For many people, Edith Head and film costume design are synonymous. Other designers may have been more flamboyantly creative, or more consistently original, but no one did more to earn this art form popular recognition.
Her guiding principle was that costume should support, rather than compete with, story and character development. Better than most, perhaps, she understood that clothing is not merely a matter of adornment, but a potent method of communication working in tandem with film’s sound and other visual elements. Her longevity, her productivity, her frequent touches of genius, and her talent for self-promotion secured her a celebrity status rare among Hollywood’s legions of production artists.
Unlike most of her peers, Head entered film costuming without relevant training or experience. When Howard Greer, Paramount’s chief designer, hired her as a sketch artist in 1923, she was a high school teacher of French and art looking for a way to supplement her income. She learned quickly, however, honing her skills by observing the masters at work. From Greer, she learned the value of attention to detail. From Travis Banton, another outstanding member of Paramount’s design team, she learned how to fabricate the highest standards of glamor and elegance.
In her early years at the studio, Head mainly dressed minor characters and animals, and generated wardrobes for the countless B-pictures then in production. Gradually she progressed to creating costumes for stars with whom the senior designers lacked the time or inclination to work. Among her first major assignments were Clara Bow, Lupe Velez, and Mae West. Head became Paramount’s chief designer in 1938, when Banton, who replaced Greer as head designer in 1927, left to start a couture business. She remained at the studio for another three decades, working with most of Hollywood’s major actresses and some of its best-known actors. When Paramount was sold in 1967, she became chief designer at Universal, where she worked until her death.
During her career, which spanned nearly six decades, Head’s productivity achieved legendary proportions. In 1940 alone, she supervised costumes for 47 films. She is estimated to have contributed to more than 1,000 movies during her lifetime. In terms of formal recognition, her record is equally staggering. She received 34 Academy Award nominations, of which eight resulted in an Oscar. Costume design did not become an Academy Award category until 1948. For the first 19 years in which this honor was given, Head was nominated at least once every year. Had the award been introduced earlier, she would surely have earned additional nominations for such distinctive creations as Dorothy Lamour’s sarongs in The Jungle Princess or Barbara Stanwyck’s Latin-inspired garments for The Lady Eve .
Much of her best work was executed in the 1950s, when glamor and high-fashion were the keynotes of costume design. Among the enduring images her designs helped promote were Grace Kelly’s refined allure in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief , Elizabeth Taylor’s incandescent sensuality in A Place in the Sun , Audrey Hepburn’s chic individuality in Sabrina , Bette Davis’s mature sophistication in All about Eve , and Gloria Swanson’s anachronistic glamor in Sunset Boulevard . This was also an era in which Head’s public visibility reached its zenith. Already a fashion magazine editor, columnist, and regular contributor to Art Linkletter’s radio show House Party , Head now made frequent television appearances, acted as consultant for the Academy Awards show, and published her first book. The diversity of her activities helped to extend her influence well beyond the realm of motion pictures.
Perhaps her greatest asset was her adaptability. Entering the business when limitless spending permitted designers broad artistic license, she later had to adjust to the restrictions imposed by wartime shortages of luxury textiles and the government’s L-85 ruling on the amount of materials which could be used in clothing manufacture. Following the return to glamor and clothing-as-special-effects during the 1950s, Head made yet another successful transition when the 1960s ushered in a new emphasis on realism.
Head was also able to adjust to widely varying ideas about her role among the directors with whom she worked. Attitudes ranged from Alfred Hitchcock and George Roy Hill’s close involvement in design, to the laissez-faire approach of Joseph Mankiewicz. Describing 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. With the exception of a dispute over whether she or Givenchy deserved the credit for Audrey Hepburn’s famous bowtied neckline in Sabrina , her career was unruffled by controversy.
Head’s excellence as a designer was augmented by her keen understanding of the technical constraints within which she operated. She was acutely aware of the different requirements created by variations in lighting, sound, and color. She also believed in close collaboration with her fellow production artists. Although she worked in an industry in which honors and public recognition are focused on individual achievement, Head truly was a team player. She may have enjoyed the celebrity status earned by her television appearances and writing, but when it came to practicing her craft, aligning her skills with the needs of directors, cinematographers, art directors, and others is what mattered most. It was her capacity for partnership that helped her become one of Hollywood’s preeminent production artists.
Oscar Wins for Costume Design
- The Heiress (1949)
- Samson and Delilah (1949)
- All About Eve (1950)
- A Place in the Sun (1951)
- Roman Holiday (1953)
- Sabrina (1954)
- The Facts of Life (1960)
- The Sting (1973)
Edith with her Record 8 Oscars and Notable Costume Sketches
Sketches for Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina