios costume department.  After much deliberation, Head was awarded the Oscar for Hepburn’s costuming.

As a studio department supervisor, Edith Head oversaw many employees and was ultimately responsible for work produced by her department.  Her reputation for being anti-union may have been the basis for complaints that she claimed credit for design work created in her department.  But it was common practice for the department supervisor to receive the award in the years when studios typically produced the majority of films.

Known for her trademark large, round glasses people often mistook them for sunglasses.  They were actually glasses with blue lenses.  Black and White film costume designers often looked through blue lenses to get a grasp of how color would photograph.  

Head’s identity was as timeless as her creations and her unchanging glasses, blunt bangs and chignon, gave her an illusion of agelessness.  Her iconic look made her immediately recognizable everywhere she went.  If you’ve ever seen the film The Incredibles, you might recognize that the costume designer character Edna Mode, bears an uncanny resemblance to Head.  Both the character’s visual look as well as her personality pays homage, with or without intention to the Academy Award winning Edith Head.

Head moved from Paramount to Universal Pictures in 1967, but her name remains on the costume department building at Paramount Studios.  It was at Universal that her 1930s period costumes for Robert Redford and Paul Newman reaped her one of the seven 1974 Oscars won by the film, The Sting.  It was the last Oscar for Head.

Edith Head had the honor and distinction of working with the United States Coast Guard when she was approached to design a uniform appropriate for the increasing number of women in the Guard.  Head did so and was bestowed with The Meritorious Public Service Award.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a black and white comedy, was the last feature film project in Head’s lustrous career.  She drew on her early film experience as inspiration for creating costumes that harkened back to fashions of the 1940s for the star, Steve Martin.   The Carl Reiner/Steve Martin film was dedicated to Head and released shortly following her death in 1981 at the age of 83.

 You can find Edith Head’s star on the Walk of Fame at 6500 Hollywood Blvd.

Double Nominations For Edith Head

1953 Carrie and The Greatest Show On Earth.

1956 The Rose Tattoo and To Catch A Thief

1957 The Proud and Profane and The Ten Commandments

1960 Career and The Five Pennies

1963 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and My Geisha

1964 Love With The Proper Stranger, Wives and Lovers, and A New Kind of Love

1965 A House Is Not A Home and What A Way To Go!

1966 The Slender Thread and Inside Daisy Clover

Other Edith Head Nominations  

1958 Funny Face

1961 Pepe

1962 Pocketful Of Miracles

1970 Sweet Charity

1971 Airport

1976 The Man Who Would Be King

1978 Airport ’77